Like Antigone, they [women writers in the context of post-Soviet literary culture] have absorbed this pure negativity, have become its incarnation, and as a result have engendered a sui generis overcompensation. In imitating the sounds of men — those sounds armed to the teeth and genitals — these women’s voices are now making a travesty of them, exposing and condemning them, rendering them null and void from within.
— Aleksandr Skidan, “Stronger than Uranus: Contemporary Women’s Poetry”
Russia has spent a long time worrying about the concerns of works in translation vs. those of originals. Have we always imported the ideas that build our national literary consciousness? Must we export them to gain global recognition?
Now Russian literary production is looking westwards. Perhaps more than it has in over two centuries. Right now there’s a crisis among the cultural elite over the direction — or even the possibility of a future — of Russian arts and letters.
Necessarily we see a renewed interest in translation: as a problem of production, of politics, of poetics. As an industry, an increase in translation marks a concession to the increasingly “global” consumerism that has flooded post-Soviet Russian culture. As a problem of 21st-century literature, however, translation functions as a site of resistance.
Translation has always been a literary practice explicitly interested in the edges of things. What can we gain by considering how invested this edge of Russian literary history is in translation?
Are the concerns of a work-in-translation the same as those of a work that takes translation as its central theme?
Your task is to translate Homer,
being loved is not your task.
— Maria Rybakova, Gnedich
In 2011, a classics scholar named Maria Rybakova published a novel in verse called Gnedich.
Nikolai Gnedich is known to the Russian literary mind as one of the most enduring translators of Homer into Russian. The composition of his Iliad spanned the first three decades of the 19th century. His other works are largely forgotten outside the academy. The significance of calling one’s novel Gnedich is difficult to convey to the English-language reader; perhaps there is a touch of Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” but the title also invokes the “dusting off the forgotten heroes of literary history” genre — The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov and other novels with similar claims. Gnedich has a certain kinship, too, with the Autobiography of Red genre — not least of all because they share the novel-in-verse form. Readers of Carson’s 1998 novel will recognize Rybakova’s project of turning a literary myth on its side as we enter a tergo. In this case, the myth — Homer’s heroes reaching the Russian tongue — is interrogated right at the title; already the reader’s sympathies begin to realign as the underdog steps into the spotlight.
Within Russian literary history, however, the novel-in-verse form of Rybakova’s creation inevitably calls to mind Eugene Onegin, Pushkin’s (famously untranslatable) masterpiece. This obvious generic allusion lends a bitter irony to the novel’s reception: Rybakova’s Gnedich was met with acclaim from contemporary Russian literati, but due to its generic hybridity, received no literary prizes — the work did not suit any established literary categories.
She chooses a translator as her lyrical hero. This translator has dirty windows and a crush on an actress and one single friend, Konstantin Batiushkov (a slightly less dusty figure from the annals of 19th century Russian poetry). This translator goes to parties and tells fashionable ladies he’s translating Homer. (Picture the salon scenes in War and Peace, crossed somehow with the uncanny modern hollowness of a Robbe-Grillet soirée.) This translator is facially disfigured from a childhood bout of smallpox, and bereft of vision in his right eye.
What is at stake for such a hero and his labors?
A first concern: for whom does Gnedich translate?
The conflation of reluctant muse and the babbling of the sea is a recurrent trope in Russian poetry. In one of the novel’s myriad metaphors for the act of translation, Gnedich takes up this trope, dreamily philosophizing.
The sea does not hear man,
but it seems to man
that he understands the tongue
in which the water speaks
Every time he got a note from her,
he would look for the word “yours.”
The sea is figured as the “original” author, unhearing and unheard, whose voice the deluded translator commands and attempts to transmit.
The lines that follow, about letters received from the unnamed woman, tie the trope of unrequited love to the folly of translation. Within the context of the novel, we assume that the letters come from the actress Semenova, Gnedich’s romantic interest. However, following this bit of philosophizing on the semblance of understanding between man and sea, the reader may — wondering who she who sends letters may be — arrive at the possibility that it is the water, the conversant water of the previous line, who is sending him letters. Sending him letters but never signing them yours, refusing to be his, the original declines to submit to the charge of the translator.
And here something wild and sacrilegious happens. This refusal, this silence becomes productive. The unresponsiveness of the other — the beloved’s unwillingness to be yours, the sea’s unwillingness to listen or to speak in a true tongue — sanctions the continuation of that love, allows for man to keep on conversing blindly with the sea, and so condones Gnedich’s thankless, answerless work.
While you’re asleep, she loves you,
Homer speaks to you, you can both see,
you’re both alive, and life is good
Unrequited love correlates to Homer’s silence. The metaphor — sea for bard, bard for sea — is anchored. The greatest power of this dream is that it cures Gnedich’s solitude. But it does not grant him a significant other.
The translator’s dream figures his ideal addressee as the original author of his own words.
While you’re asleep… Here, finally, is our “you,” the word absent from her letters to him. But these words are not an external address. While Gnedich dreams, you, the word which ought to invoke another, means only himself. The instability of his own authorship and the impossibility of his listener are reflected within a pattern of precarious self-address.
