Brandon North: Let’s start by addressing the idea that translation is always a collaboration between the writer and translator. In the case of I Burned at the Feast, your translation of Arseny Tarkovsky’s poems, your collaboration also included a co-translator: Dimitri Psurtsev. Another translation title the CSU Poetry Center has published, Someone Wants to Steal My Name, consists of translated poems by Henri Michaux that editor Nin Andrews collected from many different translators. Could you address your experience with your co-translator, and also how the collaboration of a team of two translators might differ from one translator or from a whole array of translators?
Philip Metres: In some sense, the Tarkovsky project began twenty-five years ago, in 1992, when I spent a year in Russia exploring and translating contemporary Russian poetry. I’d met Dimitri (Dima) from a mutual acquaintance (another collaborator, Tatiana Tulchinksky), and Dima became my Virgil to the underworld of Russia. He was first my teacher, then my mentor, and finally my friend and collaborator. I consider him an older brother. You can read more about our time together in an essay called “In the Den of the Voice,” recently published by World Literature Today.
In our “Den of the Voice,” where we’d meet to talk all things Russian, one week he introduced me to the work of Arseny Tarkovsky, the father of the great filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. I was struck by the clarity and power of his poems. They felt incredibly spiritual, which was countercultural during the Soviet period. The way Dima and I worked that year was that he’d assign me a clutch of poems and stories from a new author every week, and I’d try to translate them. Then he’d go over what I’d done, clarifying and correcting. Though I’d studied Russian in college for four years, and lived in the country, I found Russian language—and Russian poetry—another world entirely. There were just so many thickets of nuance that I wanted, and needed, a guide through. I wanted to understand everything, and instead of being a typical American, plundering the landscape and claiming it all on my own, I felt from the beginning that I wanted to have the process be collaborative and mutually enriching. The fact is that Russia at the time was enduring a terrible financial crisis and massive inflation, and my American dollars were like gold bars amid the dry flurry of almost-worthless Lenin rubles.
It was either poignant or absurd, because I’d come to Russia to escape the materialism of America looking for a land where poetry was revered, but I found myself in a country where people were starving for goods and had little time for quaint old poetry. Here’s an anecdote. In 1996, coming back to the country, I was thinking again of Tarkovsky, and Dima and I translated more poems together—but I’d never found a copy of his work. At a bookstore on Tverskaya, I spied a complete set of Arseny Tarkovsky’s collected works, in beautiful burgundy hardcover, and rushed for a place to change American into 90,000 rubles. I waited in a long line at the bank, slowly approaching the front, then watched the teller leave for break, and a new line formed, without complaint. I began to sweat, worried that someone might take the Tarkovsky. At last, having changed my Ben Franklins to rubles, and drunk on the possibility of this lucky purchase, I rushed back, sweat pouring down my shirt as if I were my own rainstorm, and burst through the door. In my haste, I clipped the eight-inch heel of an impeccably dressed beautiful young woman, a paragon of New Russia, nearly toppling her. She’d been lingering in the doorway in the cloud of her unknowable perfumed perfection, stylishly unconcerned with poetry. I felt like Old Russia, panting for some old book, which still lay on the shelf. There would be no rush on poetry now.
About ten years ago, I found myself back in Russia, having translated a couple of books of Russian poetry, looking for more inspiration. I’d been thinking about the poets that I’d loved, and which had been published into English. For reasons that I don’t understand, a Tarkovsky book had never made its way into English, so Dima and I feverishly dreamed up this book together, first in person and then over email, until it flared into being. Because I’m stubborn and hungry to understand, I’d try to make a rough version of the translation. Dima would then pick over it, elaborating on various things I’d gotten wrong, or just talking about the allusions or contexts. I’d go after it again. Ultimately, the final version was up to me and my American ear, since the translations would be in my native tongue, not his. I know that some translators use “native informants” and don’t call them collaborators, but that has never seemed right or fair to me. Simply put, these works wouldn’t exist without the aid of others. It’s probably true for any creative writing, isn’t it? The myth of the individual author is just that.
There are interesting books that feature multiple translations of the same poem, and I love those sorts of projects. Ugly Duckling Presse did one of translations of Osip Mandelstam that illuminated the trickiness of capturing the spirit of his verse. Translations are essays into the impossible.
Included at the end of I Burned at the Feast is a generous essay of twenty-five “propositions” on translation that you wrote to accompany the collection. By generous I mean concerned with making no single blanket statement about the process of translation. I say this in part because of the notion you put forward about translation being “erotic/asymptotic” or as a “co-creative, procreative act” in which “two languages come together to make a third thing.” These statements imply that translation is most rooted in possibility, in bringing forth some new iteration of language(s). Could you speak to this idea, particularly whether you see your translations as iterations of Tarkovsky’s poems?
