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Daniel Weissbort


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about Semyon Lipkin 

Daniel Weissbort
   Daniel Weissbort
      photo: Irina Mashinski
What the Spring Is Saying
(Literate, interlinear translation)

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)celestial kinship.


The poem consists of basically 3-stress lines, rhyming a/b/a/b, with masculine/feminine rhyme alternation (masculine rhymes stress on last syllable;feminine rhymes stress on penultimate syllable, e.g.vysotY /chistotY; nAmi / kamNYAmi).
I have picked this poem because it appeals to me, not because I have tried translating it before. In general, I select poems on the simple and (for me) indispensable basis of liking them straight away. Sometimes on reflection some of these "first loves" disappoint, but generally immediate attraction is a reliable guide. This particular poem seems to be about the poet's sense of closeness to Nature.I was sent (by Inna Lisnianskaya's daughter) a video of Lipkin reading in the garden of their Peredelkino dacha. In the background one sees Inna making a slow way up the stairs to enter the house and pausing at the entrance, to look down at Semyon reciting poems in the garden.

Bearing in mind that this is a poem, which infringes upon no rules of composition, I make a first stab at it, finding the rhymes too hard.

  * * *

With caution, from the heights
We descend - the clouds were so close
Where the spring conversed with the rocks
In its celestial purity.

Dangerously steep are the rocks,
The guide all ears.
If only we could know
What the spring is telling the rocks.

It moves cautiously,
Not all can hear its words,
And distinct to the paths what it tells,
The paths celestially kin.

And now to look, at least, for approximate rhymes (chimes?)

  * * *

With caution, from the lofty azure
We descend; the clouds were so close,
Where the spring converses
Celestially pure.

Dangerously steep the rocks.
The guide is attentive.
If only we knew
What the spring is telling them.

It moves cautiously,
Not all can hear its tune.
Only to the path, distinct,
The paths, celestially kin.

This is obviously clumsy, but I have never been adept at rhyming, unlike J. Brodsky. Russian, in any case, has built-in advantages in that it is a strongly accented and inflected language, thus making available a multitude of assonantal rhymes, which are not available in English.Brodsky would not acknowledge this difference and occasionally chanced upon a "new" rhyme in English, somewhat in the Ogden-Nash manner, often more suited, however, to comical, it seemed to me, than to serious verse.
A more productive approach, perhaps, is to depart from the text's formal qualities and to try writing a poem in English on a similar theme, incorporating as much as possible ofthe realia of the source text. This takes patience and seems more creative and respectful, having the advantage that one translates only poems to which one is responsive. This is what I shall now do, but the choice of this poem is arbitrary and, it now seems that, had I looked further, I might not have chosen it.
What the poem is saying is that the source is pure and burbling, or that burbling stones tell the spring something. To the paths among these rocks, its words are familiar, because they are kin to it.But I am not sure about that! How can a spring be kin to paths, even if these lead to it?But here,after all, is the crux of it all, of the poem. The spring is audible to all but not to the path, in spite of the kinship. It seems I must accept this.
What begins to become apparent is that poetry cannot be translated; more precisely that it can only be imitated, so it turns out that Robert Lowell of the Imitations is right; the fact that "imitations" are more admired becomes immediately understandable. Ted Hughes held a modified view of this Lowellian theory. He thought poetry could be translated literally and that this, in reality, was the best that could be done. But Hughes was an exception and his views are still not understood, assuming that I myself have understood them! Is there any point, one may ask, in translating poetry semantically or literally, as Hughes attempted to do with the Hungarian poet Janos Pilinszky? Ted Hughes was convinced that there was and it was surely true that his translations of Pilinszky or the Israeli Amichai, were at least as effective as poetic artifacts. Is this because his literalistic versions sound like Hughes originals? Another possible reason for their effectiveness has to do with the literalistic nature of much of the poetry, with which Hughes involved himself, about which I have written. I shall attempt to apply all this (with a kind of internal dialogue in italics) to this poem by Lipkin, while realizing that it cannot be done so cold-bloodedly!

  * * *

We clamber down from the heights.
The clouds were so close.
Where the celestially pure spring
Converses with its stones.

The crags are dangerously steep.
The guide keeps an anxious watch.
If only we knew what
The spring was saying to its stones.

Its movements slow and careful,
Its words not all can hear.
Only the paths can clearly make out
Its words, familiar.

Though semantically close, this will not do! Hence, I find myself attempting to reproduce the rhyme.What, though, if I abandon this apparently hopeless attempt and aim, rather, at metrical regularity?

  * * *

We clamber downwards from the heights.
Up there the clouds were close,
Where the celestially pure spring
Converses with its stone.

The crags are dangerously steep,
The guide keeps a keen look-out.
O, if only we could really know
What the spring is telling its stones.

The spring, so slow, so cautious, its
Words not all can hear;
Only the paths clearly discern
Its likeness to the sky.

Another attempt!

  * * *

We clamber down from the heights,
where the clouds to us were so close
to where the celestially pure spring
is burbling to its stones.

The crags are dangerously steep.
The guide keeps an eye on them.
If only we could really know
what the spring is telling its stones.

It is lying there so discretely;
not all can hear its words.
Only the high clouds recognize
their kinship with the source.

Not much better, but I suppose manipulating the poem in this way is, at least, familiarizing me with it? But isn't it also re-enforcing what I already know or suspect, i.e. that poetry is untranslatable?

Copyright  Daniel Weissbort
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