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Student spotlight: poem translations by Anastasia Skoybedo

Mandelstam mixes poetics and moral doctrine

Anastasia Skoybedo (CAS '07)

Throughout August, BU Today will publish pieces of student scholarship and creative work. The following poem translations by Anastasia Skoybedo (CAS ’07) are from the inaugural issue PUSTEBLUME, a journal devoted to translations. The accompanying introductory essay is by Zachary Bos, coordinator of student publications and editor of PUSTEBLUME, which is available in print form at the Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures.

Skoybedo was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Russia, and is studying International Relations and Philosophy. Translating and languages have always been a hobby of hers and reading has been her passion since childhood. She most enjoys Latin American, German and Russian prose, as well as all kinds of poetry from the Icelandic skalds to Romantics and modernity.


Mandelstam and Russian Verse
(introductory essay by Zachary Bos)

Osip Mandelstam’s work is not well known outside of Russia, but he is still considered one of the finest twentieth century Russian poets. His collection Kamen garnered him critical acclaim in 1913. He was a member of the Acmeist school of poetry, separating him from other Soviet poets of the Russian Symbolist movement, which was then in vogue. As translator Clarence Brown observes, Mandelstam’s variant of Acmeism was a mixture of poetics and moral doctrine, the former based on an “intuitive and purely verbal logic of inner association” and the latter on a kind of “democratic humanism.”

He was arrested and exiled in the early 1930s for “counter-revolutionary” poetry and statements. After two years of exile he died in the GULAG archipelago in 1938. His works were neglected during the ascendancy of the Soviet reign, and were not published in full until 1970, when they were widely acclaimed. Much of his writing was preserved thanks to the efforts of his wife Nadezhda, who memorized his work so as to avoid incrimination by printed pages. His journals from exile and his widow’s autobiographies chronicle their lives in Communist Russia.

Some considerations on translation from Russian verse: Russian’s characteristically long words lend themselves easily to feminine rhyme, whereas the shorter English equivalents, when rhyme is possible at all, fall more naturally into a masculine scheme. Many translators opt for free verse translations in order to maintain the integrity of a poem’s meaning rather than keeping strictly with the original form. Complicating matters further is the lack of definite or indefinite articles in Russian. The English translator must find a way to incorporate this part of speech throughout the poem he wishes to translate without making the addition too apparent.

 

“For the thundering valor . . . .”
by Osip Mandelstam
translated by Anastasia Skoybedo

For the thundering valour of approaching centuries
For the elevated tribe of men –
I forfeited a chalice at a feast of the fathers,
My happiness, and my personal honour.

Century-wolfhound throws itself on my shoulders
But I am not a wolf by blood
Better stuff me away, like a hat, into a sleeve
Of a torrid fur coat of Siberian steppes . . . .

So I don’t see a coward, squelchy filth
And bloody bones in the wheels;
So that every night blue foxes shine
To me in their primordial beauty –

Lead me into the night, where Yenisei flows
And the pine tree reaches a star,
For I am not a wolf by blood
And only my equal can kill me.

17-28 March, 1931

“Only children’s books . . . .”
by Osip Mandelstam
translated by Anastasia Skoybedo

Only children’s books to read,
Only childish thoughts to cherish,
To scatter far everything big,
To rise from deep sorrow.

I am deathly tired of life
I accept nothing from it,
But I love my poor land
For I have seen no other.

I was swinging in a faraway garden
On a simple wooden swing,
And recall tall dark firs
In a foggy delirium.

1908