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The Stray Dog Cabaret

June 10, 2013

When we read a translation, we all want to read the author, not the translator – at least I do. That’s impossible, though; there’s no way for the translator to stay entirely out of the way. Translating is thousands of choices of defensible alternatives, which proves that the translator is going to affect the text.

On the other hand, artists are allowed to take source material and change it. Books turned into movies, plays turned into operas, are “transposed” instead of translated, and if too much is left the same in the new form, it’s an artistic flaw.

What happens when a translator doesn’t even try to be inconspicuous, and instead takes the artist’s prerogative to change the material translated to fit the needs of a new work of art? Interesting things, apparently:

The Stray Dog Cabaret

All of us here are hookers and hustlers
We drink too much, and don’t care.
The walls are covered with birds and flowers
that have never seen sunshine or air.

You smoke too much.  There’s always a cloud
of nicotine over your head.
Do you like this skirt?  I wore it on purpose.
I wanted to show lots of leg.  (Anna Akhmatova)

Osip Mandelstam is not so sure:

This life of constant thrills will drive us crazy:
wine in the morning, hangover every night.
How can we get away from this sick excitement,
the awful flush of feverish delight?

But Blok sends her a drink:

I sent you a rose in a glass of champagne
while the gypsies played as the gypsies do.
Then you turned to the man you were with and said:
“You see his eyes? He’s in love with me too.”

Akhmatova rejects the offer – “You’re a very bad boy. And you’re crazy.”

Translation purists, a sad lot, will be horrified when they turn to the notes and discover that with the Blok poem the translator “has created a new poem from three stanzas of ‘In the Restaurant’” and that “[t]he poem actually was dedicated to Maria Nelidova.”  “The original poem has no title.”  “The phrase ‘And it makes me cry’ does not appear in the original poem.”

In 1989 the USSR issued a commemorative postcard for the 100th anniversary of Akhmatova's birth; the preprinted 4-kopeck stamp includes the Stray Dog logo

In 1989 the USSR issued a commemorative postcard for the 100th anniversary of Akhmatova’s birth; the preprinted 4-kopeck stamp includes the Stray Dog logo

That’s Wuthering Expectations on Paul Schmidt’s The Stray Dog Cabaret (2007). (I’m trying hard not to be in that “sad lot.”) Schmidt, according to the bio here, had quite a life, thriving as an academic but leaving anyway to be a translator, playwright, and performer.

Whatever the pluses and minuses of his method, Schmidt makes you read the poems differently than you would in a formal, chronologically arranged collected works. I’ve known that Mandel’shtam poem a long time, but I’d never thought of it like this. Even if the dialogue is made up, it probably is a better angle than than seeing the poem as floating in Eternity, like I did when I first read it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 14, 2013 8:39 am

    I keep forgetting to leave a comment, to thank you for this piece. I enjoyed the return. I love the postcard.

    I would add one thing to what I wrote, which addresses your legitimate worries – if a reader (say, me) takes The Stray Dog Cabaret as the end of his experience with these poets – now I have read them, they are checked off of the list – he is probably making a mistake. Schmidt’s book or play should work as a aperitif.

    • June 14, 2013 10:10 am

      The “aperitif” model works for me. I was going to say that, no matter what, there’s no way to check these poets off the list. I’ve been studying Russian for 22 years and trying to read Mandel’shtam for 18, and I still feel how much I’m missing. If I were a native speaker superstar literature professor, I’d get much more but still not everything. Then I realized that the idea of the impossibility of full contact with a writer or any human being comes to me from Akhmatova (“In human intimacy there is a secret line” that nothing can let you cross), which makes the point self-defeating.

      Mandel’shtam, on the other hand, sees all reading as kind of like translation, I think. There are always obstacles to understanding (the more the better, as long as the reader doesn’t give up), and the process of trying to overcome them is the point. “To us only the moment of recognition is sweet,” and from a less serious poem, “And maybe at this moment a Japanese person is translating me into Turkish and has penetrated right into my soul.” So maybe he’d approve of Schmidt as more than just an aperitif.

      Thanks for your original post! I’ve requested Schmidt’s book from my library, the second time I’ve asked for a book just because of Wuthering Expectations.

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