Blog Post

Everything Everyone Translates

Poetry translates badly:  granted.  A poem’s diction, tone, syntax, and sound—the things that make it memorable—cannot be fully reproduced in another language.  Agreed.  So, what are we to do?  Give up?  Limit ourselves to verse we can read in the original?  Such a decision seems foolish in an era when globalization has become an idée fixe.

The obstacles are real.  Marjorie Perloff’s essay “Reading Gass, Reading Rilke” (2001) is a classic exposé of what can go laughably wrong when translators forget to hold themselves to the highest possible standards of precision and fidelity.  Perloff’s preferred solution:  she advises us to imitate James Joyce, who taught himself Norwegian so he could read Henrik Ibsen in the original.

Having learned Norwegian, however, one would still face the difficulty of communicating to other English-speakers what makes Ibsen’s plays so special.  Like it or not, you would again find yourself an intermediary between languages, that is, a translator.

Here is a short untitled poem by the Russian writer Vsevolod Nekrasov (b. 1934):

Это что
Это что

Это все
Это все

Все и больше ничего
Все и больше ничего
И все очень хорошо
И все очень хорошо

Всё

I reproduce it first in Cyrillic because the way it looks is crucial to its meaning.  The dieresis over the final “e” provides the punch line.  In written Russian, it’s an optional diacritical mark.  Although “e” and “ё” are distinct letters in the Russian alphabet—pronounced “yeh” and “yoh” respectively—most of the time Russians simplify things and just use “e” to cover both options.  One can almost always tell from context whether “yeh” or “yoh” is intended.  Transliterated according to the Library of Congress system, for instance, the above poem would read:

Ėto chto
Ėto chto

Ėto vsë
Ėto vsë

Vsë i bol’she nichego
Vsë I bol’she nichego
I vsë ochen’ khorosho
I vsë ochen’ khorosho

Vsë

The neuter singular ending –o in Ėto and khorosho guarantees that a native speaker would automatically read все as  “vsë” in lines 3-8 (more about line 9 in a second).  Similarly, the final –e in больше has to be a “yeh” because of the comparative ending –she

So, why does Nekrasov use the two-dot letter "ë" the final time that “vsë” appears, after six times neglecting to do so?  We’re getting there.  First, here is a rough literal translation:

What’s this
What’s this

This is everything
This is everything

Everything and nothing more
Everything and nothing more
And everything’s very good
And everything’s very good

Everything

While word-for-word accurate, this version isn’t terribly reliable, since English can’t reproduce Nekrasov’s witty orthographical play.  In Russian, you see, “vsë” can be translated as everything, but it is in fact the neuter singular form of the word for all.  And it just so happens that the plural form of all—spelled все, transliterated as “vse”—can be translated as everyone.  As a consequence, in written vernacular Russian, the three-letter combination в-с-е is potentially ambiguous.  One could read the “e” as either “yoh” or “yeh,” making it mean “everything” or “everyone.”

Curiously, Nekrasov’s poem relies for its effectiveness on excluding, not embracing, this ambiguity.  As already pointed out, there is no uncertainty at all regarding “yoh” v “yeh” in the poem’s first eight lines.  Grammatically, the word has to be “vsë” and mean “everything.” 

And what about line 9?  Technically, if Nekrasov had written Все instead of Всё, he would have introduced confusion into the poem.  That is, since the poem’s final word is a sentence fragment, it lacks the syntactical context necessary to say 100% whether the poet intends it to be read as “vsyeh” (everyone) or "vsyoh” (everything). 

In this case, however, the poet didn’t really have to follow the letter of the law.   In such a spare poem, after six “everythings,” two of them likewise capitalized and appearing flush against the left margin, a sudden last-moment switch from “everything” to “everyone” would have been a jolting violation of an audience’s expectations.  To make it available as anything but a perversely against-the-grain reading, Nekrasov would have to overcompensate, that is, go back and “two-dot” all earlier appearances of “vsë” so as to make it crystal clear that the final no-dot “vse” was intended as a conscious swerve from the expected pattern.

Why, then, the superfluous two dots in line 9?  Through exaggerated compliance to Russian spelling rules, Nekrasov subtly calls our attention to the fact that the poem mentions only things, not people.  “Everything” might be “very good,” but what about “everyone”? 

In my earlier, not-so-good English translation the poem might seem to instruct us to rejoice in the given world and to foreswear any irritable reaching after “more.”  Nekrasov in fact has an entirely different goal in mind.  He wants us to notice that the scene he presents us is deliberately depopulated, one in which the speaker might not lack for material necessities but nonetheless feels removed from, alienated from, other people. 

A samizdat poem written during the height of the Cold War, this lyric reverses the usual Soviet critique of the West as overly individualistic and materialistic.  Nekrasov’s poem asks “What’s this”—what is this place where I find myself living—and answers that while there is (just) enough stuff to help him get by there is still no sense of meaningful participation in a collective (“everyone”).  A succession of five year plans might have enabled the mass production of goods, but it has far from solved the problem of anomie.

Whew.  In belabored fashion, I have at last explained the punch line of the poem—why one letter is chosen instead of another.  I’ll spare you a discussion of the poem’s intricate sound play, which would involve explaining why “g” in Cyrillic is sometimes pronounced “v” as well as another raft of chatter about the letter “yeh,” this time concerning unstressed syllables.

Commentary can compensate for what’s missing in a translation.  It is possible, I believe, for prolix prose to provide enough information for readers to appreciate the ins and outs of verse written in a language that they do not know.  Of course, the situation is asymptotic.  The closer one nears to a “perfect” and “complete” account, the greater the necessary word count.

Aesthetics usually intervenes long before perfection is achieved.  Do you really want to read several pages of tedious scholar-prose to understand what Nekrasov achieves by hitting one key on the typewriter instead of another?  If you have to explain a joke, haven’t you ruined it?

Brian Reed's picture
Professor of English
Brian Reed is Chair of English and Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Cinema, and Media at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the author of three books--Hart Crane: After His Lights (2006), Phenomenal Reading: Essays on Modern and Contemporary Poetics (2012), and Nobody's Business: Twenty-First Century Avant-Garde Poetics (2013)--and the co-editor of two essay collections, Situating El Lissitzky: Vitebsk, Berlin, Moscow (2003) and Modern American Poetry: Points of Access (2013). A new book, A Mine of Intersections: Writing the History of Contemporary American Poetry, is forthcoming in 2016.