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The nativity versus Christmas with a capital C

January 11, 2012

I seem to be ever more tempted to stray into more recent times, and I do plan to continue to concentrate on the nineteenth century, but I want to point out Jamie Olson’s translation of Brodsky’s “Christmas 1963” and say a few words about it.

First, I like it a lot. I’ve often produced quick prose translations of poetry to give English-only readers an idea of what’s going on, but I don’t feel up to JO’s kind of poetic translation, and I’m impressed by people who can do it. I feel like his translation of “Christmas 1963” stays, for the most part, closer to the semantics of the Russian words than many non-metrical translations, and simultaneously transposes the rhythm of the original better than many translations that take great liberties with the sense.

Second, a disclaimer: I’m far, far from a Brodsky expert and didn’t know this poem at all until I read it at The Flaxen Wave a few days ago.

And now, on to the poem. It seems to me that what’s going on in Brodsky is a juxtaposition of two completely different Christmases. Scene number 1 is the birth of a baby in the Middle East on a certain night at the beginning of our year-counting system. Scene number 2 is the celebration of that birth in Europe and “the West” long afterward. The two bump incongruously into each other in lines 3-4 (the snow of Russia/Europe/the West abruptly gives way to desert sand) and in line 10 (the manger is physically surrounded by arches that I take to be those of a future cathedral). The only link between scene 1 and scene 2 is the magi, who exist in scene 1 but alone are able to anticipate scene 2. Everyone else in scene 1 is living through a peaceful evening after the joyous but unremarkable birth of a baby. The magi have come and brought gifts, but the poem ends и дары лежали – the gifts lay unused, with no one knowing what to do with them, as никто не знал кругом, что жизни счет начнется с этой ночи.

JO’s translation, as I read it, perfectly preserves the confrontation of scene 1 and scene 2 in both lines 3-4 and line 10. Better than that, it doesn’t highlight the confrontation more than the original did either, which is yet another trap for a translator. It’s the last line I’d quibble with (without being brave enough to suggest my own version!). I may be exaggerating my need for a twist at the end of any poem, but I hear a strong contrast between the opening half-line, repeated in line 9 (Волхвы пришли, The magi had come) and the very last half-line (и дары лежали). The magi had come, anticipating and trying to set into motion the transformation of ordinary scene 1 into supernatural scene 2. But the gifts they brought just lay there, and scene 1 stubbornly continued.

A related and smaller issue: I don’t know why JO renders line 8 as “that on that very night life’s count had started” instead of “that from that very night life’s count would start.” As I read it – and as always, Russian speakers who may read this, please correct me if I’m wrong – “life’s count” alludes to the BC/AD or BCE/CE dating system, which, whatever you call the eras, counts from that night. With perhaps also the sense that life began to count from that night. The tense change does let JO have feminine line-endings alternating with masculine in the last two stanzas (“shorter,” “started,” “manger,” “angel” all being stressed on the first syllable), but maybe he has a different reading of жизни счет than I do that’s also reflected in the tense.

I’ll end there, with my thanks to JO for making the translation available on his blog and introducing me to another poem by Brodsky, someone I should read a lot more of.

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