Four of Us: Akhmatova, Mandelshtam, Pasternak, Tsvetaeva

Portrait of Anna Akhmatova, 1922
(Oil on Canvas, 54.5 x 43.5 cm)
BY Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin
Russian Museum, St. Petersburg


Many friends have contributed to these translations. We are particularly grateful to four readers, Joseph Arsenault, Leonore Hildebrandt, Richard Miles, and Lee Sharkey, to the Russian poet, Marina Glazov, and to our collaborator and mentor, Elena Glazov-Corrigan.

Translator’s Note

I asked her, “Did you dictate
Dante’s Hell?” She said, “I did.”

— Anna Akhmatova, “Muse” (1924)

Translations are necessarily “once again,” and in English can work naturally within a Wordsworthian tradition where “was” is “for this,” and a sense of tradition, far from a struggle for priority, is impelled by recurrence: what happened once is happening again and, happening again, is happening differently. This recognition of recurrence complements Walter Benjamin’s understanding of translation as the Überleben (afterlife or survival), the Forteleben (continuing life) of the translated poem. It also translates a recurring motif in Russian poetry of the last century (at least among those poets, more radical than revolutionary, who distinguished originality from futurism). Anna Akhmatova imagined that her muse was also Dante’s, an inspiration independent of Russian. “[E]very language has something that belongs to it alone,” Marina Tsvetaeva thought, but as she wrote to Rilke in 1926, “the reason one becomes a poet is to avoid being French, Russian, etc. in order to be everything.” Poetry begins as a “moan” in a “mother tongue”: “What is poetry but translating from a mother tongue into a foreign one… No language is the mother tongue. Writing poetry is rewriting it… A poet may write in French, but he cannot be a French poet.” By the same logic, this mother tongue from its translation initially into Russian may then translate as well into English.

For Tsvetaeva, the commonplace that translation is impossible coexists with the recognition that for any poet translation is a given. Assuming the probability that the commonplace is not wrong, what apparently occurs in translation is the realization of an impossibility. Toward the end of his life, John Cage found a way to use impossibility pragmatically in order to assure an open form in his music. Scoring 100 microtones between C and C-sharp, for example, he asked violinists to play the 42nd interval in between. An impossibility, but the music depends on the performer’s willingness to search for the impossibility as if it could be played (pragmatically a mathematical sublime). Translation might offer open forms in this sense as well. In the introduction to her beautiful translations of Tsvetaeva, Nina Kossman recalls how Tsvetaeva also embraced impossibility: “My difficulty,” Tsvetaeva wrote near the end of her life, “… is in the impossibility of my aim… with words (that is, with meanings) to express a moan: ah-ah-ah.”


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