I’ve written about Georgy Ivanov (1894-1958), my favorite poet of the Russian emigration, elsewhere. Robert Chandler, Irina Mashinski, and I included a number of his poems in The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. Now I’d like to share another of his elegant, despairing poems of exile. This one appears in the latest issue of Inventory (no. 7), a journal of translation associated with Princeton University, and is embedded in a little essay I titled “‘The Perpetual Triumph of Sacrifice’: Translating Georgy Ivanov,” borrowing a phrase from Paul Valéry:
Ivanov’s last poems were written in an almshouse for stateless persons in Hyères, in a kind of second exile from Paris and Biarritz, where he had made his homes away from home. This final irony was exacerbated by the fact that many of his fellow residents at the almshouse were communist refugees from Franco’s Spain. To his own surprise, Ivanov found that he liked these communists a great deal more than his fellow Russians — aged veterans of the vanquished White Army, with whom he had precious little in common save for the experience of exile and his cherished memories of old Russia. It is these men whom Ivanov describes in a poem of 1955:
Life goes on, defying common sense.
Old men chatter in the southern sun:
“Moscow ballrooms… The weather in Simbirsk…
The War… Kerensky… We had freedom then…”
Before you know it — forty years in France,
a buzzing in the head, chill in the bones.
“Masonic plot… The Jews, all their infernal…
Ah, you were published? Where? Which journal?”
…In the dull sunshine there is peace and grace.
They wait and wait, but hope it won’t be long
before the old Cyrillic script regains its place,
before that age of gold re-dawns.
The magic of Ivanov’s poem lies in his ability at once to empathize and even identify with his subjects — he too is an old man with a buzzing in his head, a chill in his bones, who longs desperately for the golden age eclipsed by the Bolshevik Revolution — and to show his disdain for their foolishness. Ivanov was a monarchist, who had as little time for Alexander Kerensky and the Provisional Government that took charge of Russia in February 1917 as he did for the Bolsheviks who seized power in October of that year, so the “freedom” of which these old men dream at the end of the second stanza is cloaked in heavy irony. That irony prepares us for the despicable anti-Semitism the veterans voice in the second stanza. How far, we are forced to wonder, has blaming Masons and Jews for all of Russia’s ills gotten them? Do they themselves shoulder no responsibility? The empathy of the first stanza and the heavy irony of the second blend in the third: a half-ironic, half-sincere expression of hope that implicates both Ivanov and his subjects — a hope for old Russia’s rebirth that Ivanov can neither fully embrace nor abandon.
One of the lessons this poem offers to a translator is that some things are doomed to be lost even when they are preserved. For instance, in the original Russian, the meter demands that the stress in “Kerensky” fall on the second syllable; I’ve reproduced the accenting in English, but not the effect. In Russian, the proper pronunciation of the man’s name is Kérensky, with the accent on the first syllable. By placing the accent on the second, Ivanov both hints at the old veterans’ ignorance and, as scholar Andrey Aryev points out, alludes to a pair of lines by Leonid Kannegisser (1896-1918), a minor poet and the assassin of the head of the Petrograd Cheka: “I will remember — Russia, freedom, / Kerensky on a snow-white steed.” Needless to say, the allusion to Kannegisser is lost even on most Russian readers. A larger number may pick up on the improper accenting of Kerensky’s name. Anglophone readers, however, would never regard the pronunciation as improper. If they know of Kerensky at all, it is precisely as Kerénsky, with the accent on the second syllable. Had I tried to reproduce the effect of the improper pronunciation — say, by switching the accent to its proper location, the first syllable — the results would not have reflected poorly on the old veterans, but rather on my ability to scan.
And all this — if they know of Kerensky at all… So why keep Kerensky? Just how many of an original poem’s explicit references can a translator afford to lose? It depends on one’s intended audience. The ideal Anglophone reader I posit when translating expects an effective English poem, but has some interest in Russian culture and history; otherwise, why would she or he even bother reading the work of a Russian poet? This reader may know of Kerensky as the head of the Provisional Government, but not know the correct pronunciation of the man’s name; this reader may also know that Russians used an “old Cyrillic script” before the Soviet regime’s spelling reform of 1918, but not know the names of the eliminated letters yat and fita, which occur in the original poem. If the reader is unaware of Kerensky or of the “old Cyrillic script,” she or he can gather the general burden of these references from the context, and can easily look up more information after reading the poem. Kerensky and the script are important to the poem’s effect and pull their weight in English, whereas the improper accenting of Kerensky’s name and the letters yat and fita are decidedly secondary elements; reproducing these elements in English would only erect unnecessary obstacles for the reader.
Another element I sacrificed was the specific name of the journal mentioned at the end of the second stanza. A literal translation of the original line would read: “You were published? Where? Which issue of Hyperborean?” Founded in 1912 by [Nikolay] Gumilyov and Sergey Gorodetsky (1884-1967), Hyperborean (Giperborey) was the short-lived literary organ of the Acmeist movement. Ivanov had appeared in its pages alongside [Anna] Akhmatova and [Osip] Mandelstam. The line might have been inspired by a poem that one of Ivanov’s old acquaintances, Vasily Sumbatov, had published in an émigré journal in 1954; it begins, “Akhmatova, Ivanov, Mandelstam — / a long-forgotten Hyperborean…” The question, then, is likely posed by one of the old men to Ivanov himself; and yet, without knowledge of the Sumbatov subtext, the reader could easily assume that it is addressed to any one of the old men in the almshouse. Is there really much difference? By placing the question about his appearance in the journal on the lips of his pathetic countrymen — bundling it with their misguided reveries — Ivanov ironizes his own past, underscoring just how little it matters here, in Hyères, among these exiled military relics. He is, in the end, just another decrepit exile.
The veiled allusion behind the journal’s name is to the mythical Hyperboreans, giants who dwell in a northern land of everlasting sunshine; it adds another ironic hue to the depiction of these “old men chatter[ing] in the southern sun.” But this faint irony is likely to be missed even by Russian readers of the original, and in the English poem it would be far outweighed by the distracting specificity of the journal’s name. Interpreting the reference to an Acmeist publication would require specialized knowledge that I simply could not expect of my ideal reader. Furthermore, as I see it, the generalized questions — “Ah, you were published? Where? Which journal?” — only amplify the original’s effect. If the reader surmises that the questions are addressed to Ivanov, then it appears that the old veterans are not only unaware of Ivanov’s appearance in a particular issue of Hyperborean, they simply have no idea of where he published — or, for that matter, of whether he published poems or articles on Masonic plots.
Жизнь продолжается рассудку вопреки.
На южном солнышке болтают старики:
— Московские балы… Симбирская погода…
Великая война… Керенская свобода…
И — скоро сорок лет у Франции в гостях.
Жужжанье в черепах и холодок в костях.
— Масонский заговор… Особенно евреи…
Печатались? А где? В каком Гиперборее?
…На мутном солнышке покой и благодать,
Они надеются, уже недолго ждать —
Воскреснет твердый знак, вернутся ять с фитою
И засияет жизнь эпохой золотою.