Irina Mashinski

Read 'An Attempt to Explain' by Irina Mashinski 

about the author 
about Semyon Lipkin 

Irina Mashinski. Portrait by Sergey Samsonov
Irina Mashinski
Portrait by Sergey Samsonov

Indeed, Semyon Lipkin's poem is difficult for translation — but not because it is so mysterious or opaque. Rather, its difficulty lies in the very simplicity of its tone and verbal texture, in the striking purity, almost naiveté, of its light tone.
It has been demonstrated to us many times that literal translation only gives one some information about the poem. And of course, replicating the rhyme scheme and the meter doesn't help, either, as in the two languages and two distinctly different prosodic traditions, the same meter and even rhythm create very different tonal impressions. After all, a false tone is the worst thing that can happen to a translated poem.
We can certainly try, as some of the finest translators do, to shift the weight and responsibility to the elements that can be translated so that they somewhat compensate for the losses. Zooming in on individual lines, however, no matter how insightful and industrious, is of little help. Instead, let's take the poem as a whole and discern its main intertwining themes. Let's ask ourselves what the uniqueness of this poem is and what is its urgency. What does its tone suggest in the original language? What allusions and quick recognitions does it spark as we read it in Russian?

Semyon Lipkin

What the Spring is Saying

  S opaskoi skhodim s vysoty.
          With caution we descend from the heights.
Tak blizko oblaka nad nami,
          The clouds are so close above us,
Tam, gdye besyeduyet s kamnyami
          Converses with the stones
Rodnik nyebyesnoi chistoty.
          The spring of celestial purity.

Gubitetylny krutye glyby. 
          The blocks/lumps/clods are steep and deadly-dangerous
Nastorozhilsya provodnik...
          The guide has pricked up his ears...
O, yesli my uznat' mogli by,
          O, if we only knew
Chto govorit kamnyam rodnik!
          What the spring is saying to the rocks!

On dvizhetsya dvizhenyem robkim
          It moves with careful movement.
Nye vysem slyshny slova yevo. 
          Not to all are words audible. 
Lish nyezametnym vnyatno tropkam
          Only perceptible distinctly to the paths
Yevo nyebeyesnoe rodstvo.
          is its celestial kinship

                                          Transliteration and literal translation by D.Weissbort

There are only three actions taking place: descending, conversing, and listening. From stanza 1 to stanza 3 we follow two descents: of the group of people ("we") with its earthly guide ("provodnik") and of the brook originating in a source and therefore consistently referred to as "rodnik" (a source, a spring).

rodnik (source) <---> provodnik (guide)

"Provodnik" and "rodnik" rhyme. Even more, "rodnik" fits (or hides) in "provodnik" completely. The source (the soul?) is, in a way, a guide, too — it cautiously ("timidly") finds its way (the right way, the only way out of many) between rocks scattered erratically on the slope. These two seemingly parallel movements intersect, and so do the poem's themes. It is the intertwining of the earthly and the heavenly that holds the poem together.

The first theme, or axis, is based on the root affinity of "rodnik" (source) and "rodstvo" (affinity, kinship).

rodnik <---> (phonetically close) robko (timidly, cautiously) <---> rodstvo

(One would think that words like "brook" or "stream" would be more appropriate, as "source" rather denotes the place where the underground waters surface, but these other terms, even geologically correct, would be of little use to the author. )

The following are two secondary subthemes:

celestial + clouds (i.e. celestial water) + heights

All in all, this most important theme moves through the poem in the following way:

Ist stanza:        heights — clouds — source (rodnik) — celestial-purity
2nd stanza:      source (rodnik)
3rd stanza:      cautiously (robko) — celestial-kinship (rodstvo)

The second major supporting theme is "path" (and the life path): people are descending, following their guide who seems a bit unsure and is, in turn, trying to receive a signal from his guide: the source (the Source?). As for the stream/source, its path is not definite, rather, it is freely chosen among multiple possibilities in a way unknown to (hidden from) us people. It makes its way between the dangerous (even deadly) rocks. The danger is beautifully emphasized in the original by the phonetic closeness of "gubitelny" (deadly) and "glyby" (rocks).

The third theme, which, just like the first two, must be kept in translation at all costs, is the theme of audibility. In all three stanzas, everything in the poem speaks or listens or tries to hear, determine, make out.

1st stanza:        the source converses with rocks.
2nd stanza:      the guide pricked up his ears;
                             if we could only find out/hear;
                             what the source tells the rocks.
3rd stanza:      not everyone can make out its words;
                             it is only the tiny paths between rocks that can understand/hear clearly — (and therefore appreciate the celestial source/affinity of the spring/guide).

Now we see what the main tasks for a translator would be in this poem: to find in a different language some means to convey the three themes, as they chime and rhyme, both phonetically and linguistically.
Fortunately for us, there are some possibilities in English that are absent in Russian. Say, the word "path": in Russian, the distance between the words denoting life path as opposed to a path in the woods or on a slope, is larger. In English, it is one word. "Spring" is, of course, another obvious possibility. Regardless of the season, the poem sounds very spring-like, even Easter-like: at the every least, there is an aura of some new beginning in it.

If I were to translate this poem, which is so typical of Semyon Lipkin, with his ability to be profoundly emotional, tender, and yet still reserved in the manliest way; transparent, mysterious, and, above all, able to victoriously get away with the most "poetic" and the most trivial, — if I were to attempt at doing that, I would set a few more goals, a couple of musts.

  • It is very important to preserve the Present Tense in the poem: it creates a sense of urgency, immediate attention, and readiness. Consistent heartbeat is everything in this poem, otherwise it will simply break into several poetic slivers.

  • I should listen to the speaker's tone and try to recreate it in English with all its calm dignity and emotional simplicity, as the poem cautiously steps down from stanza to stanza, while its thought ascends. In other words, I should preserve the voice.

  • Finally, in translation, just as in the original, the poem should in the end unmistakably return to its beginning, i.e. to its celestial source, to the clouds, to the height. I would have to do it in a very clear, definite way.
    Geographically speaking, such affinity is only partially correct, since the brook and the clouds, although related in the landscape through the water cycle, are of a different genesis. But as a translator, I would stick to this minor inaccuracy, just like I would refer to the mountain stream as the "source". Such hidden inexactitudes only add to the poem's beauty, as they connect so unpretentiously the depth and the height.

    Of course, there is much more to this three stanza poem, and yet more motifs and echos may be found and heard. The ones above are just too audible to do without.

  • © Copyright  Irina Mashinski
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