Translations of poetry often veer between domesticating the foreign and bewildering the native. Sometimes a translator will hasten to overexplain a thing, so that it’s clear to the reader. This is a typical move—and maybe a little American if you think about it, since we as a people crave comfort and convenience. Another issue is what’s sometimes been called “translationese,” the weird sort of over-corrected language that feels strange without also really being poetry. On the other side of this spectrum would be how a translation really disturbs the structures and systems of our language and grammar. I think of Fady Joudah’s “Arabish” idea—creating a centaur tongue of two tongues, or translations of Celan, or the work of Johannes Göransson, that emphasizes the deformational and sublime when two languages collide. I think it’s all terribly erotic in two senses—it’s about two languages regarding each other from the boundaries of their desire—and then something happens and they’re both changed in the process.
Translating Tarkovsky for me meant embracing the Pushkinesque simplicity of his language and sound. I wanted really to create a translation that felt both atavistic and yet somehow classic. I didn’t want to make him sound too contemporary, because even within his time he was outside of time; he was preserving sounds and thoughts that the culture around him was actively trying to destroy. So I wanted to not be afraid of rhyme, for example, just because sometimes contemporary American poets sometimes deride rhyme as old-fashioned. Tarkovsky was both countercultural and old-fashioned.
Just to give an example of the sorts of dilemmas that crop up in poetry. I translated the very last stanza of the last poem in the book in this way:
I am a candle. I burned at the feast.
Gather my wax when morning arrives
so that this page will remind you
how to be proud and how to weep,
how to give away the last third
of happiness, and how to die with ease—
and beneath a temporary roof
to burn posthumously, like a word.
This is the Russian:
Я свеча, я сгорел на пиру.
Соберите мой воск поутру,
И подскажет вам эта страница,
Как вам плакать и чем вам гордиться,
Как веселья последнюю треть
Раздарить и легко умереть,
И под сенью случайного крова
Загореться посмертно, как слово.
I can’t explain how beautiful, how captivating and uncapturable the poem seems in Russian. For one thing, it’s in rhymed couplets, which I didn’t feel as if I could pull off in English, so my rhymes are slanted and scattered, cunningly, which annoys most Russian readers. The final two lines literally translated would be:
And under the shadow/shade of an accidental/chanced-upon/random/temporary shelter/roof
To burn/shine/light up posthumously/after death, like (a) word.
So many choices! And that’s just the literal aspect, not to mention sound and allusion. One of the hardest parts of the final line is “slovo” (word). Because Russian has no indefinite articles, this could also read, “like the word” or “like language” or even, like “The Word” (echoing John’s Gospel). I opted for something that sounded humble, a single word, but would feel grand in its burning.
In translation, you have to make thousands of choices. Even looking at this one, I’m tempted to undo it all and try to start again. I think “random” is cooler than “temporary,” but “random” has all sorts of other meanings in English. And what he’s gesturing toward is the transience of everything—feasts, roofs, houses, bodies, lives. It’s enough to make a person go crazy. You just try to move into what seems necessary, vital, durable, and right.
In your essay, you mention that “The failures of translation…are not failures between languages, as much as a property of language itself,” but also later say, “Translators, at times, are literal and figurative colonizers, threatening to domesticate or erase the other in the name of ‘cultural understanding’ or ‘universal human values.’” These statements might be read as contradicting each other—translators as failing, rather than just language itself—but the contradiction hints at the more general notion that sometimes language itself colonizes those who’re exposed to it, whether it’s one’s native tongue or not. Because of assumptions and ideas built into languages and their contextual usages over time, how should one situate one’s own cultural assumptions, historical moment, and political beliefs when translating another individual who also has/had their own versions of these things? How much should one’s own time inform a translated work?
Without going into a long discourse on Homi Bhabha and colonial ambivalence, let’s just say that both of these things are true: that translators can colonize other texts and tongues, strip-mining the mountains for whatever coal they wish to use, and that language is always failing to capture meaning on some level (as well as superceding meaning). I’m aware of my privilege as an American and don’t want to co-opt Russian poetry for my own ends, since that’s been done endlessly and to ill effect. In fact, much of the Western lionization of Russian literature has to be set in the context of the Cold War, when Americans wanted to lift up the Mandelstams and Brodskys to shame the Soviets for their oppression of poets and the wider society.
