Reinventing a Good Thing
Anderson Fails to Improve on Older Translations of Akhmatova
The Word That Causes Death's Defeat: Akhmatova's Poems of Memory
By Nancy K. Anderson
Yale University Press
The most enduring monument to the victims of Stalinist Russia may be the poetry of Anna Akhmatova. One of twentieth-century Russia's greatest poets, Akhmatova endured the execution of her husband, the banning of her work, and the arrest and death of countless friends and lovers. Though Akhmatova was frequently confronted with official government opposition to her work during her lifetime, she never wavered in her dedication to her country and its people. Rather than leave, she chose to chronicle her personal experience in eloquent verse, and, for that, she was celebrated in her own time and revered after her death.
Anna Akhmatova was born Anna Gorenko into an upper-class family in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1889, but soon moved to St. Petersburg, where she would spend most of her life. Already dedicated to poetry at seventeen, she took her grandmother's surname in response to her father's fear that a "decadent poetess" would shame the family name. At the age of twenty-one, she married another poet, Nikolai Gumilyov. In 1912, she published her first book of poems and gave birth to her only child, Lev Gumilyov. Lev's subsequent arrests were a source of agony for Akhmatova, who dedicated much of her life and her poetry to freeing him from prison.
When her husband was executed in 1921 for antirevolutionary activities, Akhmatova was also silenced. Her work was banned from 1925 to 1952. She was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers in 1946. Excluded from public life, Akhmatova lived on a meager pension and earned extra income by translating works of other writers, like Victor Hugo and Giacomo Leopardi. Although her country seemed to have abandoned her, Akhmatova refused to abandon her country. She remained in Russia from 1912 until 1964, when she traveled to Sicily to accept the Etna-Taormina prize, and the next year to receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. It was her dedication to Russia and the plight of its people that so endeared her to her countrymen.
Can one translate poetry rooted in such an intensely Russian experience for an American audience? Nancy Anderson takes up this challenge in her new book, The Word that Causes Death's Defeat: Poems of Memory. Rather than merely transcribing Akhmatova's words into English, Anderson has made a valiant attempt at making them accessible to an American audience by including critical essays, commentary, and an exhaustive historically-contextualized biography. Anderson chose three of Akhmatova's later works: Requiem, Poem Without a Hero, and The Way of All the Earth, all from 1940. The first two are Akhmatova's most accomplished works and appropriate choices for a limited collection. The Way of All the Earth, while a beautiful piece on temporality, does not carry the same weight. Requiem, which was not published in its entirety in Russia until 1987, and Poem Without a Hero are both reactions to the horror of the Stalinist Terror, when Akhmatova endured artistic repression as well as tremendous personal loss. Requiem consists of ten short, numbered poems framed by a dedication, prologue, and epilogue. Originally inspired by the arrest of her second husband Nikolai Punin in 1935, the poems primarily deal with Akhmatova's agony following the arrest of her son Lev Gumilyov in 1938. The first poem begins:
Arrest at dawn. Like a funeral rite,What began as a personal grief was soon expanded to express the shared sorrow of the Russian people. As Anderson aptly puts it, Akhmatova bears witness to the despair of every mother, wife, or friend. For example in "Instead of a Foreword," Akhmatova chronicles an exchange with another woman waiting for a prisoner's release:
'Can you describe this?'Akhmatova's dedication to communicating the plight of her people is what Anderson seeks to convey. But Anderson's focus on the historical and biographical context fails to give the reader an adequate understanding of the intrinsic beauty of the poetry. Though Akhmatova's style was rooted in the tangible reality of Russian fiction, it was the musicality of her verse which set her apart from her contemporaries. Akhmatova was a master of alliteration, assonance and rhyme. In her preface, Anderson argues that none of the previous English translations have done justice to the musicality of the original due to their eradication of Akhmatova's end-rhymes in order to remain faithful to her meter. Anderson claims to have chosen to use a meter "compatible with, rather than the same as, Akhmatova's" but a comparison of her translation to the original suggests that such compatibility may be overstated. Take, for example, the first four lines of Part 1 of Poem Without a Hero in transliterated Russian:
Ya zazhgla zavetnye svechi,Anderson's version reads:
"I've set the cherished candles alightWhile her critique of former translations may be valid, in preserving the end-rhymes, Anderson has unfortunately abated much of the lyrical subtlety that made Akhmatova's verse so lovely in the first place. For comparison, an earlier translator D. M. Thomas's version reads:
I have lit my sacred candles,
Although Anderson is quite right that rhyme is central to the original, the Russian language relies on inflection, and thus has multiple rhyming suffixes, so that the original Russian allows for more natural rhymes than English can reasonably permit. It is for this reason that Thomas's translation, which has the exact same meter as the Russian, but compromises some of the assonance, seems more true to Akhmatova's musicality than Anderson's.
