On 1 September 2015, Subhash Jaireth led a workshop attended by nine poets interested in the art of translation. He introduced the poem ‘Three Autumns’ by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, providing biographical, historical and cultural contexts within which the poem was written. The participants were provided with three resources: the original poem in Russian; a line-by-line English paraphrase; and an audio recording of the Russian poem. Subsequently, four of the participants wrote translations of their own. The group reconvened on 24 May 2017, to discuss the translations and the process of writing them. The translations are published here together with the reflective comments of their authors: Subhash Jaireth, Mary Besemeres, Paul Magee, Sandra Renew and Melinda Smith.
Literary translation is an event of co-being of two languages and experiences. Its first aim, according to Perry Link, is to grasp the original well and then turn to the needs of the readers of the second language. No translation is perfect. Translators have to make value judgements in deciding what to leave out and what to keep. Their main aim is to create a comparable literary experience.
If all literary translations struggle to overcome the untranslatable element in the original, in translation of poetry that task becomes even harder. Robert Tracy, the translator of Osip Mandelshtam’s collection Kamen’ (Stone), in his introduction cites nine rules for poetry translators that Nikolai Gumilyov found critical. Gymilyov, the first husband of Anna Akhmatova, was a fine poet and an equally versatile translator. According to Gumilyov, a translator of poetry should endeavour to retain the following nine elements of an original poem: number of lines; the meter and the number of feet; the alternation of the rhymes; the nature of enjambment; the nature of the rhymes; the character of the vocabulary; the types of comparison or simile; the changes in tone; and any other special mannerism. Gumilyov called these rules commandments and joked that because they are nine and not ten, they can be more easily followed than Moses’s Ten Commandments.
Gumilyov is adamant that the translator of a poet should be a poet herself. For Gumilyov the integrity of the original is paramount and in his opinion ‘ideally a translated poem should not appear signed by a translator’. He or she should remain invisible.
Gumilyov’s approach to translation of poetry appears extreme and very hard, if not impossible, to follow. His commandments also assume that the poet-translator should also know the language of the original poem quite well. The fact that poets writing in more than one language are rare, it is hard to imagine if ‘good’ translations which measure up to Gumilyov’s strict rules can ever be produced.
Although a good knowledge of the language of the original is critical it, doesn’t mean that the poet-translator needs to have that knowledge. The presence of an intermediary with a ‘working’ knowledge of both languages can provide a helping hand to walk over the bridge between two languages and cultures. Translation in this model becomes an iterative process realised through a prolonged dialogue between three participants: the original poem; the intermediary interlocutor; and the translator. The purpose of the iterative process is to achieve in the translated poem a balance between three intricately interrelated elements of the original poem: meaning, mood and the sound-world.
The translation workshop curated by IPSI last year had the above-mentioned objective in mind. It hoped to produce more than one translation of a single Russian poem by different poets writing in English but with no or very cursory knowledge of Russian language and poetry. The translations were produced in two separate workshops. The first workshop was held in September 2015. During this preparatory workshop basic information about the poet and the poem was passed on to the poets. The information given to each poet included: Russian text of the poem; Russian text transcribed in English (so that the poets could read the poem in Russian); word-by-word and line-by-line English paraphrase of the Russian poem; and an audio-recording of the poem in Russian. I played the role of an intermediary. The first workshop also discussed historical, biographical and literary (poetical) contexts in which the poem was conceived and written. The poets worked on the poem individually but exchanged information about the poem through the intermediary. The second workshop took place in May 2016. At this workshop poets/translators read their translations and described the process of working on the poem. The workshop also read and discussed translations by D. M. Thomas, David Campbell, Rosemary Dobson and Natalie Staples.
It was made clear to the participants that they were free to follow their poetic instinct and expertise and produce translation that were happy with. They were free to improvise or stick to strict form and content of the original poem. The second workshop was held in May 2016 to discuss different translations.
Anna Akhmatova’s Poem ‘Tre Oseni’ (‘Three Autumns’)
The poem ‘Tri Oseni’ was written in 1943 when Akhmatova was living in Tashkent. Leningrad, her home city, was under the siege of German Army and she had opted to be evacuated to the capital city of Uzbekistan. She left Leningrad in May 1941 and stayed in Tashkent for around three years.