This, then, is the image of our translator, the cycle within which he works: speaking words not his own to a blind, deaf, and mute addressee, he addresses himself (or the author of the original, of whom he is a half-sighted avatar); he slides into the position of the other; he plays at being his own reader.
Alpha, beta and gamma, delta, epsilon, zeta, eta,
theta and iota, kappa, lambda,
mu, nu, xi, omicron, pi,
rho, sigma, tau and upsilon,
phi, like a lady’s exclamation,
chi, like a bureaucrat’s snicker,
psi, strangest letter of all,
omega, the last, in which everything rests —
Gnedich, unable to sleep, makes meaningless lists of Greek names, words, and letters for himself. Like the dream of Homer and of “her,” this exercise also takes place in the translator’s lonely bed, that site where insomnia may give way to slumber and thus to revelation, but where fantasy can never yield satiety.
On the relation between reading practices and sexual practices, Lauren Berlant has remarked:
The wish, of course, is that reading with, like being with, is a natural process that unfolds. Over time, the bad defenses will peel away. Over time, you will lose your terrible attachments to likeness and alterity. Over time, the right things will end up on the floor while the rest is taken in. There is a reason we call that wish fantasy.
This is the turn at which we have arrived: the translator — who traffics, after all, in meaning — spends these moments of sleeplessness on a fantasy of speech that cannot be responded to. Speech whose purpose is not to elicit an answer but to summon sleep, to invite silence. The lull of a “foreign” tongue; these sounds like the sea’s semblance of good language. Meaning — that terrible pattern of likeness and alterity — forsaken for the comforts of sound that won’t resolve.
Rybakova explicitly poses a question: to what extent is the poet a translator — and to what extent, indeed, is the translator a poet? The voice she mobilizes is more lyrical than epic, but while this translator is certainly no Odysseus, neither is he a traditional Orpheus. Picture instead the lyric poet stalled on his way out of Hades, with his head stuck in that fatal backwards glance. He cannot straightforwardly convert the object of his gaze into a source of poetic inspiration.
The translator’s dream — the realm of this stuck lyric glance — offers an alternative to the nostalgia-based narratives of late and post-Soviet literature. Like nostalgia, the dream is emotionally — even erotically — oriented towards the past, but the translator’s productivity is not located in memory. His problem is not the return home. How could it be? His provenance is a dead tongue. No: he can’t transmit properly, and instead his work becomes interested in stiltedness and mutation.
who now will come to you? to whom will you seem beautiful?
whom now will you love? whose will you be said to be?
whom will you kiss? whose little lips will you bite?
but you, Catullus, be resolute; endure.
— Catullus, Poem 8, some decades BCE
He’s troubled by the pale shadows of sex.
He what, can’t go without fucking? No, no, he can —
And even wants to cope somehow without it.
He doesn’t like this human tradition,
Which reminds him of deportation,
Emigration, and other means
Of expulsion across the borders of his motherland.
— Elena Fanailova, “History of Catullus,” 2006
There was a folk etymology of the word elegy popular in ancient Rome: that it came from the Greek e e legein, to say woe, woe.
Elena Fanailova’s 2008 verse collection Black Suits features a long poem, “History of Catullus,” in which questions of desire and history are interrogated through the Roman poet’s perspective. The primary project of the poem is to take instances of sexual desire and violence, overdetermined to the point of numbing the libido, and let them stand in for historical traumas. How then to access the wounded past with this frustrated, dulled mind, when each event is layered upon another, when so much of history is left blank with oubli? Fanailova takes as her hero the father of the love elegy and spawns from him a new genre: the dream of sexual distraction, historical indifference.
Catullus instructs a girl, he wants a girl,
He laughs at a boy, he pricks, kicks a babe,
He spits on a swallow, doesn’t cry anymore
Dry little crust, jacks off his stick,
Doesn’t think anymore what it means
His sexuality is kind of grieving
Apart from him. He agrees with it,
But can’t really be bothered.
During Gnedich’s private moments in bed, where insomnia held that dream of revelation and togetherness and pure translation just barely at bay, his mind fell with relief upon Greek words that mean nothing, a kind of Greek more sound than word. Catullus spends his private moments in bed — and they are private, for he shares nothing of substance with the realia of his evenings — striving similarly for the fix of another’s babble. A girl, a girl, a boy, a child, a bird, himself; laughter, violence, numbness; finally he reaches his goal. Desire — a pattern more terrible still, perhaps, of likeness and alterity — has been severed. Nauseously, blessedly, tamed. Now he may use it.
And Lesbia! Lesbia! She appears in the night
With her dead sparrow! They play! They kiss!
He wakes up sobbing! He looks at pictures of her
At Peterhof and Pavlovsk Park; he turns away
To the portrait of St. Nicholas.
But she’s so beautiful, her gestures like stars,
Her arms, her ankles, her ass; this is unbearable, this innocence and this fucking harlotry.
