Is Poetry Translatable?
An interview with poet and translator Eugene Ostashevsky.
Posted October 24, 2017
Interview conducted by Aneta Pavlenko.
Could you please tell our readers a few words about yourself and your languages?
I was born in Leningrad, USSR, in 1968. My parents immigrated to the U.S. when I was 11. I was a teenager in New York in the 80s. Now I am a professor at New York University, but I’ve also taught in Turkey, Italy, and France. I live mainly in Berlin, where I have two daughters. There are five “native” languages in my immediate family: English, Russian, German, Turkish, and German Sign Language. Not a single family member speaks all of them. My main experience of language is that of semi-comprehension.
You arrived in the U.S. with your family as a boy and now you give Russian-language interviews about literary issues and translate Russian poetry. How did you achieve such high level of Russian, while surrounded with English? What’s your secret?
I grew up in the U.S. with a lot of exposure to the Russian literary community—initially the émigrés and then, when travel to and from Russia became possible, with Russians. I talk Russian with most of my friends and with some of my family. I translate from Russian, carry Russian-language correspondence, write articles and give interviews in Russian when I am asked to, but I don’t compose poetry in Russian. My last book, The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi, does have lines in Russian, but they always appear as foreign passages within the English.
For me to write poetry in Russian—to write a series of poems in my former native language—would mean not just a change of language (“just”—as if one were changing clothes!) but a total repositioning of what I am saying and how. My poetry has to do with the experience of foreignness, with the English language as being both mine and not mine, with its being appropriated: a mask that’s become a face. For me to learn to write in Russian would involve figuring out how to write about my native language as being no longer mine: a face that’s become a mask. Also, I would need to learn how to build a Russian poetry based on language attrition, which for cultural reasons would be particularly difficult.
When did you realize that you want to be a poet and how much did your bilingualism affect your predilection for playing with language?
There was no decision, but I’ve been writing in English since junior high school. As far as whether bilingualism (or, in my case, multilingualism) encourages language games, my answer is an unqualified yes. Language games make you look at language from the outside. They are a kind of meta-poetry in the way that certain logical paradoxes are a kind of meta-mathematics. The pun, for example, is pure rhyme, with all the lead-in verbiage thrown away. What language games are about is that form determines meaning, that the world comes about by chance. Multilingualism teaches you the same thing about the things people say.
Poetry is unique among all language activities in requiring a physical connection to language. Do you have the same connection to poetic lines in English and Russian?
Lines in Russian and English may feel different to me but I react to both. Sometimes I am envious of native English speakers because I suspect they react more intensely. Most poetry in English bores me immediately. But so does most poetry in Russian. It’s safer to say that I have a physical reaction to some poetry in Russian and English, but I also react to some poetry in other languages that I know less well—it just takes time and work. And imagination. I am moved by old poems in old orthography, with old word forms and syntax, perhaps because there is something about language distancing that reproduces the non-native experience.
You said once that you feel differently in English and Russian. How do you mix the two languages within the confines of a single poem?
I use them to undermine each other. Repeating “the same thing” in another language doubles it, deprives it of identity with itself, deflates it ironically and relativizes it. That’s the main lesson I’ve learned as a poetry translator. The Russian passages in The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi intend to demonstrate untranslatability. For example, there is a passage where the Russian word for parrot, popugai, can also be read as an imperative of “to frighten.” Translate that! But even the parts that have easy lexical equivalents include something so culturally specific that they are deformed in another language like a deep-water fish brought to the surface. Different language, different world. Much of that book is a poetic argument for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, for multilingualism, which means that it is against translation.
Common wisdom dictates that poetry is betrayed by translation, traduttore-traditore. Having published several volumes of translations, what are your thoughts on translatability of poetry?
A translation of a poem is not a substitute for the original but a reaction to it by a particular person at a particular time and in a particular material, quite different from the material of the original. And you only really understand the translation when you also read the original, even if imperfectly.
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Ostashevsky, E. (2017). The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi. New York: New York Review Books.