Jamie L. Olson's translations of Russian poet, Vyacheslav Kiktenko's poems appear in the Summer '09 issue of Crab Creek Review. We asked Dr. Olson about his translation of Kiktenko's work and the process he went through to convey both the thematic and structural elements of the original Russian poems. He graciously agreed to write an entry for our Writer's Notebook Series:
On Translating Russian Poetry (and Kiktenko in Particular)
I suspect that my translations of the three poems by Vyacheslav Kiktenko that appear in the Summer 2009 issue of Crab Creek Review must have contributed to the editors’ impulse to dub this the “corpse issue,” as they did in their introductory note. Reading the first of Kiktenko’s poems—which incidentally are not arranged in any meaningful order—we experience a distinct sense of Jekyll-and-Hyde grimness as Kiktenko’s speaker gazes into a forest puddle and finds that, through his reflection, he has been “exposed as a monster.” His soul becomes “blackened” in the puddle’s “contrary hell-pit.”
The real gloom, though, arrives with the second poem, “A Cry in the Night,” which is dedicated to Sadako Sasaki, the Japanese girl who developed leukemia after being exposed to radiation in the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima. (The poem seems to be voiced for her as well.) A Japanese legend has it that anyone who folds a thousand paper cranes will be granted one wish, so with an eye towards calling for peace, Sasaki spent her last months transforming whatever paper she could get her hands on into origami cranes. Alas, she never reached her goal. Still, Sasaki’s effort has become a unifying symbol for the peace movement, and a statue memorializing her stands in Seattle Peace Park in the city’s University District.
In Kiktenko’s poem for her, however, we have only the disease, the suffering, the futile desire for life—not the peace movement that found inspiration in her, nor even the paper cranes that caught the world’s attention. By the poem's climax, all that remains is a hunger for red blood cells to displace the “white blood” (belokrovie) of the disease:
In the stars, the night keeps a cache
of blood cells slyly hidden.
And the stars transfuse the sultry,
cherry heat with a scarlet hue…
A butterfly, a chalky butterfly
flits about beneath the moon!
Ah, but for a bit, just a drop,
of those rich, crimson globes…
Although we know that the speaker’s desire for the “rich, crimson globes” goes ungratified, just as Sasaki never finished folding her cranes, the poem remains nonetheless poignant and even uplifting; sometimes, just wishing is enough. (If everyone wished for peace, wouldn’t it ultimately happen?) But the uplift of “A Cry in the Night” comes from the form of the poem as well—a chant that builds to an exultant shout. Indeed, form in its most traditional guise is fundamental to much contemporary Russian poetry, and I hope I’ve left more than a trace of Kiktenko’s forms intact in my translations.
Let me jump right to a key point: most Russian poets would never play “tennis with the net down,” as Frost put it. That is to say, free verse doesn’t dominate Russian poetry as it does American poetry. In fact, more Russian poems are composed in tetrameter quatrains—the 4x4 blocks favored by Russian poets at least since the beginning of the nineteenth century—than in any other form. (Among Kiktenko’s poems in Crab Creek Review, the third one, “A yellowish moon,” consists in practice of tetrameter quatrains, though it lacks stanza breaks.) When translating a poem from Russian, therefore, one must consider not only the form of that particular poem, but the general preponderance of formal poetry across Russian literature. To put it another way, a Russian translator would never translate an American poem without carefully and conscientiously recreating its form in Russian, so shouldn’t I play by the same rules?
A. E. Stallings wrote in the February 2009 issue of Poetry that stripping a poem of its form amounts to a kind of pillaging: “Translators who translate poems that rhyme into poems that don’t rhyme solely because they claim keeping the rhyme is impossible without doing violence to the poem have done violence to the poem. They are also lazy.” To my mind, the violence that Stallings speaks of becomes multiplied when a Russian poem is poorly translated—that is, when it is translated without careful attention to form. In a tradition of formalism, form matters all that much more.
On the other hand, even the cleverest translator can’t always find an equivalent phrase in the target language while maintaining form, meaning, and tone, so to some degree translation must be an “act of compromise,” as Brian Boyd explains in his recent introduction to Nabokov’s Verses and Versions: no matter how much we translators strive for perfection, we must acknowledge that our task is an “inevitable compromise between the resources of From-ish and those of To-ish.” Still, we should keep striving. The mere awareness of an apotheosis of perfection, elusive as it may be, should ensure that we don’t grow complacent—or “lazy,” as Stallings puts it—and leave form by the wayside.
Others who translate from Russian to English also struggle with the issue of fidelity to form. Jim Kates, the editor of several collections of contemporary Russian poetry in English, describes an exchange in his afterword to In the Grip of Strange Thoughts that I think expresses well the tension that Russian-to-English translators feel between the two traditions:
Once in Moscow I was reading my own poems—all of which begin in strict rhyme and meter, and many of which stay that way—as well as my translations of Mikhail Aizenberg. In the critical discussion that always follows a Russian poetry reading, I explained my reasons for translating the strict forms of the Russian verses into slightly looser structures in English—a practice understood and approved by Aizenberg. But one prominent critic stood up and commented, “That’s all very well. You make a good case. But you should try harder.”
Since then, I have tried harder.
Kates has chosen, as I have, to do his best to maintain form in his translations of Russian verse, but others have made the opposite decision with sometimes impressive results. Indeed, wherever you land in the debate, you would be foolish to wish that Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin’s marvelous free-verse translations of Mandelstam had been written any other way. In the end, the only true test of a translation comes when you ask yourself the question, Is it poetry?
The Russian originals of the poems by Kiktenko that appear in Crab Creek Review were first published in a Moscow journal called Druzhba narodov, a phrase whose figurative meaning could be rendered in English as “multiculturalism” or “cultural diversity,” and whose literal meaning, “Friendship of the Peoples,” is a Soviet-era cliché—the idea being that international communism happily held together a diverse bunch of ethnic groups from Central Europe to Central Asia. Indeed, Kiktenko was born and spent much of his life in one of those far-flung corners of the Soviet empire that were home to non-Russian “peoples”: Alma-Ata (now Almaty), Kazakhstan’s former capital and largest city. And although he relocated to Moscow a few years back, he has continued to be involved in Kazakh literary culture, often sustaining Kazakh-Russian “friendship of the peoples” as a translator himself, so it seems appropriate that his poems should now reach another people in another language—beyond even the post-Soviet audience in Baku or Belarus that one might expect him to have. I just hope that I have done my job and turned Kiktenko’s poems into something more than mere wooden renderings: with any luck, they have become English poems in their own right.
Jamie L. Olson teaches in the English Department at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. These are his first published translations.