The decision to leave Leningrad wasn’t easy for her. She had escaped the war and the siege but she couldn’t stop thinking about her city. ‘I was desperate’, she writes in her fragmented autobiography, ‘to know what was happening in Leningrad and at the war front. In Tashkent, like other poets in evacuation, I went to hospitals and did readings for the wounded soldiers. In Tashkent for the first time in my life I experienced the effect of extreme heat. The cool shade of the trees brought respite and I heard the sounds of flowing water. In Tashkent I also came to know how kind human beings can be to each other. But I was brought down by terrible illness and remained ill most of the time.’
Akhmatova was 54 in 1943. Her first husband Gumilyov had been executed by the NKVD (precursor of KGB) in 1921 (he was 35 then). Her son Lev Gumilyov was arrested in 1938 and exiled to Soviet Labour Camps. One of her closest friends, the poet Osip Mandelshtam, had also perished in the Gulag in 1938. Like many Russians she too lived under the shadow of fear and death.
Therefore it is fair to conclude that the mood in which the poem was written was sombre and melancholic. She was ill most of the time and worried about her Leningrad ravaged by war and under siege of the German Army. Although, like most Russians, she sincerely hoped that Hitler’s army would be defeated, the future still remained uncertain, even precarious.
The autumn she paints in the poem is a palimpsest of her feelings of despair and foreboding. Living in Tashkent she could have missed the melancholic beauty of autumn in and around Leningrad so different from that she had experienced in dry and dusty Tashkent. Perhaps this is why I can hear in the poem whispers of nostalgia.
Compositionally the poem is made of six stanzas (four of four lines and the rest of five lines). The sound world of the poem is created by rhythm and rhyme (ABAB and ABAAB). The stanzas are predominantly iambic with alternating pentameter and trimeter lines. Iambic pentameter is most commonly used in Russian lyrical poetry. The poem also plays with tempo: the six-line stanzas slow it down. This reaches its desired effect in the final six-line stanza in which the metaphoric equivalence between the third autumn and death is established.
Publication and translation history of the poem
A version of the poem appeared in Leningrad in 1946. The final version was published in 1976 in the book Stikhotvoreniya I Poemy (Verses and Poems) in the series Biblioteka Poetov (Library of Poets).
Several English translations of the poem have been published. These include translations by Richard McKane (1967) and D. M. Thomas (1976). In the mid 1970s Rosemary Dobson and David Campbell began a project of translating Russian poetry. The project was facilitated by several intermediaries/translators such as Robert Dessaix, Olga Hassanoff and Natalie Staples. Their translations and/or improvisations were published in two collections: Moscow Trefoil (1975) and Seven Russian Poets (1979). The two books also include three English translations of Tri Oseni.
My translation of Tri Oseni
Although my main role in the workshop was that of an intermediary, I was able to produce my own translation. My knowledge of Russian language and literature which could have been an advantage also became the source of added pressure. I felt that I had to produce a translation that was as far as possible close to the original poem in mood, meaning and the sound world.
Therefore, I kept true to the compositional structure of the poem, maintaining four- and six-line stanzas. Although I tried to use end rhyme in a few lines my main guiding principle was to capture the rhythm of the Russian poem. This was achieved by adhering to the general iambic pentameter structure of the poem. At places I had to add a word or two to adhere to the principle. My consolation was that Akhmatova too has used a similar technique in her poem. The line break at the end of the third stanza illustrates my approach. The words ‘and so’ were add to achieve sonic rhyme with ‘toe’ (the second line of the stanza) but the line after ‘and so’ flows without break into the first line of the fourth stanza. This is different from Akhamtova’s ‘Tri Oseni’ where line breaks at the end of each stanza are clear marked by a firm full stop. The only exception is the last line of second-last stanza where instead of a full-stop she uses three dots indicating absence of a clean line break.
