The task of translating poetry is, on the one hand, often very challenging, but on the other, almost always extremely satisfying. Every poet and every poem poses different questions and different translators attempt to answer these questions in a variety of ways.
Alexander Korotko’s fascinating collection Studia is no exception. The poems which comprise its five sections range from haiku-like monostichs, some consisting, in the Russian, of only two words, to a metrical rhyming sonnet. Perhaps ironically entitled “Prosaic.” However, though poetic forms vary, the thematic content is constant throughout the book. Certain words recur like leitmotifs, the most notable among many examples being earthly (земной), autumn/autumnal (осень/осенний), time (время), dawn (рассвет) and, perhaps most importantly, love (любовь).
On occasions the very brevity of these miniature poems means that the translator has to make a large number of what are currently termed “judgment” calls. For instance is sky/skies or heaven/heavens the correct translation for небо/небеса? Similarly, can one differentiate between тишина and молчание, both of which invite the translation silence or between тучи and облака, both of which words have the primary meaning cloud?. To these can be added three ambiguous words familiar to any translator of Russian: рука (hand or arm), лицо (person or face?) and город (town or city?)
Even more problematic for the translator is the absence in Russian of both the indefinite and definite articles. Thus it is difficult to know, to take but one of many examples, whether замок (замка) на песке should be rendered as “a castle on the sand”, “the castle on the sand” “a castle on sand” or “a castle on the sand”.
The layout of these poems on the page will strike the reader immediately. Owing to the difference between a heavily inflected language (Russian) and an almost totally uninflected language (English) this layout could not be reproduced exactly, although it has been preserved as closely as possible.
Fortunately I was in the position, which all translators desire but do not always get, of being able to consult the author of the original text, Alexander Korotko, and the editor of Vsesvit magazine Dmytro Drozdovskyi and work closely and productively with them to resolve any difficulties.
Alexander Korotko is a Ukrainian writer, of Jewish descent, who writes in Russian and is clearly fascinated by some of the more exotic words in that language. The literature and history of all three cultures, Jewish, Ukrainian and Russian play central roles in this book. There are “realia” from all three cultures, which have simply been transliterated rather than translated. Thus the reader will find okroshka, rather than “cold soup”, izvar, trembita , shofar. Other cultures, however, also play a part in this collection: French (Stendhal; Rodin); German (Goethe; Schiller); English (Shakespeare) and the classics of Greece and Rome (Homer; Plutarch). Added to this are the German-Jewish philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm and the Austrian-American-Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, all of which combines to create an impressively cross-cultural collection of poems.
The translator hopes these poems in English translation will prove as rewarding for the reader as they were for the translator in providing these translations.