Michael Wasserman - Interpreter - ESSAYS


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Impetus

Often the translator concentrates on the poem itself and disregards the process of writing the poet had gone through. Of course, most of the process is even more hidden from us than it was from the author himself. Yet the impetus (not the reason or the goal) is always visible. What made the poet even consider writing is always plain in the original poem, but might be missing in the translation. This gives translations a certain vacuous air of mystery praised by some, but I think better done without. Not infrequently a poet feels like writing a poem because a certain precious find visits his mind which is always playing with words. For example, one fine afternoon it occurred to Mandelshtam that there is very little difference between Russian words "brendy" and "bredni" , furthermore, one can lead to the other. This made him play a game leading to the creation of:

Ya skazhu tebe s poslednei
Priamotoi:
Vsio lish bredni, sherry-brendy,
Angel moi!

Therefore no meaning-based translation of the word "bredni" will work on the level of the poem as a whole, no matter how adequately it works locally and texturally, unless similarity of words or something else translates the impetus (or creates a new one). A translator would be justified in changing the meaning to preserve the impetus, or its existence. Thus, "All goes badly, sherry-brandy" or "All is dandy, sherry-brandy" are better translations in this sense than a more true to meaning "All is but ravings, sherry-brandy". The first two utterances, though decidedly silly, could conceivably give someone the impetus to write something, while the third, perhaps more reasonable, could never do so, and anyone choosing this path would end up with readers wondering: "Why would anyone want to write this?" This issue exists in most poems, though often the poetic impetus is harder to identify and easier to translate than in the given example. This mainly occurs in poems whose reason to exist is partially semantic and partially phonetic, like Pushkin's

Druzia moi, prekrasen nash soyuz,
On kak dusha nerazdelim I vechen.

motivated by a mixture of the powerful image of the soul being indivisible and eternal at the same time, and the sound of "nerazdelim I vechen", the phonetic and the semantic aspects of the phrase combining with extraordinary sweetness both within the modality and across it.

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