I worked on the translation in two separate phases. During the first phase, lasting more than four hours, I produced my first draft. I returned to the poem again after a couple of months and spent another six hours in two different sittings. During this phase much of the first draft was discarded. My work involved reading the poem (Russian as well as my translation) aloud. This helped me to remain attuned to the sound world of the original poem. After finishing my translation I read the two poems (original and translation) aloud and clocked the time taken to read each of the two. The Russian poem spans close to two minutes (1 minute and 52 seconds) whereas my translation is a little shorter (1 minute and 45 seconds). This shows that my translation needs more work to come closer to the sound-world of the original poem.
I simply don’t notice the smiles of summer
And of the winter I fail to unpick the secrets
But I have spotted almost without error
Three autumns each and every year.
And the first is a holiday mayhem
To spite the summer of yesterday
The leaves fly like tattered notebooks
The smoke smells incense-sweet
And all is moist motely and gay.
Birches are the first to join the dance
Attired from head to toe
Hurriedly shaking off their passing tears,
On the neighbour over the fence, and so
It happens that the story has merely commenced
One second, a minute, and well, what more to say
Except that the second autumn has come, silent
Like conscience; dark and gloomy like an air raid.
Suddenly all is paler and older
Raided is summer’s comfort
The golden trumpets of distant marches
Float in through the mist, fragrant and cold.
The high vault of the heavens is
Shrouded by the cold waves of incense
But suddenly the wind burst, the skies open
And it’s clear: the drama is ending, and
This isn’t the third autumn, but death.
Sandra Renew: My approach to translation in poetry
The mood of poem is critical. I try to gauge the poet’s intent by listening to a reading in the original language. This helps when choosing specific words from a range of options that might make sense in terms of meaning. One word may be chosen over another to reflect the mood better.
Depth of meaning is nuanced and taken further from literal translation. This can be derived better if there is a knowledge of the context (political, social, historical) in which the poet was working.
The sound or tonality of the poem is important when reading the poem aloud, and this can also be reflected and refined for the oral voice of the translator.
My version of ‘Three Autumns’ falls somewhere between translation and improvisation.
I tried to keep to the English language interpretation of the original Russian words used as much as possible; and, at the same time, I made an assumption of the experience of the poet and located the context of the piece in her fleeing from Leningrad to Tashkent as a refugee. In that sense I injected a contemporary context of the translator into the interpretation. This makes references such as ‘disarray’ of what was, ‘across the fence’ relating to border crossing and to the air raid and distant war very significant to the piece.
Because I read in a variant of Australian English (as opposed to variants of English English) I looked for a line rhythm and pace that suits this while also reflecting the poet’s mood for the poem.
I wanted to incorporate and retain a sense of the foreign in the language and phrasing because the original is Russian and foreign to the translator and probably to local readers of the translation.
I wanted to maintain one of the strength’s of the original poem, the very comprehensive sensory nature of the images, and use the universality of sensory recognition, notwithstanding in which continent the reader is located.
I can’t really understand the smiles of summer,
And the secrets of winter I can’t apprehend,
But I have almost without exception observed
Three autumns in each year.
The first — the disarray of festive days
Disrupts the summer of yesterday.
Leaves fly, like scraps of notebooks,
And the smell of smoke is incense sweet.
Everything is moist, a bright confusion.
The first to step in to dance are the birches,
Donning threadbare dresses,
And suddenly shaking off their showers of tears
On to their neighbours across the fence.
But this happens too — the story has just begun.
A second, a minute — and here
Arrives the second autumn, compassionate like conscience
Dark like an air raid swoop.
Everything seems to turn suddenly paler and older
The peace of the summer is stolen
Sounds of the trumpets from far‐off marches
Drift in through the fragrant smoke …
Cold waves of incense
Cover the high vault of the sky,
The wind blows and the clouds thin — in an instant
It is clear to us: the drama is coming to an end,
And this isn’t the third autumn, but death.
