The difficulties of all translation are epitomized in the Italian saying Traduttore—traditore. The translator is a betrayer—as I am right now, obviously and immediately failing to get that assonantal pun across. Sense alone is not enough.
Few translators can perform on a number of fronts simultaneously, like the linguistically tricksy Vladimir Nabokov. In Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll created a fabulous beast from a Victorian concoction—doubtless a nasty staple at Christ Church high table—known as mock-turtle soup. Carroll’s Mock Turtle weeps by the sea with his friend, the Gryphon (who is half-eagle, half-lion), because neither of them is real. Nabokov’s Russian translation of Alice comparably crosses two Russian words to breed another fantastical hybrid. Cherepakha is the Russian for “tortoise.” Chepukha is the Russian equivalent of “stuff and nonsense.” Chepupakha is Nabokov’s tearful Mock Turtle. Чeпупаха—a truly Carrollian portmanteau term, a translation of pedantic genius.
Carroll’s puns are a translator’s nightmare. The Mock Turtle’s tale shifts the lessons of the Victorian schoolroom to the ocean floor, where sea creatures learn Reeling, Writhing, and the four branches of arithmetic—Ambition, Distraction, Uglification and Derision. Then come Mystery, ancient and modern, Seaography and Drawling. “The Drawling-master was an old conger eel…he taught us Drawling, Stretching and Fainting in Coils” (which was difficult for the stiff Mock Turtle). The Gryphon, as is only right for a mythic beast, goes to a classics master for Laughing and Grief.
Riddled with rhyme
Puns in prose, like Carroll’s, are equivalent to the aural effects that make complete translation of musically rich poetry virtually impossible. Boris Pasternak’s poems are markedly rhythmic, and riddled with rhyme. They also play with assonance as compulsively as, in English, only Gerard Manley Hopkins can do. His translators are in for a difficult job.
In this rare recording, and to the laughter of his audience, Pasternak is letting rip with “The Wedding,” a humorous poem whose drunken singsong mimics the whining of the accordion and the chatter and cheers of the wedding guests:
But Pasternak’s sound effects aren’t usually comic. Listen to him reading three verses from “Parting,” one of the poems written by the hero of his novel Doctor Zhivago, describing Lara’s unexpected departure and Yury’s desolation. Why does he keep thinking of the sea?
Without knowing any Russian, you can understand it if you read the following translation in tandem with Pasternak’s voice. It’s in the same four-line stanzas, the same rhythm, and it pauses in the same places. The only significant difference is that Pasternak’s Russian rhymes abab; the English has to make do with abcb.
She was as dear to him, as close
In all her ways and features,
As is the seashore to the wave,
The ocean to the beaches…
In years of strife, in times which were
Unthinkable to live in,
Upon a wave of destiny
To him she had been driven,
Through countless obstacles, and past
All dangers never-ended,
The wave had carried, carried her,
Till close to him she landed.
Pasternak is a great reader of his own poetry. His deepened tones in “Parting” are comparable to the effect he wanted to achieve in his translation of Hamlet, when he reached what he felt to be the organ tone of Hamlet’s pivotal soliloquy. In Shakespeare, the word sleep is repeated three times in four lines.
…To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub.
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off that mortal coil
Must give us pause.
In Pasternak’s translation, the Russian word for sleep (сон, son), its cognates and a homophone, recur seven times in a single, superbly sonorous sequence.
…Сконьчаться. Сном забыться.
Уснуть…и видеть сны? Вот и ответ.
Какие сны в том смертном сне приснятся,
Когда покров зимного чувства снят?
[Skonchatsa. Snom zabuitsa. / Usnut. I videt snui? Vot i otvet. /Kakiye snui v tom smertnom sne prisniatsa, / Kogda pokrov zimnovo chuvstva sniat?]
