Translator's notes

Excerpt from 'War of the Beasts and the Animals'


Russian poet Maria Stepanova wrote her epic poem ‘War of the Beasts and the Animals’ in 2015, when the war in the Donbas Region of Ukraine was at its height. Every line in this densely-populated and highly allusive poem emerges from a consciousness of conflict and the martial culture and mythology that allows state-sponsored violence to happen. Stepanova traces the mythmaking culture of war from ballads and films of the Russian Civil War through the Second World War and into the twenty-first century, and Russia’s illegal and covert involvement in a war against Ukraine.

‘War of the Beasts and the Animals’ is impossible to translate in a superficially ‘faithful’ way: the language is so much a captive of the surrounding culture: folk refrains jostle for space against psalms, Silver Age Russian poetry, an Old Russian epic poem ‘The Tale of Igor’s campaign’, pop ballads, phrases from popular culture, Paul Celan, T. S. Eliot – the list is endless. Many of these allusions are simply not accessible to a non-Russian audience and the challenge in translating this extraordinary poem was to find strategies to deal with this super-charged and highly specific ‘modernism’.

Maria and I worked on this translation together during her residency at The Queen’s College in Oxford earlier this year and I used her extensive notes and comments to guide me through. O en, where I felt an image wouldn’t work in translation I could return to Maria’s notes on her intended effect and choose a slightly different image, or extend the image in some way. Maria also gave me the freedom to use images with a currency in the UK, and as both Russia and Britain suffer from martial and imperial mythmaking this gave me great satisfaction. Lines from Kipling found their way into the poem, for example, and a pre-ba le quote from Anthony and Cleopatra replaced a line from a Russian poem about lovers on the eve of a battle. 

In the end this text is a triangulation rather than a translation. It is the result of a dance between the original poem, Maria and me, and it has at its heart Russian poet Grigory Dashevsky’s concept of the existence of ‘a poem’s pre-textual body’ from which we can both draw.

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