Christian Wiman on Translating Osip Mandelstam
A little over a year ago, what began as a whim—translating a single eight-line poem by Osip Mandelstam to show my wife something I could sense but could not find in any existing translation—turned into an obsession. The best kind of obsession, really, the kind that saves you.
I think it—the obsession—had to do with three things. I was sick, first of all, seriously so, and the extreme pressure of mortality that Mandelstam felt during his middle and late periods resonated strongly with me. Second, I met and became friends with Ilya Kaminsky, whose knowledge of Russian poetry (and English poetry, for that matter) is incomparable, and whose passion it would take a sour soul not to be caught up in. Ilya worked with me every step of the way. And finally, bizarrely, it was the sound of Mandelstam that haunted me, or the ghost of that sound, because it doesn’t come across in any existing translation (as the translators themselves admit), and because I don’t speak Russian. There was something very mysterious to me about the experience, some pure given-ness, but I’ll be the first to admit that my versions veer away at times from the originals. My goal was to make poems that sing in English with something of Mandelstam’s way of singing. Sound usually gets sacrificed to sense in contemporary translations, but this makes little sense, so to speak, when dealing with a poet as sound-driven as Mandelstam. I went a different direction.
I call these poems versions and not translations, hoping to skip over the abyss of argument that opens underneath that distinction. Not because the argument isn’t often valid but because I have little to add to it, and because it’s just so damn dull by this point. Sometimes I’m extremely close to the originals, sometimes the poem is like a new transcription of an original score, and sometimes all hell breaks loose and the result is—well, people will have to judge for themselves.
There’s a kind of pure current of being running right through the work of Mandelstam: it’s why his tragic poems are touched with joy, his joyful poems laced with pain. I love particularly the later poems when he attains—or is overwhelmed by—a seething, almost savage Stravinskyan sort of music that is always testing, and teeming out of, its own angularities. Like this:
And I was alive in the blizzard of the blossoming pear,
Myself I stood in the storm of the bird-cherry tree.
It was all leaflife and starshower, unerring, self-shattering power,
And it was all aimed at me.
What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth?
What is being? What is truth?
Blossoms rupture and rapture the air,
All hover and hammer,
Time intensified and time intolerable, sweetness raveling rot.
It is now. It is not.
(4 May 1937)
This is one of Mandelstam’s last poems. It may be his last poem, in fact, though we can’t be sure, as there were a couple of other poems written on that day. At any rate, shortly after writing this he was finally sent off to Siberia by Stalin, who was obsessed with and tormented by Mandelstam’s spiritual vitality and the threat that it represented. (Threat to what? Total control. People who say that poetry has no power have an oversimplified notion of what power is. This is true in America too: even now some little lyric is acidly eating into the fat heart of money.) The last anyone saw of Mandelstam he was picking through a garbage heap for food at a transit camp. When this poem was written—or not written, actually, as Mandelstam composed in his head; better to say: when this poem was visited upon him—Mandelstam was fully aware of the fate that lay ahead. Imagine being able to make such a statement at such a time—from the very pit of emptiness and despair to sing of the world’s abundance. I’m in awe of him.
Christian Wiman was born and raised in West Texas. He is the editor of Poetry and the author of three collections of poems and one collection of prose. His most recent collection, Every Riven Thing, was published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Read five of Wiman's translations in the current issue of The New Criterion.