A Welcome Addition

Selected Poems, Natalia Gorbanyevskaya, translated by Daniel Weissbort
(120pp, £12.95, Carcanet)

Natalia Gorbanyevskaya's poems in English are Daniel Weissbort's. Not entirely so, there was a bilingual selection translated by Gerald S. Smith included in his Contemporary Russian Poetry, (Indiana University Press, 1993), but Weissbort's were in Natalia Gorbanyevskaya, Poems The Trial, Prison (Carcanet 1972), Poet-War Russian Poetry (Penguin, 1974), , in Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry (edited with John Glad,  Weissbort's translations, University of Iowa Press, 1978, 2nd ed.1992), and in Modern Poetry in Translation 20 (2002).

In his Introduction to the new book he says, "...it is hardly necessary to point out yet again that translation is usually no better than an approximation. I have taken a few liberties but, on the whole, have tried to remin close to the literal rendering." He thanks Valentina Polukhina for collaboration, saying this has made this book possible, and continues, "In my renderings, Gorbanyevskaya [born Moscow, 1936] appears more of a free-verse poet than she is, virtually all her poems being rigorously rhymed and metrically regular. I have attempted to give some sense of this, but it is hard to do so without gross distortion of normal English usages."

This is quite a caveat, and with a clear logic to it. On the other hand to present 'literal rendering' as if it carries everything the poem is, has to be queried.

I have listed the books, above, because his translations have developed over the years, and one can track a tightening that is also a loosening (some examples to follow), whereby fewer words make for a more pleasing flow.

Whether the personal sadness, sheer pain, revolutionary spirit, relentless ache of the poems - and none of the Weissbort translations have the originals for anyone who can read them - should make for what I am reading as a more pleasing flow, I don't know.

In an undated but I imagine recent interview by Polukhina with Gorbanyevskaya, in Paris, the poet's place of exile, she says that away from one's own country and speech there is a confusion of tongues, as if one has no language.

Now to trace Weissbort's variants through the editions by comparing those of one poem, (few of the poems have titles), this one notes a time and place: 'July-September, 1970, Butyrskaya Prison':

     The french horn of the train sighs, weeps a little,
     an unattainable myth.
     Through the prison bars a match gleam trickles,
     the whole world is eclipsed.
     The horn takes wing, into the night it sweeps.
     To flick through tracks
     like notes. Oh how am I to reach
     that rainy platform!

     Forsaken, sleepless, deserted,
     deserted without me -
     cloud tatters like letters drift down
     to your concrete,

     and inscribing the puddles with full stops,
     with hooks and tails,
     their treble voices ring out after
     the departed train.


     The train's french horn sighs, sheds a few tears,
     an unattainable myth.
     A match gleam trickles through the prison bars,
     the whole world is eclipsed.

     The horn takes wing, into the night it sweeps.
     To flick through tracks
     like notes. Oh how am I to reachyou,
     rainy platform!

     Forsaken, sleepless, deserted,
     deserted without me ---
     tatters of clouds like letters drift down
     to your concrete,

     and leaving a trail across the puddles
     of stops, hooks, tails,
     like treble clefs they resound after
     the departed train.


    The train's French horn sweeps on,
    an unattainable myth.
    A flame trickles through the bars,
    worlds eclipsed.

    The horn sweeps into the night,
    playing the tracks.
     How am I ever to reach
     that rainy platform!

     Sleepless, deserted,
     empty without me
     tattered clouds settling, like letters,
     onto your concrete,

     puddles with full-stops:
     hooks and tails;
     voices ringing out
     after the departed train.

The first is from 1972, the second from the 1974 Penguin, the third from the new Carcanet. There seems to me more melodrama about the first, while a better flow and a tighter hold might describe the most recent, visually more compact, less of it. Only one line, the second, comes intact through all versions. The compactness is consistent in the new book.

For variety of voice, here is the opening of a poem with a title, 'Concerto for orchestra':

     Bart—k, listen to what you've written!
     Like beating a rusty frying-pan: rat-tat-tat,
     like mountains mounting mountains,
     rivers circling themselves,
     hands lengthening into tinkling reeds,
     long-muzzled boats,
     nudging white landing stages.

But again, how might this be 'rigorously rhymed and metrically regular'?

It would seem that this is the most comprehensive collection of
Natalia Gorbanyevskaya's poems so far into English, and it is notable how even here every section is listed as 'From....' this or that collection between 1956-66 to 2010. The 1972 book centred on her imprisonment: documents and poems; the new book in context now is a looking back; the interview is a welcome addition as is a not so recent address by the poet 'to the full editorial board meeting of Kontinent, Munich, May 1983', enitled, 'The Language Problem of a Poet in Exile.' There seems an agreement amongst editors and commentators that she has not received due recognition, and this book bodes well for this to be remedied somewhat. Who cares? There is a lot here worth caring about.

        © David Hart 2011