Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Found in Translation: Across a Bridge of Words

left: Marina Tsvetaeva, 1925. (Photo: Roger Viollet); right: Nina Kossman (Photo: courtesy of American Pushkin Society)

“A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully.” – Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” 1921.

The Poets & Traitors Press series "seeks to showcase authors who travel between writing and translation" and "views translation as forming part of a continuum with the creative writer’s work". This imprint series began in 2013 and arose from the New York New School's translation workshop readings, which explored a shared format: featuring the original poems of translators of major poets alongside their translations of writers with whom they share a deep poetic resonance. Other Shepherds is the fifth book from Poets & Traitors, an independent press which continues to offer intriguingly hybrid books of poetry in conversation by a single author-translator.

Translation itself is also inherently a hybrid form of both literary interpretation and self-expression, as exemplified so artfully by the great German critic Walter Benjamin’s marvelous insights into the art and science of crossing a bridge of words to find in another language what might otherwise be lost on such a perilous journey between tongues. At its best, translation focuses our attention on a chess match between one writer and another, a game in which neither one triumphs but the reader reaps the riches uncovered through a sort of alchemy of words: the excavation of a rich literary site which feels almost archaeological in its revelations.

Thus, to be found in translation is to unearth something ineffable and yet still somehow mysteriously transmissible to the rest of us waiting outside that same archaeological dig site, patiently waiting to see what artifacts of meaning may be discovered and shared with us. This is especially powerful in the case of those, such as myself, who have no access to the site itself since we are barred from personally entering the language of the poet. Which is why Nina Kossman’s sharing of her site with Marina Tsvetaeva, and the astute juxtaposition of the subtle emotional textures caused by her deep relationship with the poetry of a fellow country-person, is all the more valuable. Some of my favourite writing, in fact, comes from poets and novelists with whom I am unable to converse directly and therefore must rely, willingly, on the translator as a guide.

Dostoevsky, Kafka, Musil, Canetti, Quasimodo, among others of my favourite writers, have all been brought into my life solely through the welcomed intercession of translators who have, I am assured, managed to maintain what Benjamin called a transparency: illuminating the original light to shine through a diffusing yet clarifying medium. And so it is that I must readily admit to being woefully unfamiliar with Marina Tsvetaeva’s woeful work, apart from an occasional passage in an anthology or journal here and there over the years. I was also not too familiar with Nina Kossman’s masterful works, though I had been aware that she also translated some of Tsvetaeva’s remarkably sad insights into the vagaries of love lost in the 1924 work Poem of the End (from Overlook Press in 1998). In it, Kossman captures the very essence of heartfelt loss:

The happy lot
of lovers without hope:
Bridge, you are like passion:
A convention: pure transition.

So this compelling dual discovery of Tsvetaeva and Kossman on the same shared pages is a double pleasure indeed. To alternate between both of their cogent and incisive insights into the human condition is a rare gift, one which occasionally feels to me like the alternating currents of electricity that Nikola Tesla bestowed upon us in his invention that quite literally allowed us to see the light. Through Kossman, Tsvetaeva shares the darkest light.

After first surviving the post-Revolutionary Moscow famine of 1922, which her first daughter did not (subsequent to the poet’s valiant attempt to save her life by placing her in a state orphanage, where the poor girl died of hunger), Tsvetaeva left Russia and lived in ever-increasing poverty in Paris, Berlin and Prague before desperately (and perhaps inexplicably) returning to Moscow in 1939. The poet lived through and wrote powerfully about the very Russian Revolution that eventually inaugurated the same Soviet state which would imprison and execute her husband as an “enemy of the state” in 1941 and also provoke her own suicide by hanging that same year at the age of 48, just as the Nazis invaded Moscow. Unable to bear the circumstances of her husband’s death, she sadly chose to execute herself rather than submit to the barbarism of a state-imposed punishment, thus at least declaring her ultimate freedom to live or die of her own volition. Writing in South Magazine in 2005, Belinda Cooke quite rightly referred to her as “the poet of the extreme.”

Nina Kossman could best be described as a sister in extremity, though she would more likely accept the premise that Tsvetaeva was her poetic great-aunt. Kossman is a Moscow-born poet, painter, sculptor, bilingual writer, translator of Russian poetry, and playwright. Her English short stories and poems have been published in U.S., Canadian, British and Dutch journals. Her Russian prose and poems have been published in major Russian literary journals. Among her published books are two books of poems in Russian and English as well as two volumes of translations of Marina Tsvetaeva’s poems. Her other books include Behind the Border (Harper Collins, 1994), a collection of stories about her Moscow childhood, Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myths (Oxford University Press, 2001); and a bilingual collection of short stories about her teaching (she was once fired from a private school for explaining to her students that Adam and Eve were mythological figures). She lives in New York.

