How Translation Helped Me Reconcile My Two Languages

Graphic by Zawar Ahmed

No one else is in the library. No sound except the drone of ventilation and the exhale of my laptop whirring, overwhelmed. On the icy courtyard past the window, one figure flickers across, then disappears. I sigh. Okay. For the 300th time, I rewrite the same line of my translation of Akhmatova’s Northern Elegies, then settle back into the cramped library chair. I read.

Not even close. For the 301st time, I highlight and delete. 

When I signed up for Practice of Literary Translation this semester, I thought it would be easy. I had experience. During the vacant hours of spring and summer lockdown, my family had taken to translation to pass the time. As we huddled around a pile of sunflower seeds dumped on the kitchen table, I’d go through a poem line-by-line proposing English equivalents, they’d weigh in on the best option, and in this way we worked through a number of their favorite Russian classics. We made a good team, and with my persistent veto of my dad’s attempts to slip “Henceforth” and “Thee” into our verses, we placed an Akhmatova translation in the Yale Journal of Literary Translation. 

So I enrolled in Practice of Literary Translation confidently, and, on the first week, signed myself up to be the first person workshopped in the course. 

I soon realized I’d fucked up. Reviewing the translations I’d made with my parents, I realized that they, unfortunately, sucked; or, at any rate, were stunted by strict faithfulness to the original. Russian culture has historically placed immense emphasis on literature, and so my parents had grown up memorizing and citing the poems we were translating. Consequently, they feared desecrating a work  by misrepresenting its authorial  intention. Anything but unyielding loyalty to dictionary definitions struck them as sacrilegious; using an antiquated word that more precisely matched Tsvetaeva’s term was far better than a contemporary but looser equivalence that might compel rather than confuse a 21st-century reader. But the cost of perfectly recreating the original meaning, I realized, was losing the original effect. An assigned reading by William Arrowsmith echoed my fear: “There are times when the worst possible treachery is simpleminded faith in the ‘accuracy’ and literal loyalty of the original.”  Hammering English into the shape of Russian, we succeeded in transferring many things—rhythm, sentence structure, meaning—but we lost poetry.

As I began redoing my translations, I was stumped by the task of bringing the essence of Russian into English. The languages always felt different to me, but translation made the difference seem irreconcilable. English, the primary language in which I wrote, seemed utilitarian and uniform, focused more on the information transmitted by words than the words themselves;  I constantly encountered the advice to abandon lines with no clear contribution to a piece’s singular, unifying theme. But Russian was incantatory, seductive, a language whose syllables I wanted to run through my mouth over and over. Because of its multisyllabic tendency, its inflective freedom, and its easy rhyming, Russian poetry felt more like music: it had bridges and transitions, lines which did nothing but build atmosphere, even poems which seemed built of nothing but atmosphere. It had a flow, the rhythm of each word suggesting that which followed it. As Joseph Brodsky wrote, Russian provides “any given verbalization with the stereoscopic quality of the perception itself.” So the poem about longing is longing; the poem about fear brings fear into its very syntax and sound. How could one possibly bring this aesthetic unity into a language which, the more I worked with it, felt increasingly cold and rigid?

On some level, I knew I wasn’t being fair to English. Sonic beauty existed in English too; from Chaucer to Baldwin to Melville, there were countless examples of English adopting the same musicality I loved in Russian. Yet the longer I spent translating, the more animosity I felt toward the English language. I remembered the first poems I’d ever fallen in love with; my babushka would write her favorite verses for me in a notebook, and when I visited, she would read Blok and Pushkin and Tutchev and all the rest to me while I listened, entranced equally by the verses and the evident love of the work that permeated her voice as she read. And then I thought of all my American friends who’d told me poetry confused or annoyed them, all the times over the years someone had asked me “what is this poem about?” Spitefully, I remembered every writing class in which I’d heard the insistent advice to reduce, trim unnecessary words, cut away the fat. I thought of my own writing, how its old ambitions toward strangeness and adherence to intuition had slowly been replaced by stifling rationality. I hated this trend, missed the days when inspiration overtook me in unbridled waves, but the need to justify every word had taken root. I no longer felt comfortable writing what I could not explain. Now, in translation, I felt I was doing the same things to my favorite Russian poems, taking their sonic and sentimental sprawl and packaging it into digestible English bundles. In my mind, English had become more than a language; it was creative disappointment, academia, adulthood. I hated it. I typed out the line for a 302nd time, sent my files off to my prof, and trudged to bed. 

The in-class workshop went fine. The class liked my translations, provided great advice, told me which aspects of the original I’d successfully recreated and which I’d let slip. But it wasn’t until my one-on-one post-workshop conference with the professor that my disappointment with the poems turned into something else. He’d been going through my Akhmatova and pointing out which phrases were more or less successful when he came upon a set of 4 or 5 lines that transformed his register. 

His eyes lit up. “This, Daniel, this is really good, this is music.” 

He read the lines over again and I found myself, to my surprise, enthralled – hypnotized in the same way I am by Russian poetry. The words poured into one another. The syllables enticed me, carried me from one line to the next. I wanted to read and reread so I could bask in the sound. I hadn’t even realized, but I’d gotten it: I’d found the Russian in the English. I’ve come to love translation for those moments. Though they’re rare and hard-won, they’re happening more often. I am finding, in translation and in my own poetry, that for all the difference in culture, sound, and sensibility, Russian and English are not irreconcilable. I am learning to respect a poem’s internal logic, to see words not as devices for sense but as tactile beings themselves. I am learning to let language steal me from meaning into wonder. And my hope is that a little of my Russian can live on in my English, like the young self living on inside me while I reluctantly become an adult, like the soft voice of my babushka’s recitation which I hear again in the library’s yellow light.

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