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Maybe 1920 should sound more like 1780 than 2016

June 8, 2020

The full title of the poem where Maiakovskii has tea with the sun is “Необычайное приключение, бывшее с Владимиром Маяковским летом на даче (Пушкино, Акулова гора, дача Румянцева, 27 верст по Ярославской жел. дор.).” In a 2016 book James Womack translated this as “Vladimir Mayakovsky Rented a Dacha One Summer; You Won’t Believe What Happened Next,” which I love, but I hadn’t thought of one drawback of the deliberately anachronistic, make-an-old-poem-sound-like-right-now approach. James McGavran gives a more straightforward translation—“An Extraordinary Adventure that Befell Vladimir Maiakovskii in the Summer at a Dacha (Pushkino, Akulova hill, Rumiantsev’s dacha, 27 versts by the Yaroslavl railroad)”—and points this out: that title “clearly harks back to the long, high-style titles typically given to odes and other occasional verse in the eighteenth century,” which makes sense, since “as an aspiring servant of the Soviet state, Maiakovskii sought a role not unlike that of a court poet” (392–93). See James H. McGavran III, “Comic Confrontations with Tradition: Three Poems by Maiakovskii,” Slavic and East European Journal 63.3 (2019): 388–407 (no link, but see this post).

That 1920 poem, by the way, has been translated into English at least seven times, by Babette Deutsch and Avram Yarmolinsky (1942, republished 1945), George Reavey (1960), Dorian Rottenberg (1985), Peter France (2000), McGavran (2013), Womack (2016), and Jenny Wade (2018). I know this because I had the chance to write a review of Wade’s Mayakovsky Maximum Access (2018), which has facing-page translations of 24 poems with commentary. The review won’t be on JSTOR for a few years, but if you have a subscription to Slavic and East European Journal, you can read it now—details on the twentieth-century translation comparison page.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 8, 2020 1:58 pm

    I definitely prefer the older-fashioned translation – it has a charm missing in a modernised rendering for a start…

    • June 9, 2020 12:54 pm

      I know what you mean, but I think it’s an impossible problem in some ways—when an artist’s whole persona was built on being rebellious and innovative, you almost can’t escape turning them into the “classic” they would have hated when you’re translating them a hundred years later. In this case, if you can give the title a sarcastic old-fashionedness, it’s easier to reconcile the two things, but I admire Womack for trying as hard as possible to avoid letting Maiakovskii seem dry and old.

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