Mary Besemeres: Translating Akhmatova’s ‘Tri oseni’ — ‘Three Autumns’
I came at this task after reading the translations by other participants in the 2015 Poetry on the Move workshop—the convenor Subhash Jaireth, Melinda Smith, Paul Magee, Sandra Renew—as well as those by Rosemary Dobson, David Campbell and D.M. Thomas and Natalie Staples, who provided Dobson and Campbell with the initial English gloss they worked from. I drafted my own translation a couple of months after reading the others. Only after I’d completed it did I check it against the others, and found that I had in fact unwittingly borrowed several lines wholesale. ‘The smiles of summer are lost on me’ is Melinda Smith’s opening line. My use of it endorses hers. ‘But I have observed almost without fail/Three autumns in every year’ comes from Natalie Staples’s version—I like the ‘without fail’ as it sounds stronger than ‘mistake’ in English, and ‘every year’ sounds better, metrically, than ‘each’. Given my prior reading (and discussion at the May 2016 workshop) of the other translations, my ‘Three Autumns’ is not an independent effort, then, but rather a response to them as much as to the poem.
I find in translating poetry that I am more concerned with getting the image across than with trying to keep the precise words—for example, I shifted from summer’s ‘cosiness’ (‘uyut’) being ‘looted’ (‘razgrablen’) to summer’s ‘comfort’ being ‘cast out’ as that seems to convey something very similar more idiomatically. I followed different strategies in different instances, for example, choosing ‘threadbare’ rather than ‘transparent’ for the birch’s ‘clothes’ because of the alliteration with ‘throwing on’. I then considered ‘short-lived tears’ for ‘mimoletnie slezi’ to alliterate with ‘shaking off’ (shaking off short-lived tears) but decided against it—tears can’t really be short-lived. ‘Momentary’ in fact reminds me of the sound of ‘mimoletnie’.
I think the English ‘aloof as conscience’ works better for the Russian ‘bezstrastna, kak sovest’ than the more literal ‘impassive’ or ‘dispassionate’ do. ‘Aloof’ borders on hostile, and the original bezstrastna is chilling, especially coming before ‘vozdushnyi nalet’ (air raid)—in Russian, to be without passion is typically not a good thing, whereas ‘dispassionate’ is positive in English, ‘impassive’ at least neutral. This line highlights for me the cultural aspect of translation which I find most compelling. The movement between Akhmatova’s Tri oseni—with its feelings expressible in Russian words, its anguished historical moment, Akhmatova’s wartime exile from Leningrad—and an English ‘Three Autumns’ is difficult, confounding, but illuminating nonetheless.
The smiles of summer are lost on me,
I find no secrets in winter
But I have observed almost without fail
Three autumns in every year.
The first – a holiday madness
Thumbing its nose at summer
Leaves fly, like pages from notebooks
the smell of smoke is incense-sweet
and everything’s moist, dappled, bright
First to dance are the birches
Throwing on threadbare garments
Shaking off momentary tears
Onto their neighbours over the fence
But this is just the beginning
A second passes, a minute, and then
Comes another, aloof as conscience
As ominous as an air raid
Everything now seems paler, and older,
the comfort of summer cast out
distant marches of golden trumpets
drift in on the fragrant mist
and the cold waves of its incense
cover the high vault of heaven;
but the wind rushes in, the sky gapes wide,
it’s suddenly clear the drama is ending:
this is no third autumn, this is death.
Paul Magee: From a language I don’t understand
Of the various ways of translating one of the most economical is the translation from a language you do not understand. In my case it was Hebrew, the Song of Songs, a short passage of which I wanted to put into English. You assemble four to five existing translations. I took the Jerusalem Bible, the King James, the Good News Bible, the Standard something and I forget which other. Read each’s version of a line or two. Let them play around in your head and then come up with your own. ‘A wine cup is your navel, your belly /a ripe yield of wheat, /set about with lilies—and look, two fawns / twins of a gazelle’ It’s a fast way of proceeding and can, in the right hands, lead to a supercharged result, a translation on the shoulders of biblical giants.
