Yevtushenko on “Loss”

Yevtushenko and Ragan at the University of Southern California, April 2015
Yevtushenko and Ragan at the University of Southern California, April 2015

A fascinating article by Yevtushenko himself on Loss, written for World Literature Today (Winter 93, Vol. 67, Issue 1, p. 4). I’m not entirely persuaded that English has fewer opportunities for rhyming than Russian – inflection lends itself to rhyme, but at the risk of it becoming too easy; whereas English’s lack of inflection may run the risk of contrivance, but may also be a spur to the imagination that Yevtushenko himself generously allows the translator. My reference to Bacchus – nowhere to be found in the original, may therefore be justified, especially as this allowance seems to justify that elusive cut finger… In my translation I remain faithful to Yevtushenko’s rhyme and also to the metre that (surely deliberately?) seems lost in itself. I also emulate his use of internal rhyme – in the same places where possible, but elsewhere as well. I am not persuaded that rhyme makes my translation any less “modern”. Of course, the references to Manilov and Pugachev are quite specific – but why not encourage further reading with an explanation? And he fails to mention his collaboration with James Ragan – the filter for his translation.

Anyway, here’s the great man in his own words:

In a sense it is easier to be both the author and the translator of one’s works into another language. No one will ever accuse you of having a cavalier attitude toward the original, because lack of self-respect is an unthinkable trait for a writer. At the same time, an author-translator has an unlimited right to freedom of imagination, which, by the way, should also exist among all translators who are not the author of the works they translate. If it doesn’t, translation becomes slavery, and the emotional dimension of a work will be crippled in the attempt to be scrupulously thorough. But one won’t be scrupulously thorough in the translation of content if emotional vibrancy is lost. Losses are inevitable whenever one translates, but it is better to compensate for those losses through victories of the imagination instead of submitting to literal content.

What then was consciously lost in my translation of the poem “The Loss”? Rhyme. Rhyme was lost because Russian has twenty times more possibilities for fresh new rhyme than English, and, moreover, a rhymed English translation would inevitably make the poem sound old-fashioned. The delightfully endearing word buren’ka, meaning “browny” or “brown cow,” I had to change to simply “cow.” The expression “we knew how to fight only foreign evil” is far more subtle than “alien grievances.” I had to delete the Gogolian image (from Dead Souls) “in a moth-eaten Manilov robe” and the image from Pushkin’s story “The Captain’s Daughter,” “in a hareskin coat torn from Pugachev’s shoulders.” Those expressions are readily understood by any Russian reader, but the average Western, with the exception of specialists in Russian literature, would not see the association. I had to strike the word oprichnina (Ivan the Terrible’s punitive guard), which evokes many meanings, and for the sake of clarity replace it with “Ivan the Terrible,” whom the oprichnina served. Finally, the marvelous and rich word atamany, of Cossack origin and frequently used ironically in referring to today’s politicians, I had to replace with the rather dull word leader.

Be all that as it may, I have often read those lines to American audiences and felt that my “message” got through. The most important losses are in the nuances. But damn it, poetry is nourished by just such nuances . . . .

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