But Anderson's book does offer something that Thomas's does not, and that is the extensive and enlightening historical biography. Though the 131 pages of historical background may be off-putting to some, Anderson deftly integrates the history of Russia with the personal history it is meant to elucidate. The history of Russian writers has always been impossible to disentangle from the history of Russia itself and this is particularly true of Anna Akhmatova. Both Requiem and Poem Without a Hero recount real people, places, and events from Akhmatova's life. Thus, the background information Anderson gives focuses on her personal history. Anderson gives us a sense of Akhmatova as an artist immersed in the decadence of Petersburg, reading at the Stray Dog café (a favorite of contemporary poets) when not too embroiled in her multiple affairs with poets and intellectuals (including Modigliani, whom she modeled for during an extended stay in Paris in 1911).
Anderson is best when unearthing wonderful moments from the personal memoirs that add insight into both the poetry and the poet herself. But she has an unfortunate tendency to comment on Akhmatova's plight as a woman. For example, describing Akhmatova's decision to give up the primary care of her infant son, Anderson writes, "Akhmatova, only twenty-three years old and still discovering her literary abilities, was simply not ready psychologically for the burden of full-time motherhood." Instead of leaving it at that, she adds, "It is a measure of how different our expectations are for a man and a woman that while Akhmatova's willingness to be separated from her son surprises us, Gumilyov's [her husband's] equal willingness does not, nor do we assume that he did not care deeply about his child." While Akhmatova's story is itself a powerful feminist statement, Anderson's banal annotations detract from the overall message.
While Anderson's focus on Akhmatova's influences is not unwarranted, her criticism is mired in historical and biographical detail in a manner that does Akhmatova's work a disservice. Anderson has already proven that Akhmatova bears the burden of witness; her book would have benefited from an inclusion of serious close-reading criticism. While the excerpts from Akhmatova's notebooks, both in the appendix and peppered throughout the background, are exciting to read, the critical essays lack intellectual depth. Anderson's placement of the critical essays and commentary in separate sections is also perplexing, since the only commentary is a sort of explication of Poem Without a Hero and the "criticism" reads more like commentary.
Anderson admits in her preface that "some books are the realization of a preconcieved plan" but that this book is not one of them. Rather, it is "a vast elaboration of an initially simple concept," namely, creating a new translation of Poem Without a Hero. Unfortunately, this book could have stood a little more planning. Few would dispute that Akhmatova's life was tragic, or that she deserves a place in Russia's history. What remains uncertain is her place in literary history outside Russia; it is in shaping opinion on this where Anderson has the greatest opportunity and where she fumbles most egregiously. Anderson's translations do little to add to our appreciation of this immensely talented poet. Had Anderson written a comprehensive biography of Akhmatova, or perhaps edited a compilation of essays on her poetry, we would have been better served. As it stands, this collection is too diffuse to be of much use to anyone except those who are already familiar with Akhmatova, which is precisely not the audience for whom it was intended.
Art by Jim Fingal