Translation is best seen as a reading, and it is more acceptable that no two readings will be identical since readers patently differ from each other. After many years spent trying to translate, i.e. read Russian poetry, the approach that satisfies me the most may be described as "literalistic". That is, I attempt to eschew any interpretation or overlay of self, and reach for what has directed my choice to the source text in the first place. The result, alas, does not satisfy many people who would rather see spectacular evidence of the effect on the translator of the source text. Occasionally I indulge myself and experiment, allowing myself to freely interpret and make changes. Sometimes this has liberated the self and has been productive of material I was able to use; but usually it is merely a kind of holiday from the serious business of translating.
I am not as certain as Nabokov appears to be, but cautiously subscribe to his approach. My technique is to produce a literal, almost word-for-word version first, and work from that with frequent sidelong glances at the unchanging source. Sound of course in poetry is of paramount importance but, for obvious reasons, this cannot be preserved in another language. Can it, though, be imitated or can some equivalent be found for it? I doubt it, though it is possible to convince oneself that this has happened. I should like to illustrate this by taking a poem by Lipkin. Though I read Russian fluently, I still look up most of the words in my OUP Russian dictionary, which provides me with synonyms, rarely of much use though occasionally they may be. When I have a dependable podstrochnik (literal version) which has been checked by my wife, Valentina Polukhina, who is Russian and a literary scholar, I leave it unread for a while. I have found it practical to translate in this way a number of poems that appeal to me. I should add that unless the source text does appeal, there is no point in proceeding. But if the text is engaging, then it's as if some mechanism were engaged, without which nothing is likely to happen. Once the "kit" is on paper, the process of translation can start. Translation has been correctly described as an ultra-complex mental process, so that the actual business, after the preliminaries have been completed and one has provide oneself with a reliable text - or, as I, "kit" - to establish with, may be a very lengthy process, involving much self-interrogation as well as questioning of one's informants to check insights, maybe misconceived.
Assuming one is translating a formal poem, there are two possibilities: one may ignore the form and translate into prose or free-verse, or one may try to produce a formal replica of the source text, i.e., mirroring in English its formal qualities. It is sometimes possible to reproduce rhyme, if with different tonalities, though one should bear in mind that rhyming is more natural in Russian, an inflected language, than in English, which is analytical; its effect, thus, in English, is more marked or obvious. Nabokov points out that this can be mathematically demonstrated.
Of even greater importance in Russian is the meter, which, it seems to me, is more transferable inter-linguistically. When I consulted Brodsky about my translations of N. Zabolotsky's poems, since he was a great admirer of Zabolotsky and valued it nearly much as he did that of Mandelstam and Akhmatova, he urged me to pay greater attention to the lively movement of the verse and to attempt to concentrate on reproducing that above all. He, then, extemporized a version of the first few lines of a long poem by Zabolotsky, all but ignoring the literal meaning and normal English usage but successfully reproducing their meter or movement. This approach necessitated fairly radical departures from literal meaning; still, something of the life of the source text had undoubtedly been captured. Captured, it seems to me, in a language not normal or standard English, not the language to which most readers would be accustomed, not the language as it is currently or has ever been spoken. Arguably, though, his translation into a re-shaped English does give a better sense of the original, so one is tempted to ask whether a specialized translational language should be invented for the purpose of conveying poetry, since, arguably, poetry is a specialized language.
It was on that visit to Brodsky that I first heard of Semyon Lipkin. Brodsky pulled from his shelves a selection of Lipkin's poetry made by himself for Ardis: "Volya" (Volition// Will, 1981 and said "Forget about Vinokurov" (a celebrated Soviet WW2 poet) whose work I had translated extensively, "and translate Lipkin". Only now do I understand what he was saying. Vinokurov, an excellent poet, was nevertheless Soviet, insofar as he was neither a dissident nor an opponent of the Soviet regime. His verse, prosodically, was fairly conventional, he being a kind of latter-day "Acmeist", but the content of his poetry powerfully depicted the experience of the World War Two. In some ways, Vinokuorv seems to me a somewhat less rebellious or more politically conformist version of Lipkin!
My interest in Lipkin's widow Lisnyanskaya, along with other Russian women poets, made me look more closely at Lipkin's own work. I had for long been interested in the war poets, the Great War poet of England, especially Siegfried Sassoon, but also English-language war poet of World War Two, like Alun Lewis to whose work I had been alerted by Robert Graves, himself a poet of great interest, and non-English language poets, some of whose work is to be found in the late Jon Silkin's anthology of First War poetry. For an anthology of 20th Century Russian poets, selected by Yevgeny Yevtushenko [published by Doubleday in 1993], Max Hayward and I commissioned English translations, the anthology including three poems by Lipkin, translated by Albert Todd. However, I cannot claim to have been awoken to Lipkin's excellence so early and it was probably more curiosity, aroused by my translation of Lisnyanskaya's poetry (and her high regard to her husband's poetry) that drew me to his poetry.
Two poems by Semyon Lipkin
War everywhere in charge made for a difficult year.
That year, spring closed in twice,
the third time making a detour.
because it found winter grimly posted.
It was a long coming.
The heavenly bodies took time rising,
vibrant, like mercury, in the grey,
signs of Taurus and of Gemini were lucent,
By day, murk descended.
As in a mad dog's eyes.
the rivers hid three times under the ice,
moon immersed trice itself in mist.
The breeze disturbs the folliage,
Grass timidly greens;
Boys cut and prod wood,
Over the estates, a carriage is bowling along,
A shower of rein descending onto it.
Prodigal earth-bound creatures;
Vessels, at their moorings,
Ship-bells tolling peacefully,
Women singing as they dig,
The shore embraces
The darkening waters of the bay.
Midnight blooms faintly.
Whence to take heart.
To utter, not daring to end
What's already been begun.
Now, the song is silenced by tears,
Low flying-bombers pound the air.
A woman's voice, in the quiet,
Laments softly and vibrantly.
If only the birds
Sang sing so mindlessly,
Yet so unequivocally?
August, 1941, Kronstadt
Translated by Daniel Weissbort