Translator's notes

Under a dark veil she wrung her hands...

By Anna Akhmatova

Making successful versions of poems seems to me to depend upon achieving the tension and the music anew, as these are the untranslatable elements. Attempting to solve the puzzle that is the translated poem is similar to how I approach my own work, when I have a first draft safely captured. With these poems of Anna Akhmatova, I received basic literals and was more concerned with being true to the essence of the poem than in creating a strict word-for-word translation. That said, I have remained quite faithful to the originals, and have attempted to convey the poet’s voice in English. 

I related to these poems, and this allowed me to inhabit them during the writing process. I include here some brief notes on context, which may be of interest to readers, as they were to me while making these versions. 

‘Under a dark veil’, and ‘He was young, anxious, jealous’ are early poems, both referring, most probably, to the poet’s unhappy marriage to Nikolai Gumilyov and their wretchedness together. 

‘I hid my heart from you’ was written near the end of Akhmatova’s fifteen-year relationship with the art historian Nikolai Punin, during which she shared the Punin apartment with his wife and daughter. ‘Splitting Up’ also refers to this relationship. The couple finally separated in 1938. Their time together coincided with the poet’s least productive period; she claimed not to have written a poem for thirteen years. 

‘Dante’ is a personal favourite. The quote from the Inferno ‘Il mio bel San Giovanni’, leads on to a reference to the baptistery of the Cathedral in Florence, ‘the fair sheepfold where I slept as a lamb’. Dante was banished from the city for his political beliefs in 1302. Over a decade later he was offered a deal to return on the condition that he would perform a humiliating public repentance, which he rejected. The poem is believed to be a coded reference to her friend the poet Osip Mandelstam, who was in exile in Voronezh at the time, and who later died in exile. 

The last poem is dedicated to a local child, Valya Smirnov, whom the poet befriended while living in Fountain House in the 1930s. The boy perished during the Siege of Leningrad, after Akhmatova was removed to Tashkent. In a small companion piece she wrote ‘Through the bombardment is heard / The voice of a child’. 

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