Issue 28: Henry King interviews Alistair Noon

Ripples and Undertow: Henry King interviews Alistair Noon on two new books of Mandelstam translation

To coincide with the publication of Alistair Noon’s latest translations of Osip Mandelstam, The Voronezh Workbooks and Occasional and Joke Poems (both from Shearsman Books), the following interview was conducted by email in June 2022. 

Henry King (HK): Perhaps we could start by placing these two new volumes in the context of your previous work on Mandelstam. Shearsman published Concert at a Railway Station in 2018, which included selections from all stages of Mandelstam’s career, including his exile in Voronezh. Now you’ve brought out a complete edition of the Voronezh-era poems. Were you conscious of a particular reason for choosing that sequence (or rather, sequences) to tackle in full?

Alistair Noon (AN): Let’s put it this way. I had at that stage not yet encountered an English translation of Mandelstam’s Voronezh poems in full that had made me feel that all further translations thereof would be futile. Every translator has their own reaction to and understanding of what they’re translating. That’s both inevitable and desirable. I don’t think I will have been the first translator of anything to read previous translations and think ‘I can’t leave that looking like that’. No doubt someone will think the same when they see mine.

As regards the Voronezh poems themselves, my interest in them was in part rekindled by a perceptive comment by Alexander Cigale in Asymptote, where he states that in his Voronezh poems, Mandelstam ‘resolved the tension of the middle period into a much greater lucidity’. This encouraged me to go back to them, as it places them somewhere on the spectrum of obscurity and clarity that I like (I’m using both those last terms very much neutrally - in his Jacket review of WS Graham’s New Collected Poems, Peter Riley once usefully pointed out that obscurity is by no means always a bad thing).

Another point I should fess up to: when I first started translating Mandelstam seriously in 2008, my Russian was rusty to say the least. Arguably, there wasn’t much iron to rust in the first place. But by the end of the process of translating the poems in Concert at a Railway Station I had got some reasonable competence back, such that the Voronezh poems were much easier to apprehend and absorb directly when I had another go at them. Which is not to say there wasn’t still some slog in them; you’re never going to be able to read a late Mandelstam poem off the bat in the way you can do with Akhmatova or Pushkin say.

And of course, they are really amazing poems, giving a complex response to an important and tragic moment in world history: the first shift to totalitarianism in a formally socialist state.

HK: You refer to them here as ‘the Voronezh poems’, but one thing readers familiar with Mandelstam will notice is that you’ve entitled this volume The Voronezh Workbooks, instead of the usual rendering as Voronezh Notebooks. Can you give us the quick-and-dirty account of what motivated that? Is that window-dressing, or is it significant for how we understand the work?

AN: It certainly is significant. I spend about 2,000 words in the Afterword explaining why. In a nutshell: in his Voronezh exile, Mandelstam wasn’t taking notes. He was working things through.

What do I mean by that? At least some of the time, he was exploring whether he might be able to come to terms with Soviet society. Notwithstanding having to check back in with the authorities at regular intervals, he was largely left to his own devices in Voronezh - he wasn’t subject to any formal ‘re-education’. Nevertheless, with the Damocles sword of further persecution or worse hanging over him, he was to some extent acquiescing in his own (self) re-education.

The weak version of this view has been around in Russian discourse on Mandelstam since at least the mid-nineties, though it’s solidly based on the late poems themselves and some of Mandelstam’s letters, and is in fact implicit in much of Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs. A stronger version is taking shape at the moment, pushed principally by Gleb Morev. This sees Nadezhda’s editing of her husband’s work as really seeking to downplay this aspect.

It’s important not to overdo the Nadezhda-bashing here: no Nadezhda, no Osip (she saved his work). But Morev is rightly taking a long hard look at just what she preserved and what she didn’t. He recently proposed reinstating a section of ‘Verses on the Unknown Soldier’ that would really take the poem back in a Stalin-accommodating direction and more closely pair it with the ‘Ode to Stalin’. My book is in a sense already a little out of date, though perhaps it’s best for the dust to settle on these issues in Russian before we all go revising our translations.

HK: That’s fascinating, and certainly complicates the hagiographic picture most Anglophone readers have of Mandelstam. It also nuances the wider debate about the relationship between culture and government in Russia, which has been in the news this year - and here, the elephant lumbers into the room.

The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine led to a spate of ‘cancellations’ of Russian culture, including its literature, both within and beyond Ukraine. Obviously it’s absurd to stop reading Dostoevsky because of Putin’s war, but what - if anything - do you think Anglophone readers might take from a thorough reading of Mandelstam in this new context?

