On Translating Marina
employed eight collaborators to produce a first, literal translation
of Tsvetaeva's poems. Some of them excellent translators of Russian
lyrics in their own rights. Using these transliterations she then
cast the poems into the fluent style of her anthology. I could not
rely on such a cast of collaborators, none of my Russian friends
wanted to have anything to do with it. Unfortunately my command of
poetic Russian is not as good as Feinstein's.
Instead I used the help of available internet resources, foremost among them Google Translate. All poems were obtained from a Russian internet site, which I translated into English with the translate feature on the Google browser tool-bar. This gave me a first rough translation.
Google is using a vast computer-stored collection of whole phrases, not a regular Russian-English word dictionary. The result is that smooth texts turn out relatively coherent – but the method does not necessarily catch Tsvetaeva's poetic style: The rough translation needed a line-by-line, word-by-word editing. Fortunately Google also provides a word-by-word dictionary function which is very helpful at this stage. Provided the Russian original is available as an internet page, one can search the text with the mouse for the meaning(s) of every single word and find better expressions, - provided the Russian word exists in a modern dictionary, which is often not he case, because of Tsvetaeva's use of archaic expressions and free-lance words in her poems.
The following table shows the poem to Pasternak as an example of this process.
Rough Google Machine Translation
My edited Version
distance: miles, miles ...
To put this into perspective, I add three professional translations from the literature– and leave the judgment to the reader.
versts, miles .. .
All things considered –
this is a structurally
difficult poem –
the rough Google rendition is quite remarkable for a machine
translation. It is
evident that the text has been generated by matching phrases not
words. Among the three professional versions I like the translation
from the Northwestern University website best, because it is the most
faithful. Like most of my Russian friends Elaine Feinstein doesn't
like this “рас-растроганный”
poem; this is not her
most felicitous translation. She usually delivers better renditions
when feelings need to be expressed. Andrey Keller, who is a poet
himself, tries hard to affect some rhyme and misses the important
line: “И не знали,
что это - сплав”
not knew, how this – alloy..-.
сплав=alloy is the crucial word, the
key to this poem. For once this physicist enjoyed an advantage over
And none of the translations captures the alliterative beat of Tsvetaeva's poem. Listen once again to Pavel Antokolsky's reading, and then, with his voice still in your ear, read the English translations aloud. The difficulty lies in Tsvetaeva's repetition of the epithet “Рас - ras”=“Dis”. “Dis” doesn't have the rasping sound of “Ras”. While the meaning is exact, the soft articulation of “dis” destroys the sound of the English renditions. In an intermediate version of my translation I once tried to replace “dis” with “ras” and a footnote to explain the choice. It doesn't work, it delivers a hackneyed English which moreover looks ugly...
Of course, this labor
is not and will never be completed. All constructive
suggestions are welcome!
P. s. Russian readers can try an interesting experiment: by setting the language of the page to “Russian” (with the above Google translating tool), all five English translations will be converted into Russian and can be directly compared to the original! Of course, the translation will not be as smooth as one would like, but this is an enlightening game.