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The lyrical translator’s “I”

October 12, 2010

One other thing I have been thinking about from Monika Greenleaf’s article on Batiushkov is a theme of several of her close readings: the idea that his translations of, say, Tibullus, can be read not only as “I, Tibullus the poet, want to be reunited with Delia,” but also as “I, the translator who lives long after Tibullus, want to be reunited with the Golden Age when Tibullus-and-Delia were possible” (I’m paraphrasing pp. 63-65, esp. 64). This is how she interprets Batiushkov’s Элегия из Тибулла. Вольный перевод (1814).

Or take her reading of Привидение. Из Парни (1810). Here she remarks on “the displaced role of the erotic.” The poets Batiushkov translates may desire some feminine object directly, but what Batiushkov wants is glory as a poet, and

His desire is not for the primary objects screened from him by “a veil of words,” but for the fabric of the words to clothe his own “selflessness.” The clothing and unclothing of the feminine body appear in his poetry as the exact correlates of his own clothing of himself in language: the body drops its veils and rushes toward the reader at the moment that he, the invisible translator, is fully clothed, “bodied forth,” spirit made incarnate in language. (60)

Greenleaf sums up this duality (I the poet vs. I the translator, or the primary object of desire vs. the secondary, cultural object of desire) in the last sentence of her introduction:

Finally, in my readings of individual poems I shall demonstrate that even as Batiushkov lends his voice to the poems he selects for translation, they tell ‘ventriloquistically’ of the lyrical and cultural predicament of their translator (55)

I think all this is elegant and largely convincing, but I’m also still turning it over in my mind, and asking myself:

1) Is this something particular to Batiushkov (or his cultural milieu), or could you read any translated poem this way?

2) When Batiushkov pretends to be Tibullus in a translation, is it so much more artificial than when he pretends to be Batiushkov in an original poem? (I think Greenleaf would agree that these are two different personas, and not a persona and a real person directly available to a reader.) Does it matter how exact the translation is? Does it matter whether the poem is overtly called a translation in the title, or another poet’s name is used in the text?

Maybe what I’m getting at in that second question is this. You could take a love poem that is in no sense a translation and still see on the one hand, the poet’s persona expressing desire for a woman inside the poem, and on the other hand, the poet as cultural figure searching for cultural glory and/or for “words to clothe his own ‘selflessness.'”

What I should do is read a variety of poems now that I’ve read Greenleaf’s excellent article and see how many I can make “tell ‘ventriloquistically’ of the lyrical and cultural predicament of their translator,” or indeed their author. Maybe it will be hard to hear that second voice in the overtones except in Batiushkov’s translations.

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