AN: If nothing else, then a reminder that we somehow need to combine taking clear political positions with a recognition of what constraints other people may be under in their articulated counter-positions. And in case anyone thinks I’m surreptitiously relativising or both-sidesing Russian war guilt, let me put that the other way round as well, which is equally true, in fact truer: we need to recognise what constraints other people may be under while still taking clear political positions.

There are people in the contemporary Russian arts scene who have positioned themselves behind the war (one Mandelstam scholar’s done this in fact, going on telly to say so no less). There’s no need to cut them any slack. But as the war drags on (which is likely) and Russia goes further into neo-quasi or not-so-quasi-totalitarianism, it will get harder to differentiate between quite what is heartfelt endorsement, opportunism, or simply saving your neck. In practical terms, all you can do I think is look at the individual case.

I’ve asked myself, of course, the question ‘What would Mandelstam have to say about all this?’ Given his politics and philosophy, I think you can be very sure he would be anti-invasion and anti-Putin. Quite whether he’d be pro-Ukrainian-sovereignty as such is harder to say. There’s nothing I’m aware of in his poems, prose or letters that would really point either way.

That in itself might suggest he shared the default assumption of the 19th/20th-century Russian intelligentsia that once in the Russian empire means always in the Russian empire (notwithstanding, say, Pushkin’s admiration for Caucasian independence movements, though this was also a projective space for political freedoms he wanted for the Russian metropolis, and needs to be set against his support for Russian domination of Poland). Even Mandelstam’s Jewish heritage and concomitant outsider status doesn’t really indicate anything as regards his likely position; look at Brodsky and his now infamous poem ‘On the Independence of the Ukraine’.

HK: Those are good points. Sadly, if the first casualty of war is truth, the second is usually nuance. Perhaps we can stick with Ukraine a little longer, but dig into your working methods a bit. In a footnote to the introduction of the Occasional and Joke Poems, you state that ‘unsophisticated reviewers continue to figure micro-level divergence of translations from originals as wilfulness or sloppiness in order to evade the much more demanding task of assessing a translation on the macro-level’.

How do you approach the process of translating Mandelstam - from the micro-level up, or the macro-level down? Perhaps we could take a specific example. One of the last poems in The Voronezh Workbooks begins:

Oh somebody’s wife is off after her hubby

in Kiev, down Gogol’s demonic streets,

and not one tiny tear wells up

to trickle her waxy cheeks.

The Russian, with a very crude translation, is:

Как по улицам Киева-Вия

Ищет мужа не знаю чья жинка,

И на щеки ее восковые

Ни одна не скатилась слезинка.

Oh on the streets of Kyiv-Viya

Seeking her husband, I don’t know whose wife

And on her waxy cheeks

Not one tear rolled down.

Can you give a little insight into the general principles and specific choices that led to this version?

AN: Gulp. I’d better put my theory where my footnote is. For me, translation is an oscillation between the micro-level and the macro-level, each informing and changing the other as you work through the drafts.

In that particular poem you quote, I was faced with the typical translator’s dilemma of what to do with a very specific cultural reference, in this case Gogol’s short story ‘The Viy’ (Wikipedia has an English page on it if you’re interested). In contrast to tales like ‘The Nose’ or ‘The Overcoat’, I’m not sure even most professional Western Slavists would be able to immediately place the reference. But many Russians would, I think.

So what we have here is an immediacy gap: the source text’s target audience (Russians) will likely get it straight away. The audience of a ‘direct’ translation (you, dear reader) almost certainly wouldn’t. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this; footnotes can and often do deal with the issue, and we don’t want to go erasing all cultural specificity in the name of ease of reading.

But do this often enough (I mean retaining cultural specificity at all times and at all costs) and you risk suggesting to the reader that the source text was a hard read, or even full of arcane references, when it wasn’t. As so often in translation, compromises aren’t necessary evils, they are the very stuff of which translation is made - balancing the competing demands of the text’s various aspects.

So what I did here was to replace the name of the story (which few readers of the translation will have heard of) with the name of its author (who quite a few will have) and hopefully got the nature of the story over to some extent with the adjective ‘demonic’.

HK: That Wikipedia page, incidentally, has a terrifying illustration of ‘The Viy’! One thing that’s characteristic of your Mandelstam translations, and comes through in that stanza, is your use of a mixed but essentially amphibrachic rhythm. Most of his translators who aim for metrical verse opt for the more traditional (in English) iambic rhythm. What determines your approach to rhythm?

AN: In a word: the poem.

