On Translating Marina Tsvetaeva

The Method

Elaine Feinstein 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.

Russian Original

Rough Google Machine Translation

My edited Version

Рас-стояние: версты, мили...
Нас рас-ставили, рас-садили,
Чтобы тихо себя вели
По двум разным концам земли.

Рас-стояние: версты, дали...
Нас расклеили, распаяли,
В две руки развели, распяв,
И не знали, что это - сплав

Вдохновений и сухожилий...
Не рассорили -
Расслоили...Стена да ров.
Расселили нас как орлов-

Заговорщиков: версты, дали...
Не расстроили - растеряли.
По трущобам земных широт
Рассовали нас как сирот.

Который уж, ну который - март?!
Разбили нас - как колоду карт!

24 марта 1925
Poem read by Pavel Antokolsky

The distance: miles, miles ...
We have distribution set, races, they planted,
To quietly behaved
According to two different ends of the earth.

The distance: miles, gave ...
We pasted up, unsoldered,
In the two hands apart, crucified,
And do not know what it is - an alloy

Inspirations and tendons ...
Quarreled - fell out
Divide the walls and moat.
Displaced us like eagles,

Conspirators: versts, ...
Do not mess up – lost.
In the slums of terrestrial latitude
Disarranged us like orphans.

Who oh, how many – March?
They pitched us - like a deck of cards

March 24, 1925

Dis-stance: versts, miles...
They have dis-jointed us, dis-mantled,
So that we would be quiet,
At the world's farthest ends.

Dis-stance: versts, spaces. . .
We, unstuck, unsoldered
With two arms spread, crucified,
They did not know, how that fuses

Inspirations and sinews...
No discord—dispersed,
Divided....by wall and moat.
They displaced us like eagles—

Conspirators: miles, expanses. . .
Not deranged—lost.
Into the slums on this vast earth
They disarranged us like orphans.

Which, oh, well when – March?!
They shuffled us - like a deck of cards!

24 March 1925

To put this into perspective, I add three professional translations from the literature– and leave the judgment to the reader.

Distance: versts, miles .. .
divide us; they've dispersed us,
to make us behave quietly
at our different ends of the earth.

Distance: how many miles of it
lie between us now - disconnected -
crucified - then dissected.
And they don't know - it unites us.

Our spirits and sinews fuse,
there's no discord between us.
though our separated pieces
lie outside
the moat - for eagles!

This conspiracy of miles
has not yet disconcerted us,
however much they've pushed us, like
orphans into backwaters.

- What then? Well. Now it's March!
And we're scattered like some pack of cards!

Elaine Feinstein

Dis-stance: versts, miles...
They've dis-joined us, dis-mantled us,
So that we would be quiet,
At the world's farthest ends.

Dis-stance: versts, reaches...
They've disbanded, disrupted us,
Disunited and dissolved us,
Not knowing that we are an alloy

Of inspirations and sinews...
They haven't dispirited us, but they've dispersed us,
Wall and moat.
Displaced us, like eagles-

Conspirators: versts, reaches...
Not dismayed, but displanted.
Across the slums of the earth's latitudes
They disarranged us like orphans.

How many is it - oh, how many – March?!
Since they disordered us like a deck of cards!

24 March 1925

Dis-tances: miles, versts…
They dis-pelled us until we dis-persed,
So we would act as we were told
In two corners of the world.

Dis-tances: versts, spaces…
They dislocated us, they displaced us,
They disjoined us, crucified on display,
And observed there, to their dismay,

How our tendons joined, our ideas broadened…
Without discord, - just in disorder,
Disconnected by a wall and a dike.
They disbanded us like

Eagles-conspirators: versts, spaces…
Not disunited, - they disengaged us.
Across the slums of the globe’s range
Like orphans, we’re disarranged.

For how many Marches, have our hearts
Been cut like a deck of cards?!

Andrey Kneller

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- dis-lyrical, not-touching 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” - And not knew, how this – alloy..-. сплав=alloy is the crucial word, the key to this poem. For once this physicist enjoyed an advantage over the linguists!

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.