Raising the Torch of Compassion: Emma Lazarus in Irina Mashinski’s Translation

In the summer of 2019 the poets Alicia Ostriker, Mihaela Moscaliuc, and Tess O’Dwyer initiated an admirable, timely project, calling on poets working in over forty languages, ranging from Ancient Greek to Isthmus Zapotec and Esperanto, to produce translations of Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “The New Colossus.” The project is now shining bright at the website of the American Jewish Historical Society. Each version is prefaced by a brief note relating the poet’s own experience of immigration and laying bare the fact that the ideals embodied in the Statue of Liberty remain beacons in the distance — the journey continues. The awe-inspiring Russian translation is the work of my dear friend Irina Mashinski, and I can’t resist reproducing it in full, along with her note:

Irina Mashinski by Anna Golitsyna

We emigrated in the fall of 1991, right after the coup and two months before the dissolution of the USSR We rode to the airport in a taxi at night, through the brightly illuminated Moscow that was awakening after seventy Soviet years. The first frost made the city seem even brighter. Then, we were airborne. The planet that had been mine from birth, unreachable until now, lay below. The dawn was approaching — twice slower than usual. My five-year-old daughter Sasha was sleeping in my lap, her head on the scratchy sleeve of my winter coat. In the evening, we landed at JFK.

Не дерзкий грек, не воин-покоритель
всех, что охватит взор, земель и вод —
с похищенною молнией встает
она — гонимых покровитель,

отвергнутых, всех тех, что гонит ветер
нужды и распри, рабства гнойный гнет —
к закатной гавани у западных ворот,
и лик ее открыт, а пламень светел.

«Отдайте мне усталых, обделенных,
ненужных, нищих духом — всех приму
бездомных, безъязыких, унесенных

и выброшенных к свету моему.
У двух земель, мостом соединенных,
я состраданья факел подниму».

Irina has also written a model translator’s note — a true miniature masterclass in poetic translation:

I chose to keep the structure of the Italian sonnet, though I did take a few liberties to emphasize ideas of particular relevance in today’s context. The language and the tone are contemporary; I tried to avoid anything that would sound too loud/metallic or too heightened. She, the colossus, is deliberately softer, less mighty and stern; the stress is deliberately more on them, the refugees, than it is on her. I chose to alternate masculine and feminine rhymes to make the poem sound more natural and gender-neutral for the Russian ear. The rhymes are rather simple, not elaborate, though the deep feminine enclosing rhyme of the first and second stanzas — the one that establishes the tone and the thematic opposition between a conqueror (покоритель) and a patron and protector (покровитель) — sounds looser, more contemporary, more free-spirited than the rhymes of the original’s era, both in the English and Russian traditions. 

The main theme is two-fold: compassion and light. The torch/light/fire appears in stanzas 1, 2, 4. The word “земли” (lands) appears in the first and last stanzas: in the first, it relates to a conquest; in the last, to the shore/the island(s)/the harbor. The poem bridges them, and the bridge (“connecting/uniting the two lands/islands”) in the last stanza bears an additional meaning: connecting the Old and the New Worlds. “Соединенных” (connected, united) is the same word as the one we use for the USA: united in compassion. The syntax of the lines in the sestet, especially the enjambment of the sentence in lines 11-12, resembles waves; it sustains the constant movement, the consistency of the tradition (of acceptance) — and also marks the endpoints of the journey. Yet another liberty I took is “нищих духом” in line 10While the first word of­­­ the phrase means “poor” (as in the original), the full phrase has a ­­­­­­­­­­biblical origin – “the poor in spirit” of Matthew 5:3, who are “blessed,” and who have a claim to “the kingdom of heaven.” For a Russian reader, the word “безъязыких” (tongue/language-less), added to line 11, alludes to “Without Language” (1895), a well-known novella by the Ukrainian-Russian writer Vladimir Korolenko, which chronicles the struggles of a Ukrainian peasant in Manhattan. 

The verbs in the translation are given in the future or, in the concluding line, future/present continuous tense. The last line literally means: I am/will be raising the torch of compassion.

8 thoughts on “Raising the Torch of Compassion: Emma Lazarus in Irina Mashinski’s Translation

  1. Lovely, I’d forgotten how moving if a bit bombastic the original was.  The description of the translation sounds amazing, but of course I can’t judge it. 

    Here’s the last stanza of an Arthur Hugh Clough poem that I introduced several friends to yesterday.  Churchill quoted it in a speech in the middle of the war.  One of my profs was a Clough scholar (Okay, pick somebody obscure then.) 

    And not by eastern windows only, When daylight comes, comes in the light; In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly! But westward, look, the land is bright!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, John! I was quite amazed by your mentioning Clough’s poem, and its ultimate lines, in particular: I an fond of this poem and often think to myself: “But westward, look, the land is bright!”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a great translation, and especially, what a fine explication of the translator’s interpretation and approach! I’m sure some readers would be quick to find fault with her version (e.g., what happened to “yearning to breathe free”?), but those sorts of criticisms are always about some other version that exists only in the abstract, in the mind of the person who has just said, “that word is wrong!” As soon as those folks try to write their own translation, then it becomes clear just how abstract that version in their head was, as they run into all the sorts of issues that she lays out so succinctly, the pairings and contrasts, the coherence from start to finish, the internal rhymes and references. She has made a poem.

    Liked by 1 person

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