When it comes to a language I have studied or fallen into to the extent that I can read the script and parse the grammar, my way of proceeding is in fact similar, though via the dictionary. One ample enough to quote words in original language contexts and to give something of their history is preferable, e.g. Cassell’s Etymological dictionary of Latin. I find a bit of let’s say Martial—Non amo te, Sabidi, nec possum dicere quare: / Hoc tantum possum dicere, non amo te—and even before trying to understand, I look up all the nouns, adjectives and verbs, including, most crucially, the ones I already know. In this case, I know all of them, and I know in particular that amo means ‘I love’. Looking it up anyway illuminates that amo can also mean ‘I like’, a good way to do the dissatisfactory Sabidus into English: ‘I don’t like you, Sabidus, and I can’t say why / but what’s clear is this, I don’t like you.’
I think of this as the way of a studious ignorance. The point is not to grasp everything in the original as rather to multiply possible meanings. As in my biblical case, knowledge of that original language is only so important. Knowledge of the target language—and more than knowledge: ability to be emotionally and intellectually on fire in its terms—is the real thing. So I move through the line, constructing selection sets of possible translations for words, without yet thinking of the syntax I need to weave them into phrases and, above that level of coherence, sentences, or at least utterances. The idea at this stage is simply to write down four to five ways to convey any one word (e.g. ‘differing, variant, alternative, unusual, independent’), then to do the same for the next. I mentioned nouns, adjective and verbs above, but it is worth looking up adverbs, and even the most familiar conjunctions, because you never know, what looks like ‘and’, which is the Latin ‘et’, might also harbour a supplementary meaning ‘also’. Alternative meanings for conjunctions can help you out of some tight spaces.
Actually I do listen to the sounds of the original in a case like this, and it suggests a jauntiness I might get into my version. But I am conscious with most Latin that I don’t really know how to sound it out very well, and find the rhythms particularly hard to grasp. They are based on patterns of variation in the length of vowels. I am so used to hearing poetry woven through the variation of stressed and unstressed syllables (i.e. poetry in English), that I find it hard to perceive the other, even after years of trying. After all, you mainly hear Latin by saying it to yourself.
Putting together a line of such possible multiple meanings is a slow process, somewhat like the way an old letterpress compositor would assemble the individual letters of any sentence before setting them into a frame for printing. You pick them out by hand, you get faster but remain infinitely slow, and this is in vast contrast to the suddenness of the printing at the end. Well it’s not quite so dramatic working this way, but I do find that having done all that analysis I then only have to scan over what I’ve written down to find a line suggesting itself to me, often pretty close to the right one too. In many cases I’m just grabbing one of those multiple meanings and weaving it into another from the next selection set, instantly sloughing the dross of other meanings in the process.
From that point I ignore the original.
I am very proud of my Virgil’s which break the pentameter favoured by most English-language translators, opting for strict syllabics instead: ten to a line, beats vary. The plane has just reached the South, a crinkle of snow-caped mountains is in view. I had no idea this was where I was headed. The decasyllabic is loose enough for a prose-like reading-for-plot to develop, but the line still snaps back with the regularity of a return. Do the full Aeneid this way and everyone will get Virgil’s pace. But it’s built up (at least when I do it) word upon word. The plane swoops.
The Third Autumn
The smiles of Summer elude me,
secrets in Winter disappear
but I can catch, almost precisely
three Autumns for each year.
The first, all over the place
and it was Summer last night
it’s like a day off. Notebook scraps
of leaves blowing, smoke smells
incense-sweet and everything soaked
colours and dripped, day-bright.
The birches are leading a dance
in their transparent dresses and tremble
in their rush, sprinkling tears
on a neighbouring yard, they won’t last.
Their story has only started
seconds, a minute passes
and the second Autumn arrives
impassive as clear conscience
and gloomy as an aerial assault.
Things take on sudden pallor
feel older and the cosiness of summer
gets robbed. The distant marshes
on their golden trumpets float
through the fumes of the swirling fogs.
The high heavens too all in veils
of cold waves of incense float
then the howling begun winds rise
and the great sky swings open all
at once I knew the calamity
coming to an end it is not the third
Autumn this is death.
Melinda Smith: Two versions
I ended up making two quite different attempts at translating Akhmatova’s Three Autumns: a free verse version, and a rhyming, scanning version.