Verse analysable as iambic was and still is pretty common in Russian poetry, possibly even dominant, if not as much as in canonical English poetry from Chaucer to the First World War. But Russian poets both pre- and post-Modernism do seem to have been more rhythmically adventurous, within the framework of relatively regular verse. At this point someone usually pops up and says that’s because Russian’s syntactic flexibility and grammatical inflections (with lots of unstressed syllables) allows them to do this. Maybe. Or maybe they were just better at it.

When I sit down to translate a Mandelstam poem (or any poem) I try to work out what role the rhythm is playing. Contrary to what we get taught, rhythm isn’t (to my mind) necessarily and always intrinsic to a poem. Sometimes it’s ornamental, or just what everyone else is doing at the time. Sometimes of course it’s totally intrinsic - I realised this in one of my first translations from Russian, Mayakovsky’s ‘Our March’ - any translation which didn’t at least echo its marching rhythm would be a failure.

So I have that in mind when I get my first draft going. I may be prioritising an approximation or even replication of the original’s rhythm. Or not, depending on what else is going on and what I think at that point is worth prioritising. A further complication is that the transition from Russian to English often requires some kind of reduction in syllable counts, unless you want to resort to lexical padding, which is asking for trouble (this is parallel of course to the tactic English translators have sometimes taken with Latin or Greek hexameters, turning them into English pentameters).

HK: Did the process of translation vary much between the Workbooks and the Occasional and Joke Poems? Some of the latter are broadly adapted, like the joke about a Catholic petitioning for a divorce, which replaces an offer to build an aquarium with one for barbering services. Did you make choices like that on a case-by-case basis, or did you decide to approach the genres any differently?

AN: Specifically the Joke Poems are like the Mayakovsky poem I mentioned, where the marching rhythm is a must-have; no joke, no translation. I won’t claim it’s worked in every case but I’ve had a go, and I think I am more or less the first translator into English to have done so, at least in this scope. In the poem you mention, the joke revolves around a pun, which almost inevitably will never transfer directly from one language to another, so that necessitated changing the entire scenario of the poem.

The key difference between the two books translation-wise is really in how I’ve presented the poems in terms of hopefully helpful information. In the Workbooks, it’s tucked away at the back in endnotes and usually not that extensive; I don’t want to pre-empt interpretation too much. In the Occasional and Joke Poems it’s on the spot, in footnotes, and sometimes very extensive; the poems require quite a lot of context in most cases to make sense to us now.

But I think it’s worth it, as there’s no absolute dividing line between this part of Mandelstam’s work and the rest. Nadezhda Mandelstam specifically refers to the famous poem ‘What street are we on? / Mandelstam Street…’, early in the Workbooks, as an occasional or joke poem that made it into a ‘proper’ collection, and other such examples exist too. I hope the Occasional and Joke Poems throw a new, perhaps unexpected light on Mandelstam’s work as a whole.

HK: That’s something I realised while reading the Occasional and Joke Poems: that the poems were like the glittering ripples above the cold undertow of terror described in the footnotes. Reading it actually reminded me of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, with the interplay between the verse and footnotes - but that’s another matter. Finally, then, do you have any more plans for Mandelstam? A complete Tristia, perhaps? Or will you be taking a break and doing other things?

AN: Thanks for the questions and for that comparison, which neatly expresses the frequent dissonance between the humour and lightness of the Occasional and Joke Poems themselves and the subsequent biographies of their subjects and/or addressees, who very often, like Mandelstam himself, died in the Gulag.

I can neither confirm nor deny any further plans for translating Mandelstam at the current time. Oh all right, sod it, yes I am translating more Mandelstam, but it will be a good while before that sees the light of day. As regards my own stuff, Two Verse Essays has just come out from Longbarrow Press and needs some plugging; Paradise Takeaway, an epic containing Luton Airport, is forthcoming from Two Rivers Press in 2023, so that may need some work; and I have other things on the go as well. But there’s always Mandelstam. 


Alistair Noon’s translations of Osip Mandelstam have appeared in three volumes from Shearsman Books: The Voronezh Workbooks, Occasional and Joke Poems (both 2022), and Concert at a Railway Station: Selected Poems (2018). His own poems have appeared in two collections from Nine Arches Press (Earth Records, 2012, and The Kerosene Singing, 2015) and a dozen chapbooks, most recently Two Verse Essays from Longbarrow Press. He lives in Berlin.

Henry King has published poetry and translations, including of Osip Mandelstam, in PN Review, Stand, and Modern Poetry in Translation. He is currently managing editor of American Studies in Scandinavia, and lives between England and Sweden.

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