Hearing Mandelstam


Poets translate other poets to find, in their own language, another language. The most compelling poetic translations are those that feel the most compelled, the most driven to make that discovery.

For Russian readers, a powerful mythology attaches to Osip Mandelstam. Born in 1891 in Warsaw and raised in St. Petersburg, Mandelstam died in 1938 as a prisoner of the Soviet state. He was a complicated, contradictory figure: a visionary and a witness; an idiosyncratic, hermetic modernist and a spokesman for the common culture; the author of a violent caricature of Stalin and an ode in praise of the tyrant. Mandelstam seems to embody 20th-century Russian history and stand outside it.

Christian Wiman calls his translations of Mandelstam “versions.” This is an appropriately measured claim, since Wiman does not read Russian and knows Mandelstam only in translation. But there the modesty ends.  There is a wonderful, reckless pride in what he has done: by reading other translations of the poet, he has heard his own Mandelstam, demanding to be put in Wiman’s words. In the process Wiman—poet, essayist, and editor of Poetry magazine—has created a new voice for himself.

Perhaps what a poet-translator wants from a poem in another language is never in the words themselves but in the  energy,  motive, or  stance behind them. Necessarily decontextualized by their translation, Mandelstam’s poems convey not the facts of his historical situation but their imprint on his voice, as Wiman renders it, adjusted to his own imaginative and expressive needs. “I was drawn to Mandelstam’s work because of its urgency,” Wiman remarks, “but I was also drawn to it—I realized in retrospect—because of my own.”

Wiman is referring to his struggle with a serious illness. “The details aren’t important,” he adds, “except insofar as they left me with a lot of time to lie in bed and think.” His versions of Mandelstam’s poems are not about his illness; they are, if anything, an escape from it. Yet his illness gave him fresh access to those poems—and in return, Mandelstam’s poems demanded from him a more urgent register of English than he was used to. That urgent register, the other language Wiman discovers in these translations, is defined by dense alliteration, internal rhyme, strong stresses, and words pushed together in compound epithets like Anglo-Saxon kenning—acoustic effects that evoke Gerald Manley Hopkins’s dark devotional poems. Wiman needed this language not only to translate Mandelstam, but also to face life with an immediate awareness of the threat of death, as Mandelstam did under very different circumstances.

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Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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