MPT FEATURE

On Translating Akhmatova

Series 3 No. 3 - Metamorphoses

The first and most difficult task of a translator is, as I see it, to understand the poem. I don’t mean the words, but somehow to see the ghost in the machine, to see what it is that gives that particular form of words life. Without this nothing can be done

My work in translation has mostly been from Hungarian, that being chronologically my first language. I began in 1984 with poetry, verse plays and went on to fiction, while continuing to translate poetry, so the habit of translation is deeply ingrained in me by now. I expect to translate: I enjoy translating. When I first began I had help, much as almost all writer-translators from Hungarian did, from Hungarian writers, but gradually, as I recovered my half-forgotten first language, I began to work on my own, relying on editors to correct me.

I don’t speak Russian but knew the work of Anna Akhmatova in various translations, chiefly Richard McKane’s and was, in this case, given precisely the kind of help the Hungarians used to give me by the excellent Sasha Dugdale. Luckily for me, I also had a Russian friend Veronika Krasnova down the road who was working on her PhD on Russian poetry in translation. I had done a little Mandelstam for her as an experiment, and her views and readings were invaluable to me, which is why I would like her name to stand by mine as translator.

The first and most difficult task of a translator is, as I see it, to understand the poem. I don’t mean the words, but somehow to see the ghost in the machine, to see what it is that gives that particular form of words life. Without this nothing can be done. I am aware that this sounds far too simple, because the process of reading is also the process of translation, so the life in the original begins to kindle, then overlap with, the life of the developing translation. The translator, if a poet, seeks that life and is used to seeing it develop in his or her own work. Nor is that ‘life’, if I may give the word its proper inverted commas at this stage, independent of all the elements that seem to comprise it. There is compromise and conversation throughout.

And there are risks to be taken. The biggest risk I took was in ‘There is a secret line..’ where the excitement seemed to lie not just in the metaphorical hand touching the metaphorical heart but in the implication of a real hand on a real breast. I think, feel, am certain, that the sense is there in the original, that there should be a sharp intake of breath at that point. The life is there. The other issue is that of form which is too complex for a short note like this. To put it simply I don’t believe that form is decoration. I believe that, once employed, it is structural in the development of the poem and is an essential part of the voice. Not that forms replicate each other in different languages: they seek echoes, no more. But I have tried to provide such echoes.

There is a secret line…

There is a secret line between people who are close
Beyond which doting or desire may not tread,
However the heart shatters or explodes,
However the lips fuse in silent dread.

Friendship too is useless, however fierce
Or fiery the joy of it was long ago
When nothing bound the spirit to the body’s affairs
With that langorous afterglow.

It’s madness to approach that line, and the agony
Of touching it is more than we can bear,
So you will understand why my heart suddenly
Stops beating when you put your hand on it, right there.

1915

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