He’s never seen anything more absolute.
Of course, he can after all be bothered.
Like Gnedich, Catullus is stuck. And like Gnedich’s, this poet’s dream is a realm where he is unstuck; his fantasy is a realm where it doesn’t matter. Each offers a different resolution. Together they are productive.
The dream is more dangerous than the erotic space of the bed before sleep: the dream is always of togetherness. Here that togetherness is figured as a concern: he can, after all, be bothered. His sexuality is no longer over there; in the dream, the grief is local again. Catullus sees that for all his distractions he’s still got it in him to be bothered.
Gotta concentrate, this hero mutters to himself like a refrain. Like a diagnosis. His energies are totally dispersed. There is no renouncement of desire — nor indeed any desire pointed enough to renounce. He neither commands it nor lets it command him. The rope between him and his sexuality has gone slack. The wildly vacillating power dynamics, the increasing tensions and resolutions, the furious patterns motivating the erotic elegies and invectives of historical Catullus have deflated.
But you, Catullus, be resolute; endure… How overmedicated and directionless Fanailova’s Catullus seems in comparison! When his Lesbia leaves him, instead of these taut, staccato lashes, we get:
He went around to his friends and complained:
Give me some wine, give me a little vodka,
Some cognac, whiskey and beer,
I need it right now.
Give me some hemlock. Give me some cunt. Beat me the fuck up.
Distract me, oh tell me
Some other guy’s worse off than me.
Distract me, oh — Catullus deals in the currency of ADHD and concentration. What has brought this mess on? Grief, but like the object of Catullus’s pre-dream desire, the cause of his grief is not localized. Has Lesbia died or only left him? Or has he indeed left her? Is he more depressed about his dead brother, about Caesar, or the Soviet search radars — or 9/11? Just as any intoxicant will do, just as no particular boy or girl arouses him in his despair, neither has any particular historical event scarred his consciousness. He is, rather, a mass of scar tissue, the victim of so many disparate traumas that one memory triggers another. We have seen that omnivorous, indifferent sex could be attempted as a brief fix to the problems of Catullus’ eros. There is no analogous fix to the problems of his history.
But who is that gentleman,
the one standing by the window
and looking longingly out?
Oh it’s me, I forgot myself,
I’m coming back now.
— Maria Rybakova, Gnedich
Catullus, desperately, dully ill with the modern condition, cannot effectively grapple with history himself — he is not solid enough a subjectivity to do so. He is, however, of use to Fanailova in her confrontation with it. In evoking the ancient poet — and resurrecting him as she does — Fanailova simultaneously performs a profane reading of sacred scripture (Catullus is a figure worthy of reverence in the tradition of Fanailova’s vocation), and she enacts a fantastical, anti-nostalgic turn to the archive.
For Catullus is a creature of the translator’s dream. Within Fanailova’s poem, he represents the trace the past has left, and mediates between the “purity” of that past and the impossibility of its purity. As her title suggests, Catullus incarnates the space between unmediated history, i.e. the “happenings” of it, and historiography — our inheritance of it, history worked on by us, by the here and now. Perhaps a better way to say this is to say that the figure of Catullus gives voice to the nuances of Russian istoriia, the gradations of story and history. He does not do this as a lyrical voice. As a lyrical voice Catullus is broken. Again our Orpheus is stuck staring backwards, lyre abandoned on the shores of the Styx. We have seen that the tensions and power dynamics giving life to the verse penned by the biographical Catullus are radically diminished in the psychology of this poem’s hero. He represents, he works as an object, a figure manipulated by Fanailova, a puppet and a symbol, a conduit that indicates the way to the past but does not lead us there.
The Anne Carson comparison is relevant again: just as the sisters in her 2012 English translation of the Antigone, arguing about Hegel and Beckett onstage, must know their fate, so must Fanailova’s thoroughly 20th-century Catullus (Soviet citizen, candidate for psychoanalysis, reader of Platonov, contemporary of Kafka) know his. But whereas Sophocles’ most tragic moment always enters on the heels of that strange irony, that knowing your fate doesn’t help you change it, Fanailova’s hero has a still grimmer outlook on the question of fate. Modern to the core, her Catullus has altogether shed this ancient concern. He no longer cares what history will do to him.
One could say that Fanailova is portraying a contemporary deal with the devil: having inherited the ancient lust for ever more information, we moderns have gorged ourselves on it, grown to distrust it, and lie back now in bed, sick with historical amnesia and political disaffect. But to say that would be, I think, to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It would be to willfully ignore the voices borne of this lonely, oneiric moment in Russian poetry, a moment whose scorn of old truths and even old nostalgias is shot through with a sense of responsibility — the bravest thing, a call unsure of a response — to the relics of the older yet.
Caroline Lemak Brickman lives in Oakland, CA, where she reads and writes about Russian literature for a living.
This piece features original translations of Maria Rybakova’s Gnedich, Elena Fanailova’s “History of Catullus” and Aleksandr Skidan’s “Stronger than Uranus: Contemporary Women’s Poetry.”