Aural effects like these are a characteristic, central strength of Pasternak’s poetry. Veritable tongue-twisters recur in the gravest poems. “In Hospital,” a poem written near the end of his life, describes Pasternak’s own recent heart attack in a flutter of tongue-twisters. On its way to the hospital, the ambulance passes “militamen, streets, faces” (militsia, ulitsi, litsa). In the hospital corridor, the patient gazes at the wards, the floors and the dressing gowns (k palatam, polam i khalatam).
Finding the poetic voice
The vast majority of Pasternak’s translators gave up. They made no attempt to imitate the sounds of his verse. They rejected his forms—which, typically for 20th-century Russian poetry, still reveled in traditional ballad meters, strongly marked rhythm, and rhyme. For English and American ears of the 1950s and ’60s, these verse forms were tainted, a throwback to dowdy Georgianism, the routed enemy of modernism and vers libre. They would not do.
Consequently, very few English translations give the reader any sense of Pasternak’s poetic voice. On the one hand, there are Robert Lowell’s Imitations—a poet’s garland of extremely free, hybrid amalgamations of disparate Pasternak poems, liberally transformed into a modern idiom more characteristic of Lowell’s frank sexuality than Pasternak’s suppressed and chastened passion. “Playing tag in your bra” and “Like water from a pitcher, my mouth on your nipples!” are images you’d be extremely startled to find in Pasternak. And, at the other extreme from Lowell, are the journeyman translators—linguists, not poets—who turned Pasternak’s poetry into arrhythmic, unrhymed prose, meaninglessly snapped into irregular lines, with no sense of the weighted phrases and poised line breaks that give free verse its power. Pedestrian renditions of this kind are still the norm today. There’s little to choose between them.
Still essentially Russian
The one exception is Lydia Pasternak Slater, the author of the version of “Parting” quoted earlier, Pasternak’s youngest sister, and my mother. Her priorities were very simple: “To translate my brother’s poems without trying to preserve his melodies and rhythms is for me equivalent to not translating him at all.” Of course she was aware of both the limitations of her own English (she settled in England when she was in her early thirties), and the sacrifices that had to be made to accommodate her ruling objective. “Those who are out for perfect English poems should read their own great poets,” she says, with a mixture of irony and humility. “To those, however, who want to know what the Russian poems of Pasternak are like, I offer my version in English words, but still essentially Russian, and as near the originals in melody, content, rhythm and feeling, as it was possible for me to make them.”
So it was her practice, in her poetry readings, to begin with a stanza of Pasternak’s Russian, before turning to her own version. Here she is reading “Mary Magdalene (I),” another of the Zhivago poems, rich in rhyme and enjambment.
A sister to her brother
Pasternak and his sister coincide in their reading of only two poems. They are too long to be quoted in their entirety here. One is “Fairy Tale”—a traditional folk ballad of dragon, knight and damsel. Pasternak begins well, gets increasingly melodramatic and finally breaks off—”‘I’m reading abominably, damn it!”
Here is the end of the poem, in Lydia’s version:
Finally, here is Pasternak, playfully reading ‘Wind’, a lover’s lullaby, and the text of his sister’s translation. Both poems seem to come in a single, long-drawn-out breath, a sigh of wind:
Я кончился, а ты жива.
И ветер, жалуясь и плача,
Раскачивает лес и дачу.
Не каждую сосну отдельно,
А полностью все дерева
Со всею далью беспредельной,
Как парусников кузова
На глади бухты корабельной.
И это не из удальства
Или из ярости бесцельной,
А чтоб в тоске найти слова
Тебе для песни колыбельной.
I am no more but you live on,
And the wind, whining and complaining,
Is shaking house and forest, straining
Not single fir trees one by one
But the whole wood, all trees together,
With all the distance far and wide,
Like sailless yachts in stormy weather
When moored within a bay they lie.
And this not out of wanton pride
Or fury bent on aimless wronging,
But to provide a lullaby
For you with words of grief and longing.
I know I have a bias in my mother’s favor. But I believe she deserves it. Boris certainly thought she was the best of his translators. The poet Seamus Heaney agreed—because they sound so Russian. And he didn’t just mean her accent.