The literary relationship between the two Russian poets, separated by historical time but united in the dimension of poetry itself, is founded partially in style but even more in personal and professional experience. Kossman and her family departed from Russia approximately fifty years after Tsvetaeva had embarked, though luckily she never went back, for by then, in the early 70’s, the Soviet state had already permanently morphed into the dark template which had presaged the struggles of dissidents as early as five years after their so-called revolution. “If it were possible to have a graph of personal development that reflected intangible things,” Kossman relates, “or rather not things but states of the soul, alienation and nostalgia resulting in a kind of personal rebirth – then I would say that Tsvetaeava’s poems acted as a kind of midwife.”

She describes her first encounters with Tsvetaeava’s work, in Cleveland, Ohio of all places, in 1974, as an experience which helped transform that dark night of the soul of exile into something livable: “A kind of moldable model of existence that I have followed for the rest of my life – up to this very moment.” Alienation and nostalgia are, of course, the bread and butter of most exiles, but in the case of Kossman, displaced in America during its own time of social and political upheaval (one hauntingly like our own era today), those emotional states, shared by the older poet, were intangibles that could potentially damage or even destroy a person if they gave in to them without resistance but which could, as Tsvetaeva herself so clearly demonstrated in a model manner, also transform themselves into the raw material for the art of poetry.

Initially, consumed by and consuming what she called this “cocktail of nostalgia, alienation and immersion in Tsvetaeva” enabled Kossman to embark upon the writing of her own poems, initially in Russian despite the fact that she was now living in English. Then later, in her mid-twenties, she returned to her mentor again, this time not only as a reader and lover of her work but also as a translator. For Kossman, translating Tsvetaeva was an attempt to bridge within herself two disparate interior worlds, as well as two distinct and often opposed cultures and languages: “I was born in the same Communist dystopia that, a few decades before my birth, led Marina Tsvetaeva to hang herself. This was a place where ‘being different’, an uncomfortable feeling in any society at any time, led to much more than the usual social ostracism: where comrades were clearly divided into ‘white sheep’ and ‘black sheep’, and where the black sheep didn’t end up very well.”

This metaphor also served to embody the feeling in her latest collection of poems, Other Shepherds, the title for which is derived from a 1920 Tsvetaeava poem she translated which ends with a reference to a kind of sanctuary:

There is an island — thank God! —
Where I don’t need a tambourine,
Where black wool hangs from every fence. Yes
There are in the world black flocks,
Other shepherds.

The structure of her new book of interlacing conversations in verse, separated by space and time but not sentiment or spirit, is as dynamic as it is serene. The poet describes her approach as a kind of braiding together of her translations of Tsvetaeva with her own English poems, following a thematic approach, especially when one of her own works appeared to echo a motif in her elder’s work: “Although my poems were not written with Tsvetaeva’s work in mind, I found quite a few that can be seen as responses to her. Something is born of this strange pairing, a kind of tense new world. I place my poems beside Tsvetaeva’s not in competition but with humility. The aim is not to emulate her but to create a dialogue between her poem and mine, a resonance possible not only between two poets but between two eras. My goal is not to aspire to her heights, which are unscalable, as they are hers and no one else’s, but to approach her and to speak.”

For both poets, usually their titles consist of the poem’s first lines, as per:

Tsvetaeava, 1918:

Words are inscribed in the black sky,
And the beautiful eyes go blind
And the deathbed is no longer terrible and the love bed is no
longer sweet 

Sweat from writing—sweat from ploughing.
We know another ardor:
Weightless fire dancing around the curls—
The breeze of inspiration.
Kossman, 2020:
Even within her heart
the song didn’t break
the song kept her heart
just as the heart kept the song
she forgot its words
but the tune remained
sheltered inside her
so deep
she thought it was gone
she thought it had left her
she couldn’t reach it
it hid beneath the snow
inside her heart
and when the snow melted
it revealed a skeleton
shriveled bones

The song was dead

How do you bring a dead song to life?
A dead song has more power
a dead song twisted inside you
how do you live with so much death?
death outside her
death inside her
one outweighed the other
she breathed life into the one inside her
and when the song matured
it left her
as a grown child leaves Mother
and she was left alone again
for the rest of her life.

