Friday, January 16, 2015

Sleeplessness. Homer.

I bought Robert Tracy's translation of Stone by Mandelstam after reading Seamus Heaney's review of it, and it's really quite lovely. For instance, Tracy's translation of "Бессоница. Гомер." one of the most famous poems from Stone and one I particularly enjoy is without a doubt the best published translation of it I have read (which isn't actually saying a lot, given the dearth of good translations of Mandelstam). Below I give the Russian: 

Бессоница. Гомер. Тугие паруса. 
Я список корвблей прочел до середины:
Сей длинный выводок, сей поезд журавлиный,
Что над Элладою когда-то поднялся.

Как журавлиный клин в чужие рубежи--
На головах царей божественная пена--
Куда плывете вы? Когда бы не Елена,
Что Троя вам одна, ахейские мужи?

И море, и Гомер--все движется любовью.
Кого же слушать мне? И вот Гомер молчит,
И море черное, витийствуя, шумит
И с тяжким грохотом подходит к изголовью.

My own rough, literal translation (I just wanted to give non-Russian speakers a line-by-line translation of the poem. This is not intended to be a poetic translation. To the extent possible, I maintained the Russian grammar):

Sleeplessness. Homer. Stretched sails. 
I read the catalogue of ships through the middle:
That long flock, that train of cranes,
that once took flight over Greece. 

Like a wedge of cranes towards strange borders--
On princes' heads the godlike spume--
Where are you sailing? Were there no Helen, 
What would be a single Troy to you, Achaean husbands? 

And the sea, and Homer--everything moves by love. 
To whom should I listen? And lo, Homer is silent,
And the black sea, rhapsodizing, thunders 
And with a heavy growl draws near to my pillow. 

There are a couple places that require attention. I translated мужи (muzhi) as husbands, because, while muzh at the most fundamental level does mean simply "man". In modern Russian, muzh is much more closely associated with the idea of "husband" than "man" in the abstract. I think, however, that Mandelstam wants us to have both meanings in mind (which is very Greek of him). The line, "everything moves by love" in Russian has what is essentially the equivalent of the Greek middle. Thus everything is moved by love and moves itself through love (the Russian uses the instrumental case, thus not specifying exactly what the connection of movement and love is). I love that in a poem about Homer, Mandelstam uses eccentricities of the Russian language that parallel Greek. 

Robert Tracy's translation:

Sleeplessness. Homer. The sails tight.
I have the catalogue of ships half read:
That file of cranes, long fledgling line that spread
And lifted once over Hellas, into flight.

Like a wedge of cranes into an alien place--
The god's spume foaming in the princes' hair--
Where do you sail? If Helen were no there
What would Troy matter, men of Achaean race?

The sea, and Homer--it's love that moves all things.
To whom should I listen? Homer falls silent now
And the black sea surges toward my pillow
Like a loud declaimer, heavily thundering.

As you can see, Tracy's translation takes a lot of liberties, but in general, the liberties serve the purpose of mirroring (imperfectly, of course) the meter and rhyme of the Russian. Tracy's translation, however, starts to unravel (unravel and get caught by its suitors in the act of doing so) in the last two lines. I don't exactly know what it means to thunder heavily like a loud declaimer. The image is unclear and sloppy and ignores the fact that the Russian verb "витийствовать" in addition to declaiming or speechifying has the sense of rhapsodizing. In a poem about Homer, surely Mandelstam wants us to make this connection and realize that, even as Homer falls silent, the black sea takes his place as rhapsode and poet. 

Dmitri Smirnov's translation (from wikisource:

Insomnia. Homer. The rows of stretched sails.
I've read the catalogue of ships just to the middle:
That endless caravan, that lengthy stream of cranes,
Which long ago rose up above the land oh [sic? should be, of, I think] Hellas.

It's like a wedge of cranes towards the distant shores - 
The foreheads of the kings crowned with the foam of Gods.
Where are you sailing to? If Helen were not there,
What Troy would be to you, oh warriors of Achaea[?]

The sea and Homer - everything is moved by love.
Whom shall I listen to? There is no sound from Homer,
And full of eloquence the black sea roars and roars,
And draws with thunderous crashing nearer to my pillow.

Smirnov's translation is just sloppy, not really worth mentioning (but it's one of the few available online!). He adds words that don't need to be added. In line one, for instance, "rows". M. says nothing about rows. In the second line, the addition of "crowned" is a bit of an interpretation on Smirnov's part. Mandelstam simply tells us the foam is there. We can imagine that it is tossed up by the swift passing of ships, that it even seems crownlike upon the foreheads of kings, but that is not explicitly stated. Again in the final stanza, Smirnov assumes that if one can declaim or rhapsodize, one is full of eloquence. But, again, this is Smirnov's interpretation of Mandelstam's words. And, this interpretive tendency strips Mandelstam's imagery of its force. Mandelstam uses a verbal adverb (I translated it as "rhapsodizing"), thus connecting the activity closer to the main verb (thunders) than to the sea. But, Smirnov replaces the action with a noun and adjective combination (full of eloquence). He tries to reinsert the restless activity of Mandelstam's line by repeating "roars", but the result is a bloated line. 

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