06 January 2018

Arseny Aleksandrovich Tarkovsky and quandaries of translation

Arseny Aleksandrovich Tarkovsky, one of very few in the Russian poetry of XX century, was a man of tragic times and his life was tragic as well. A poet who, while he escaped the fate of his peers (like Osip Mandelshtam) in the bloody thirties, had his first book published at the age of 55. This alone should tell you most of his life story. Still, he was one of very few to have that elusive deity of poetry guide his pen.

But this post is about translation. One of the most known in the West poems by A.T. is Первые Свидания, a poem dedicated to a woman he loved till his last breath, over several marriages and over life full of pain. And here starts the saga of translation.

In fact, the closest (and most fitting) translation of the title Первые Свидания would have been First Trysts. The multiple attempts of translation ended up with: First Meetings, First Dates, First Times Together, ...

And from this point it all went downhill. The poem itself is a perfect example of a poet at the peak of his power, using the rhythm and the rhyme to the utmost, in their most difficult implementation. With absolute success, at least for a layman like I. So it isn't easy to translate, a towering challenge for anyone. And the last, say, 6 lines, present an even more insurmountable goal:
Сама ложилась мята нам под ноги,
И птицам с нами было по дороге,
И рыбы подымались по реке,
И небо развернулось пред глазами…

Когда судьба по следу шла за нами,
Как сумасшедший с бритвою в руке.
Try your Google Translate and see what kind of challenge these lines provide, even without knowing the original language. Especially the two last lines, justly characterized by Philip Metres here:
The final two lines, a brutal couplet, suddenly brings the lovers into the cold, where fate will have its say—like a madman with a razor. The scales of the poem tip from romance to tragedy.
Yep. He got it. However, the translation he and his Russian colleague provided, didn't get it:
And mint bowed down beneath our feet,
And birds hovered above our heads.
And fish nosed against the river’s flow,
And the sky unfurled above the land…

While behind us, fate followed
Like a madman with a razor in his hand.
In addition to the above translation I have checked another four: First Meetings, First Dates, First Meetings and again First Dates. Only the last one, by Rupert Moreton, somewhat rises to the challenge:
And underfoot was minty sward’s foundation,
And birds along the way flew in formation,
Against the flow the fish were swimming free,
Before our eyes the heavens were unfolding…

Behind us still our fate was grimly holding,
A razor-handed madman, seeking fee.
Playing a bit loose with the text, but doing his best with rhyme and rhythm. Still not there, but more in the spirit of the poem than the others, to my taste.

Oh well, the challenge isn't going away anytime soon.

In the following clip, from the movie The Mirror by Andrei Tarkovsky (the famous son of A.T.), A.T. himself reads the poem.

Even if you don't know the language, the music is there. Enjoy.