Stolen Air: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam
Selected and Translated by Christian Wiman
Introduction by Ilya Kaminsky
HarperCollins, 128 pages, $15.99
In the three decades before his death in a Soviet concentration camp in 1938, Osip Mandelstam produced a corpus of poems of unsurpassed power and almost dizzying beauty. One can identify the poetic predecessors of a Pushkin or a Blok, wrote his life-long friend, the poet Anna Akhmatova, but he seems to have had no teachers, and no one can point to the source from which the divine harmony that we know as the poems of Mandelstam reached us.
Mandelstam is extremely difficult to translate. To be presented with a translation of poetry, Vladimir Nabokov once suggested, is akin to being offered on a platter, / The poets pale and glaring head. It is, he continued, A parrots screech, a monkeys chatter, / And profanation of the dead.
Nabokovs provocative method (in the case of his translation of Pushkins novel in verse, Eugene Onegin ) entailed sacrificing all properly poetic aspects of the text”above all, rhyme and meter”on the altar of literal accuracy. In approaching Mandelstam, in contrast, Christian Wiman, a distinguished American poet and the editor of the journal Poetry , offers fifty-one Mandelstam-inspired poems that in most cases are deliberately free of any attempt to reproduce the originals in recognizable form.
As Wiman puts it in his admirably honest afterword, many of the poems in his collection are like liberal transcriptions of original scores, while others resemble collisions or collusions between Mandelstams poetic vision and Wimans own. But as Wiman tells it, the marketing department of HarperCollins insisted on the word translated on the cover, arguing that the distinction between translation and version would confuse potential customers.
The commercial argument may be valid enough, but Wimans initial desire to present versions is surely the correct one for most of the poems collected in Stolen Air , for only a small minority can be categorized as translations in any reasonable sense of this word. One that probably can be is short enough to quote. The poem was written in 1935 in Voronezh, the city to which Mandelstam was exiled before his final arrest.
Wiman has titled his version Mandelstam Lane (the original has no heading):
What the hell sort of street is that?
Twist and twist
And it all comes out the same:
More kinked than the kinks in a madmans brain.
Well, a ruler he was not.
Ill say, and his morals hardly lily.
And thats why this street,
Or rut, really,
Or pit pickaxed to the tune of Goddamn!”
Goes by the name of Mandelstam.
Comparing Wimans version with my literal prose translation illustrates the free-spirited way with which he has approached Mandelstams text:
Whats the name of this street? / Mandelstam Street. / What a hell of a name! / However you twist it / It sounds askew rather than straight.
He had little of the straightforward in him, / His morals were not lily-white, / And thats why this street, / Or, more correctly, this pit / Has gone by the name / Of that Mandelstam.
Wiman has added a great deal to the semantically spare original in order to echo the jaunty structure and irregular rhyme scheme of the semi-comical poem, poignantly set as it is in the tragic context of the poets last years. The resulting Mandelstam Lane is, paradoxically, truer to the spirit of the original than any literal translation could ever be.
A far greater divergence from Mandelstams texts is, however, more typical of the pieces in Wimans collection. I quote a much-anthologized 1915 poem about reading Homers Iliad during a bout of insomnia. Wiman has titled it Hard Night (the original, once again, had no heading):
Hard night. Homer. Homeless sails.
Ive listened to the list of ships in my own voice.
Ive seen, as my own voice fails,
Those strange cranes arrowing sorrowing over Hellas.
Ever alien, ever more interior, these shores,
And the sun-flecked, god-picked wings glinting spray”
Anxietys army, ghost souls of Achaea,
Without your one longing, what is dying for?
The singer and the sea, all things are moved by love.
But what is that to me? Homer is dead.
And a wall of silence, eerily eloquent,
Breaks like a black wave over my bed.
Again I cite my literal translation of the Russian original:
Insomnia. Homer. Taut sails. / Ive read the catalog of ships half-through: / That drawn-out flock, that flight of cranes, / Which long ago rose over Hellas.
Like a wedge of cranes flying to foreign lands” / Divine foam bedecking the heads of kings” / Where are you sailing to? Were it not for Helen, / What meaning would Troy alone have for you, Achaean men?
The sea and Homer”all is moved by love. / To whom should I pay heed? / But lo, Homer has fallen silent, / And the dark sea roars, lifting up its voice, / As it thunders sonorously up to the headboard.
Wimans additions to and subtractions from Mandelstams text change the import of the poem in radical ways. To name just the most important shifts, the theme of death, with no explicit presence in the original, has been emphatically introduced, while the theme of love has been reduced by eliminating the direct reference to the abduction of Helen as well as by cutting the allusion to Aphrodite (the divine foam).
The hard night that begins Wimans poem can have numerous associations that differ substantially from those evoked by Mandelstams very specific insomnia, and the wall of silence at the end of the English version stands in direct contrast to Mandelstams thunderous surf. In short, this is a different poem, and still an excellent one. It could no doubt be called a variation on a theme by Mandelstam. But a translation it is certainly not.
Other poems included in the collection are even more remote from the Russian originals to which they are related. The so-called Stalin epigram of 1934 (it had precipitated the poets first arrest and his subsequent exile and death) exemplifies this phenomenon. This highly political poem is too long to present in full and I cite only its first half. Wimans title is We Live:
We live, and love, but our lives drift like mist over what we love.
Two steps we are a whisper; ten, gone.
Still, we gather, we gossip, we laugh like humans,
And just like that our Kremlin gremlin comes alive:
His grubworm clutch, all oil and vile,
His deadweight deadwords, blonk blonk.
Listen: his jackhammering jackboots: even the chandelier shakes.
Look: a hairy cockroach crawls along his grin.
This poems distant link to the original is revealed by the literal translation:
We live without feeling our country beneath our feet. / Our speech is inaudible at ten paces, / But wherever theres enough for half a conversation, / the Kremlins man from the mountains is brought up.
His thick fingers are as greasy as earthworms / And his words are as deadly as heavy dumbbells. / His huge cockroach eyes are laughing / And the tops of his boots glisten brightly.
Other poems, as Wiman informs us in his afterword, needed radical reimagining to make them work in English. In short, this is a book that must be judged entirely on its merits as English-language poetry, inspired though it was by a reading of Mandelstam and retaining echoes of the Russian poets divine gift.
Alexis Klimoff is emeritus professor of Russian studies at Vassar College.