Translations, sadly, can and do “go out of style,” because they are often marked by one’s own time and its poetic conventions and language. Of course, poems go “out of style” as well, and disappear forever. We are always of our time. But if we’re lucky, as writers and translators, then we tap into something outside of time.
In our current political climate, when there is tension between the United States and Russia (not to mention tensions between the US and many other countries), I’d be remiss to not ask how translations of literature can help us respect and possibly even affirm—rather than erase—the specific socio-political and historical experiences of those from other cultures and nations. Could you address how you as a translator position your political beliefs in regard to the political beliefs of the writer? Since I Burned at the Feast was released in 2015, you translated Tarkovsky’s poems before the Trump-Putin allegations; however, I’m wondering if things like the Cold War or Cuban Missile Crisis haunted your translations at all. Additionally, although Tarkovsky was born long before the USSR ever existed (1907), I’m curious as to how his political beliefs and experiences influenced your approach, especially considering how—as this article at Lithub by another team of translators reveals—the poet himself was almost forced to be responsible for translating Stalin’s poems from Georgian into Russian.
What an amazing story about Tarkovsky and Stalin! You ask damned good questions, ones whose answers would be a practice more than a theory. The old Cold War, of course, was already becoming the Cold War 2.0 as early as the mid to late 2000s—after Bush met Putin and saw into his soul or whatever. Always, it seems, the American desire to maintain its hegemony worldwide collides with Russian aspirations to return to the world stage (two empires, longing to flex their muscles). Russia is of course not innocent in any of this, nor is the U.S. We’ve been meddling in each other’s countries for quite a long time. So yes, I’m always aware that Russia is caricatured in American media, and that has always bothered me. We caricature every country, and the more dangerous the country, the more consequential the caricature.
As a translator, it’s not my job to promote my own political beliefs within the text; the act of translation is itself political—though I don’t mean that to imply that it’s just virtuous, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned before. But my hope is that it’s part of a practice of listening, of attentiveness to the other.
Tarkovsky lived as a child in pre-Revolutionary Russia, and then lived his entire adult life in the Soviet Union, dying just as the Soviet Union was dying in 1989. He has a number of poems about pre-Revolutionary life, including the delightfully nostalgic “Things,” of which this is part:
Where is the curly hair of semi-drunk symbolists?
The scandalous yellow jackets of tall futurists?
The slogans on linden and chestnut trees?
The sawed-off shotguns of crazy thieves?
Those pre-revolutionary alphabet letters?
One disappeared, another got altered,
and what wasn’t separated by a comma
finally found its comma, and died.
I’ve done so little for the future,
but it’s only the future I crave,
and I wouldn’t want to start from scratch.
May it turn out I didn’t work in vain.
All these new fellow travelers—
do I have any real claim to them?
I stumble over my grandson’s toys, and plunder
great-grandchildren’s bread, my great-great-grandson’s fame.
He didn’t get to see the other side, but he’d been living there all the time in his poems and in his life. He opted out of the privilege of the “Soviet poet” and earned his living as a translator. But it’s true, as with everyone of stature in the Soviet Union, he was called upon to become complicit in state power. His abortive first book of poems was scuttled because it was deemed not political enough, and then when the book finally came out, I noticed with chagrin that it began with a ridiculous poem about Lenin—the Soviet version of an advertisement before you get to watch the show. Even he had to bow his head a little to enter into publishing.
Could you discuss the role that small and university presses play, or could play, for translated works, especially poetry? Presses like Copper Canyon have long been publishing translated poetry, and newer presses like Action Books are featuring more and more translated works. Why do you think these and other smaller presses are helping to get translated literature in the hands of more English-speaking readers?
The commercial publishing world largely avoids poetry and translations—no need in confusing the heads of the average reader with lineated language and with foreign names—so imagine putting those things together!
Which is why small and university presses are the essential carriers of so much culture. We’re very lucky to have such a vibrant and energetic scene of publishers doing this work, because it’s almost always a passion project. Very little money is generated. But it doesn’t matter, because if you’re into poetry, and stay in poetry, it’s because you love it more than it (and this world) can ever love you back. And isn’t that just beautiful?
Brandon North writes from Ohio, where he attended the Northeast Ohio MFA program (NEOMFA). Recent work appears in Ghost Proposal, The Adroit Journal, The Bombay Gin, and Quarterly West.
Philip Metres has written ten books, including Sand Opera (2015) and The Sound of Listening: Poetry as Refuge and Resistance (2018). Along with Dmitri Psurtsev, he is the translator of I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2015), which was shortlisted for the PEN Translation Award and the Read Russia Prize. Awarded the Lannan Fellowship and two Arab American Book Awards, he is professor of English and director of the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights program at John Carroll University.