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Translation comparison: My Sister Life

September 22, 2014

There’s a famous question in Boris Pasternak’s “About These Lines” (Про эти стихи, 1917): Какое, милые, у нас Тысячелетье на дворе? It’s one word (and one agreeing ending) away from being a banal question about the weather, but instead of “what’s the weather like out there?” it’s “what millennium is it out there?”

Boris Dralyuk compares how translators Mark Rudman and James E. Falen handle it. Rudman’s first effort, in 1983, was “Hey,/ what time is it in the playground?” — the startling word for millennium drops out. In 1992 he revised it so that the stanza came out like this:

Bundled in a muffler, I’ll screen
the sun’s glare with my palm
and yell to the kids: “Hey,
what millennium is in our yard?”

Restoring “millennium” is an improvement, but as Dralyuk says, Pasternak’s “shocking question emerges in the context of polished, springy iambic tetrameter, transparent syntax, and unaffected colloquial phrasing; he earns his frisson. Rudman’s unmetrical, unrhymed version rumbles like a tank over craggy enjambments. And it is difficult to conclude that Rudman sacrificed formal constraints for some semblance of ‘natural’ or ‘poetic’ English; the surprise of ‘millennium’ notwithstanding, the final question—‘Hey, what millennium is in our yard?’—is awkwardly constructed, and it is especially hard to imagine the speaker posing it to kids” (681).

In this particular case, Falen’s 2012 translation works better; at any rate, it’s hard not to agree that it does a better job on the “can you imagine anyone saying this out loud to children?” test:

In scarf, with hand before my eyes,
I’ll shout outdoors and ask the kids:
Oh tell me, dear ones, if you please,
Just what millennium this is?

Dralyuk also talks about the Zhivago poems as translated by Falen, by Jon Stallworthy and Peter France, and by Robert Chandler. Throughout the necessarily short review he touches on huge issues like whether the “same” meter in English and Russian is actually perceived the same way by readers of the two languages, but stays close to particular lines as he does it. Read all of it! The JSTOR moving wall isn’t there yet, but until then you can find it in print: Slavic and East European Journal 57.4 (2013): 680-82.

I’ve added it to a new page of twentieth-century translation comparisons. There isn’t much there yet, but I intend to add to it (while continuing to focus on the nineteenth century). It deserves a post of its own, but I’ll also call your attention to Dralyuk’s comparison of translations of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (Герой нашего времени, 1840), which you can find on the main translation comparison page.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 23, 2014 8:51 am

    The fact that Rudman translates на дворе as “in our yard” suggests to me that his Russian is not very good, an impression that is strengthened by looking him up and discovering that he translates from Polish, Ukrainian, and French as well. Not that you have to know a language to produce good translations (see: Ezra Pound and Chinese), but it helps, and I’m not impressed by the quality of the quatrain otherwise. And I’m equally unimpressed by “Oh tell me, dear ones, if you please.” I guess I’m just a curmudgeon.

    • September 23, 2014 11:19 am

      I agree about на дворе – I wouldn’t want to preserve the “yard” of двор any more than the street in на улице or the side in “outside.”

      I’ll try to avoid sweeping claims about the impossibility of translating lyric poetry, but my expectations are always low. No one I know gets interested in a Russian poet unless 1) there’s a real-world hook (Mandel’shtam’s Stalin epigram), 2) they know the same writer’s prose (Pushkin, Lermontov), or, most often, 3) they know at least some Russian. Translation is no obstacle to English speakers enjoying The Idiot and Dead Souls and Anna Karenina and The Master and Margarita and maybe Oblomov, but the best translators can’t hold the same people’s attention with a poet as wonderful as Tsvetaeva.

      Which is to say, sure, “Oh tell me, dear ones, if you please” isn’t perfect, but no one is going to find a convincing equivalent for милые, follow a metrical pattern, save the punchline of тысячелетье for the end, sound like they could be talking to children, and on and on, all at the same time. A translated poem never has as much punch, unless it’s a long one with a story like Eugene Onegin. I’d make an exception for poets writing free translations that are as good as new poems (I’m in no position to say if Pound is in that category), but that’s not what either Rudman or Falen was going for. And I think Falen deserves some credit for trying to make lines work as lines and stanzas as stanzas.

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