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Translator's Note: In Memoriam, July 19, 1914

by Stephen Edgar


Because I write formal poetry myself, it is this aspect of poetry which usually draws me to try my hand at translation. Some say that attempts to replicate rhyme schemes and the like can only lead to distortion of the sense and that those features should be sacrificed. For me it is only the challenge of reproducing, or finding a counterpart for, those features that makes me want to go to the trouble of translating at all. There is no perfect equivalence in translation. Insisting that every word and phrase of the original must appear in the translation and no word or phrase may be added seems misguided, particularly with a formal poem. A poem is about many things and the literal sense is only one of them. The rhetorical and musical features of poetry are as intrinsic to a formal poem as its ostensible meaning, which may be little more than a coat hanger; the dazzling gown draped on that hanger may be made of quite other elements.

Some poets have been served well by translation—Seferis and Holub come to mind—but others seem to lose a lot of their magic in the process, Akhmatova among them. The intense singing quality of her verse seems not to come through. It is often because I find existing translations of a formal poem unsatisfactory in some way that I try my hand. Of course, I am not claiming that my versions succeed, merely identifying what impels me to make the attempt.

"In Memoriam, July 19, " commemorates Germany's declaration of war on Russia: August 1 in our calendar, July 19 Old Style. It is written in iambic pentameter—except for line two, which is tetrameter, perhaps to match the abruptness of its meaning—rhyming abab, the a rhymes being feminine and the b rhymes masculine. That is the formal element that I have reproduced. The main difficulty is trying to do just that: to dismantle the original Russian and remake it in English in the same pattern. I first make a literal version and then begin the remolding. There is nothing very illuminating that I can say about the process, and my drafts don't reveal much, because I spend most of the time staring at the page with my pen motionless in my hand, while running through innumerable permutations in my mind until something falls into place.

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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