For the last week, I've been thinking about poetry and politics in mid-nineteenth century Russia. Writers then faced a situation similar to today in the United States, at least in one respect: critics kept prodding them to demonstrate their commitment to revolutionary social change. Good politics did not make a poem good, but it was for many readers a sine qua non.
I was writing a different post, but yesterday someone broke into our house and stole assorted things, including my laptop. Farewell, my Sony Vaio, we had some good times. After adversity, one seeks distraction. I went straight to one of the most beautiful poems in the Russian language, Afanasii Fet's "Shëpot, robkoe dykhanie" (1850).
Fall has arrived in Seattle. The first cold rain began on Friday. I've been holed up at home, avoiding the wet as long as possible. While going through boxes in my office, I came across a book that I must have bought in Moscow in 1990, though I can't remember doing so: Nikolai Nekrasov's Selected Works.
Commentary can help a reader appreciate what's left out when a poem is translated from one language to another. It can also be daunting. Unless you're truly convinced that the original version of the poem is absolutely first-rate, why would you ever want to spend time with aridly philological blah-de-blah?
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.
One way to fight an addiction is to try to substitute a second, healthier activity for the baleful one. Lately, during the evenings, to prevent myself from playing World of Warcraft, I have been translating Russian verse.