It is said that a translator is like a spy: if everything is fine, the author of the original is praised and the translator is barely noticed; if not, the translator is blamed. Having that in mind, I am going to discuss several translations of Osip Mandelstam’s “Stalin’s Epigram”, which cost him two exiles and eventually, life.
Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) led an unsettled life full of tribulations, wandering and exile. After his Stalin’s epigram of 1933, for which the dictator, who used to say that “vengeance is best when served cold,” never forgave the poet.
Jane Joritz-Nakagawa: Jennifer, I’d like to start by discussing the anthology you co-edited, Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. In the preface you explain that a purpose of the anthology was to present non-mainstream views of disability while offering a considerable range of stylistic diversity in poetry by disabled poets, mostly poets with a visible disability. Since the anthology was a collaboration I wanted to ask you what you learned through the process — what benefits did you receive and what hurtles did you need to overcome? What did you learn both from the process of collaboration and from the project as a whole? Also, how would you evaluate the result — do you feel you achieved your aims? What reactions have you received from readers who identify as disabled and from others who don’t? (This is a bunch of questions that we could discuss either separately or all together, depending on how you wish to answer them!)
When Mandelstam wrote, “I never write. I alone in Russia work from the voice,” he was being literal. Here is how Viktor Shklovsky, Mandelstam’s neighbor for a time in the early 1920s, described him: “With his head thrown back, Osip Mandelstam walks around the house. He recites line after line for days on end. The poems are born heavy. Each line separately.” And here is how Sergey Rudakov, a young philologist and poet who visited Mandelstam in exile in Voronezh, described him in 1935: “Mandelstam has a wild way of working… I am standing in front of a working mechanism (or maybe organism, that is more precise) of poetry… The man no longer exists; what exists is – Michelangelo. He sees and remembers nothing. He walks around mumbling: ‘Like a black fern on a green night.’ For four lines, four hundred are uttered, literally… He does not remember his own poems. He repeats himself and, separating out the repetitions, writes what is new.”