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Translator's Note: Marina Tsvetaeva

Tsvetaeva, whose early years were spent largely in Western Europe, once said that her “native language was German.” How do we explain this fact about the poet Boris Pasternak called “the most Russian poet of us all”? 

Poets are not born in a country. Poets are born in childhood. 
What, then, is Russian about Marina Tsvetaeva? 

Tsvetaeva understood audial and linguistic work that play such an enormous role in folk song. Folk song is for the most part a litany, joyful or grieving. There is an element of lamentation, an element of tongue-twister and pun, there are echoes of spell, incantation, even exorcism in a folk song—there is a pure play of sounds—it is always partly hysterical, near the fall into tears or laughter, and partly zaum.* 
              —Vladimir Khodasevich

Was she a “difficult” poet? Perhaps. But first we must clarify what “difficult” meant for that country:

One of our poets used to say proudly, “Though some of my verses may be obscure they are never prosaic.” There are two kinds of obscurity; one arises from a lack of feelings and thoughts, which have been replaced by words; the other from an abundance of feelings and thoughts, and the inadequacy of words to express them. 
               —Alexander Pushkin

One of the first reviews of her debut collection blamed Tsvetaeva for “too muchness,” for an over-abundance of lyricism. Tsvetaeva’s response? “There cannot be too much of lyric because lyric itself is too much.”

So how does one attempt to translate work that even Russian poets find too hard? Translators usually cite Tsvetaeva’s famous temperament. (“Next time I will be born not on a planet, but on a comet!”) With bravery, they announce their ambition to imitate her music in English—to stay “faithful” to the music. 

The danger of this “faithful” position is that attempting to imitate the sounds of the great master in a new language produces just that: an imitation that cannot rise to the level of the original. This may occur because of the translator’s lack of skill or because the “receiving” language—English, in this case—is an entirely different medium, at a very different point in its development, a point at which the particular sound effects mean entirely different things. 

Jean Valentine and I do not claim to do better. In fact, we do not claim to have translated Tsvetaeva. If translation, as most translators are eager to claim, is “a closest possible reading,” then it is not translation, it is notation, midrash: to translate is to inhabit. The meaning of the word eros is to stand outside of one’s body. This we do not claim to have achieved. (We wish we could, one day!) No, we are simply two poets who fell in love with a third and spent two years reading her together. These are fragments, notes in the margin. (Erase everything you have written, Mandelstam says, but keep the notes in the margin.) 

Jean and I have vastly different temperaments from this poet. But we are drawn by her magnetism, and so we continue reading her together. Just that: reading lines, fragments, moments; two years of two poets reading a third is an homage. —ik

*zaum refers to the pure play of language, "beyonsense" 

 

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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