Whether the “she” described in Kossman’s verse is in fact Tsvetaeva is never exactly made explicit (and since this is poetry, why should it be?); however, I choose to think so. Especially perhaps because Tsvetaeva’s “words inscribed in the black sky” and the paradoxical reference to both a deathbed and a love bed does situate us in the orbit of a poet who does indeed know “another ardor . . . the breeze of inspiration.” Meanwhile, Kossman’s “dead song” can’t help but bring us back into the orbit of her inspiring mentor, who clearly kept her poetic insights sheltered deep inside her, almost as an act of sheer defiant survival. And one whose interior death, that of an exile and eventual state victim, was the more substantial one which required a choice: breathe life into that one and let it leave, even if that decision left her mute for the rest of her terribly short life.

Many other examples of the two writers’ reflections on being alive in the midst of collective threat also provide a similarly powerful echo, an overlap and an interplay. The readers of Kossman’s collection, we who encounter both her own and her mentor’s deep-felt insights into the shared human condition, also engage with the writer as a translator herself. The fact that she has succeeded so well in her stated aim and goal, that of building a bridge of words between two poets and also between two eras through this resonating dialogue, is a testament both to her own poetic gifts as well as to the arduous but ultimately rewarding task of the translator.

In his 1921 classic and timeless essay “The Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin makes a concerted effort to consider translation as an art form in its own right, one whose entire enterprise, according to him, is what occurs when one language travels towards and into another one. He sees it as a primary literary form, parallel to poetry and literature themselves, rather than as an ancillary or derivative function of them. As he so confidently declares: “Just as translation is a form of its own, so, too, may the task of the translator be regarded as distinct and clearly differentiated from the task of the poet. The translator’s task should ultimately serve the purpose of expressing the innermost relationship of languages to one another: a supra-historical relationship, from one language into another through a continuum of transformations.” This task, he recommends, “may be achieved, above all, by a literal rendering of the syntax which proves words rather than sentences to be the primary element of the translator. For if the sentence is the wall before the language of the original, literalness is the arcade.”

Readers familiar with the sparkling insights of my favourite culture critic Walter Benjamin, himself translated from German into English, may know some earlier essays I wrote about him and his arcade motif for Critics At Large. Such readers may thus also be familiar with his towering, and unfinished, magnum opus The Arcades Project, a kernel of which he used in this summation on the true task of the translator, in order to focus on literal meaning hidden in the syntax of individual words embedded in the overall architectural meaning of sentence structures. Bricks versus building, one might say.

His own ruminations on translation as an art form often rise to the level of a boiling hot poetry by themselves, especially his oddly prescient notion of the arcade/passageway as a connective tissue (one that now seems prophetic if we view the 19th-century arcade as a structure similar to our own 20th-century Internet. And I’m fairly certain that a translator as astute as Kossman has probably dipped into some of the meandering streams of his thinking on this matter. For Benjamin has offered us a unique and idiosyncratic way to appreciate the achievements of poet-translators such as Kossman herself does in her labour of love, sharing the moving poems of Tsvetsaeva in tandem with her own equally touching verses.

What Benjamin illustrates so cogently through that admittedly quirky metaphor of sentences – a wall before another language while literal interpretation is an arcade, or passageway, between one tongue and another – is an embodiment of the art and science of translation as practiced by Kossman. Though as an outsider to her native tongue, just as I am to Benjamin’s, I cannot opine on the linguistic service she has done to her mentor Tsvetavea’s words, I can comfortably comment on the poetic excavation she has undertaken by placing her own buildings next to Marina’s. Indeed, she has also provided us with another arcade of sorts linking up these two poetry buildings together, one which allows us freedom of passage between both historical epochs and personal narratives. Which leaves me only the great pleasure of leaving the reader to savour one such splendid spiritual arcade between their linguistic building sites, and doing so in a way that rightfully gives these two fine poets the final word:

Tsvetavea, 1923:

Do not call out to her
Your call is a whiplash to her; your hail,
Like a haft-deep wound.
She is stirred down to her organ

Depths: the creative dread
Of intrusion; fear her: from her heights
(All fortresses stand upon chasms)
She might yet sing like an organ.

Will you withstand it? The mountain is
Steel and basalt; but alas, like an avalanche in the azure,
She will sing out with the full voice of the storm
In response to your seraph’s alto.

It will come true! Fear it! A fall
Into the last hundredth! Hear!
—I retaliate for the singer’s gutteral call
With the organ tempest.

Kossman, 2020:

Anything but the barren days,
The muse’s smile of cold displeasure,
Her love, steady yet apathetic,
A host of beings at her side
Injecting tedium into self and nature.
Anything but the thought
—keep it out of consciousness—
formless thought, grown by night
into the self’s body,
heavy and apathetic to the highest degree
like an invalid melody.

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. He is also the author of Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings2018, and Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, which came out in 2020.

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