The Stray Dog Cabaret
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.”
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.