Saturday, July 6, 2013

London Trip Report: Russian Poetry Week & A Bit More

Ah, travel! Ah, returns home! Ah, trip reports! My recent trip to Oxford, for the first-ever Translators’ Coven, and London, for Pushkin House Russian Poetry Week events and assorted meetings, was worthy of a slew of adjectives like fantastic, marvelous, wonderful, and, yes, productive… but trips are always difficult to describe, particularly because I’m not a very consistent note-taker, particularly when the topic is translation. I get so caught up in the programs that I forget to write. Nonetheless, here’s a very unmethodical, very noncompletionist summary of sorts, of What Went On In London. I do have more detail in my notes about certain things—including more poem titles—so add a comment if you have questions. I’ll write about Oxford soon.

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Tarkovsky's grave, in Peredelkino.
Pushkin House Russian Poetry Week, organized and led by Robert Chandler, with lots of participation from Irina Mashinski and Boris Dralyuk, began on June 16 with Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize Evening, which featured winners of, appropriately, the Brodsky-Spender Translation Prize. The night was particularly fun because Sasha Dugdale, a writer, translator, and editor, interviewed two teams of translators—Boris and Irina (on Arseny Tarkovsky’s “Полевой госпиталь”/“Field Hospital”) and Glyn Maxwell and Alexandra Berlina (on Joseph Brodsky, memorably including “Ты не скажешь комару”/“You Can’t Tell a Gnat”)—about their work. My notes for this session are awful, though I did scribble down that Irina finds it particularly difficult to translate favorite poems; Maxwell said some words in Brodsky translations are “haunted by each other” rather than rhymed, as in the originals; and Sasha compared Brodsky with Toblerone chocolate. This is high praise, indeed!

Sweets came into the program again on the second night—with the spotlight on Osip Mandelshtam—when writer, teacher, and translator Victor Sonkin discussed Mandelshtam’s life and noted that Mandelshtam enjoyed tea with candies. My favorite portions of the discussion concerned one poem, “Вооруженный зреньем узких ос”: Robert read several translations of the poem, and I especially enjoyed Peter France’s version, which began with “Armed with the eyesight of thin-waisted wasps.” It was the “thin-waisted” that caught me—over “skinny” (Andrew Davis) and “slender” (John Riley)—somehow “thin-waisted” sounds and even looks better to me, both in my imagination and on the page, where a hyphen makes “thin-waisted” almost physically resemble a wasp. You can get a feel for Peter’s love for poetry and translation in these translator’s notes (and Mandelshtam translations!) in Cardinal Points.

Lucky for me, Phoebe Taplin wrote a piece about the third event—“The Soviet Union’s Other Poets”—for Russia Beyond the Headlines, mentioning specific poems. There were, once again, lots of highlights, including more mentions of a poetry anthology that Robert, Boris, and Irina are co-editing for Penguin… the book will include around 50 poets and cover the years from Pushkin to Brodsky, guided by birth years, though there seems to be some creative interpretation of dates. The book will be out within the next couple years and will include, by design, lots of poets who are relatively unknown in the West, such as Boris Slutsky, David Samoilov, Vladimir Kornilov, and Maria Petrovykh. They, along with Tarkovsky, were all part of the Wednesday program. Translators/speakers included Robert, Boris, and Irina, as well as Katherine Young and Stephen Capus.

By the time the final night rolled around—this after four muggy London days and three muggy London nights of talk about poetry, prose, and publishing—my note-taking ability sank from a polite “minimal” to nearly zero. I guess it’s appropriate that, for a program about Afanasii Fet and Fyodor Tiutchev, one of the titles I wrote down was “Silentium!” I also noted that Tiutchev was careless in his work, rarely checking proofs and allowing Ivan Turgenev to make changes. Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t remember anything else: I remember, for example, that Robert also discussed Tiutchev’s famous “Умом Россию не понять” and read a translation from fellow coven attendee Anatoly Liberman; I particularly like Anatoly’s final line, viewable here, if you scroll down.

Those muggy London days also included… a visit to the Calvert 22 Foundation, where there was no exhibit but I met with Jamie Rann, who works as comment editor at the online Calvert Journal, which contains a nice variety of articles and beautiful photos… meeting with Sarah Wallis and Paul Mitchell, who wrote and directed Russia’s Open Book, a one-hour documentary about contemporary Russian literature. The trailer is online here. I’ll be writing more about Russia’s Open Book later this year. I found, thanks to I.I. Google, that an animated chunk of the film, by Andy Acourt, won an International Motion Arts AwardRussian book shopping at Waterstone’s Russian bookshop (orderly, great selection, even if it’s pricey) and Русский мир (chaos, not much of interest that I haven’t already read) accumulated a nice stack of books that includes Aleksandr Ilichevskii’s Орфики (I’ll call it The Orphics for now), which I already read and can’t quite let go of, Iurii Buida’s Вор, шпион и убийца (Thief, Spy, and Murderer), which I’m reading and enjoying now; Maxim Kantor’s rather large Красный свет, (Red Light); and a collection of stories and a play by Nina Berberova.

I should also add that the trip generated a number of contributions to the list of Notable New Translations for 2013. There are lots of great new entries but I was especially happy to hear about Sasha Dugdale’s collection of Moscow stories for Oxford University Press, where authors range from Nikolai Karamzin to Igor Sutyagin.

Disclosures: The usual.

Up Next: Coven trip report. And Ilichevskii’s Orphics, which really and truly creeped me out with its perspectives on Moscow in 1991 and, really (of course), what came before and what came after. Then Buida’s Thief, Spy, Murderer.

Image credit: A. Savin, Creative Commons, through Wikipedia.


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