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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 poet’s pale and glaring head.” It is, he continued, “A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter, / And profanation of the dead.”

Nabokov’s provocative method (in the case of his translation of Pushkin’s 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 Mandelstam’s poetic vision and Wiman’s 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 Wiman’s 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?
Mandelstam Lane.
Diabolical name!
Twist and twist
And it all comes out the same:
More kinked than the kinks in a madman’s brain.

Well, a ruler he was not.
I’ll say, and his morals hardly lily.
And that’s why this street,
Or rut, really,
Or pit pickaxed to the tune of Goddamn!”
Goes by the name of Mandelstam.

Comparing Wiman’s version with my literal prose translation illustrates the free-spirited way with which he has approached Mandelstam’s text:

What’s 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 that’s 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 poet’s 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 Mandelstam’s texts is, however, more typical of the pieces in Wiman’s collection. I quote a much-anthologized 1915 poem about reading Homer’s Iliad during a bout of insomnia. Wiman has titled it “Hard Night” (the original, once again, had no heading):

Hard night. Homer. Homeless sails.
I’ve listened to the list of ships in my own voice.
I’ve 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—
Anxiety’s 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. / I’ve 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.

Wiman’s additions to and subtractions from Mandelstam’s 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 Wiman’s poem can have numerous associations that differ substantially from those evoked by Mandelstam’s very specific “insomnia,” and the “wall of silence” at the end of the English version stands in direct contrast to Mandelstam’s 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 poet’s 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. Wiman’s 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 poem’s 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 there’s enough for half a conversation, / the Kremlin’s 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 poet’s divine gift.

Alexis Klimoff is emeritus professor of Russian studies at Vassar College.