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A Russian Translation/Imitation of Emily Dickinson: "After great pain, a formal feeling comes—"

From: The Emily Dickinson Journal
Volume 2, Number 2, Fall 1993
pp. 147-152 | 10.1353/edj.0.0163

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Prior to 1981, the Russian reader knew Emily Dickinson only through individual poems appearing irregularly in literary magazines and in anthologies of international poetry. However, in 1981 Khudozhestvennaia Literatura published the former Soviet Union's first collection of poetry by Emily Dickinson, a selection of some 220 poems, translated into Russian by Vera Markova. The collection was well received—because it was long awaited, and because Markova proved to be a rather adept interpreter of Dickinson, as our examination of "Posle sil'noi boli ty slovno v gostiakh" ("After great pain, a formal feeling comes—") will show. Andre Gide has said that it is easy to discredit a translation, to alert readers to fundamental errors—both literal and interpretive—but that it is difficult to appreciate and point out virtues of translation. In general, this theory may hold true—I hate to dispute Andre Gide—but in the case of Markova's translation of "After great pain," the translator clearly worked toward literal accuracy while creating a rich and powerful Russian poem that speaks, that one could say even "sings" to a Russian audience. However, the price Markova pays for a translation offering a compelling lyric experience of some immediacy to the Russian reader is that she forsakes Emily Dickinson in the process of Russian translation. If the role of the poetic translator is to strike a balance between a doggedly literal translation of the original poem and an original poetic creation in the target language, Markova's translation of "After great pain" weighs heavily on the side of original Russian poetry. Hers is less translation than it is imitation in the tradition of Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell.

Although discussions of the challenges of translating from English to Russian, from a positional language to an inflected language, from a nineteenth-century North American culture to a twentieth-century Slavic culture raise complex, interesting, and important issues, this essay will focus on the translation of metaphor in Dickinson's poetry into the Russian language in a Soviet cultural context. Markova's skill in translation and interpretation at the level of metaphor is evident as early as the first line of the opening strophe. In Dickinson's poem, the first four lines initiate the reader to the chilling, impersonal tone of the poem and offer an introduction to its central motivation, the disassociation of mind from body and ultimately, the dis-integration of the body following "great pain." The Russian poem issues this very tone and introduces this central theme in the opening strophe, as well. Markova's translation also mirrors the Dickinson poem in its paced sequence of analogies. However, the first line puts forth an analogy that does not appear in the original: "Posle sil'noi boli ty slovna v gostiakh," "After great pain, it is as if you are a guest." Quite different from the original, "After great pain, a formal feeling comes—, " this translation/interpretation of the line is nonetheless admirable. In Russian, it would be difficult to translate this line literally without resorting to a clumsy, passive construction with a reflexive pronoun. To avoid this awkward syntax or sterile, academic phrasing, Markova reconfigured the imagery. She chose the particularly Slavic analogy of being out of one's home where one is comfortable, is understood, and feels intimacy with people. Outside of that warm setting, when one is a guest, one feels a bit awkward, cold, distant from people, unable to feel or to commune with them, and, at the same time, distant from the self, unsure of the self. Suzanne Juhasz has observed that "formal feeling" is a logical oxymoron for "the feeling of no feeling" (80). With her opening analogy, Markova has captured the intelligence of the language, the inability to be sensate. For the Russian audience, the image of being "among the tribe" or "among others" is a potent one and evokes, I believe, the cold, tight tone that Dickinson achieves in the original.

The reader then learns in the Russian, as in the English, that the speaker's nerves are estranged from the corpus. The nerves should be jangling from the pain, but instead they are inert and separate "kak nadgrob'ia," "like...



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