Translator's Note: Marina Tsvetaeva
Because I am a writer of formal verse myself, it is this aspect of poetry which usually draws me to try my hand at translation. The beauty of translation, of course, is that, whereas the original is a unique entity,you may have any number of translated versions of it, so there is room for many approaches. But on this subject Anthony Hecht, in an interview with J.D. McClatchy, referred to Galway Kinnell’s remarks about rhyme and meter in his (Kinnell’s) translations of Villon: “I decided against using [them].... It may be that in our day these formal devices have become a dead hand, which it is just as well not to lay on any poetry.” To which Hecht responded: “I think Kinnell is wrong here, both in his theory of translation and of poetry.” And I can only say that I agree.
Tsvetaeva is an extremely concise poet. Partly this is perhaps just a function of the Russian language—the absence of articles, the efficiency of inflections—though even by comparison with Akhmatova and Mandelstam she does seem to pack a lot into few words. This I found impossible to replicate; I had to give myself some breathing space, some elbow room, and expand the line from tetrameter to pentameter. One quite extraordinary feature of this poem, in the Russian, is the absence of a single main finite verb. It begins, and ends, with infinitives, and all the other verbs, apart from “sang” in the relative clause in stanza one, are participles, a long involved trail of them in the dative plural, in agreement with “nam,” “for/to us.” In the face of this extreme concision of expression and idiosyncratic grammatical construction, I very nearly gave the game away at the first stanza. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a way to rework the sense into an English form. But my unconscious must have been working on the job all the while, because that night I woke up at some ungodly hour and, being unable to get back to sleep, began again on that opening stanza in my head and arrived at a solution. The following day I was able to work my way through the poem, stanza by stanza. —Stephen Edgar
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This poem originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Poetry magazine