My methodology for the free verse version was to attempt to render the series of images and feelings in the mind of an English reader in a way corresponding as nearly as possible to the way they would flash into the mind of a Russian reader of the original. I gave myself permission to choose quite different words to achieve the desired effect if that was what seemed necessary to ‘strike the same notes’ in the English-speaking reader’s mind. I did also try, as far as possible, to keep the images in the same order, and in the same position in relation to stanza breaks, as in the original.
As I do not myself read Russian, I found myself needing to ask our convenor, Russian expert Subhash Jaireth, lots of questions to clarify the poem’s effect on the inner eye of a Russian reader. One example was with 'Na sosedku cherez zabor' at the end of stanza three (literally: 'onto the neighbour across the fence'): was the 'neighbour' a human neighbour, or another birch tree? (Probably another birch tree since both words are feminine in Russian). In the same stanza, in what way precisely were ‘the fleeting tears of the birches’ landing on the ‘neighbour’: like water droplets raining down, or like leaves blown by a gust of wind ? (More like the former, because of the word ‘tears’). Again: how do the two instances of smoke/fog/incense in the poem (in stanza two and stanza five) relate to each other linguistically and semantically ? (They are quite distinct, with different smells and significances).
Putting together these answers into a poem that flowed well for an English-speaking reader took around a dozen drafts. I’m still not entirely satisfied but have learned a lot from the process.
(I also referred to translations by Rosemary Dobson, David Campbell, Natalie Staples and Judith Hemschemeyer, and I think Dobson’s comes closest).
The rhyming, scanning version is much further from the original and is more properly described as an imitation, or even a departure. Once I had put in the hard work on version one, this came much more quickly—probably needing only two or three drafts. For this version my main challenge to myself was to keep the rhythm and rhyme scheme of the original. Of course in English in 2016 it is hard to rhyme and scan without sounding humorous or satirical—my solution was a slightly Bob-Dylan-esque apocalyptic folk song idiom. The original is, after all, imbued with the catastrophic atmosphere of its wartime context. It is also in a kind of ballad metre (four stress, three stress, four stress, three stress—with an occasional extra four stress line). Think of this as an unreleased Dylan bootleg track, ‘The Ballad of the Siege of Leningrad’.
Three Autumns (after Anna Akhmatova)
The smiles of summer are lost on me
and winter holds her secrets tight
but I hardly ever fail to notice
three autumns in each year.
The first sticks out its Halloween tongue
at the summer of the day before.
Leaves fly, like scribbled scraps of paper,
and smoke drifts sweet as funeral incense.
Everything is damp, and dappled, and bright.
The birches glide first into the dance,
having slipped into thin-worn revealing gowns.
They dash temporary tears from their cheeks,
wetting the shoes of their sisters.
But this happens too: the play has just begun,
a second, a minute, and here enters
autumn number two - cold as conscience,
black, looming like an air raid.
Everything going pale, going old,
the safe nest of summer looted.
There is distant marching. Gold trumpet notes
drift in through a fog you can smell.
It veils the sky’s high vault
with its cold billowing. Then, in an instant,
a gust blows the world wide open
to this revelation : the play is ending.
This is not the third autumn. It is death.
Melinda Smith 2015
Three Autumns (after Anna Akhmatova)
(rhyming, scanning version)
I don’t get summer’s idiot grin
and winter’s shoulder is cold
but most of the long years I’ve seen
have three autumns, all told.
The first one comes as a carnival:
summer I’m hotter than you;
throws leaves like money at a mall;
smokes like some sweet funeral;
colours the bright, wet view.
The birch trees start the dance in style -
they’ve got their glad rags on.
They cry, but just for a little while:
the tears fall once and are gone.
But just when everything is humming
take cover if you can:
that tall dark second autumn’s coming
and he’s cold like a righteous man.
He’ll turn your daughters pale and old,
steal the eggs from your summer nest.
His soldiers blow trumpets of gold
and they’re coming through the mist.
The sky is wearing someone’s shroud
and I can’t see a thing.
Then I understand it, clear and loud
as the wind rips it and death leaps out:
this is the end. Of everything.
Melinda Smith 2016
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