The Big Think talks to translator Christian Wiman on the publication of Stolen Air by Osip Mandelstam, who died at 47 in a Siberian work camp during the Stalin regime.
BT: In your afterword you call these poems “versions” rather than “translations.” Could you explain the distinction and describe your process in working with Mandelstam’s poetry, including your collaboration with poet Ilya Kaminsky?
CW: I think of translations as passing some scholarly smell test: you can read the words of the translation and be reasonably sure of what the words are in the original. Not of the tone, mind you, and rarely of the form, but you can get the words. The translator is effaced, for better or worse, for the sake of the original. I don’t think that someone who does not speak the original language can ever expect to produce a real translation in this sense.
A version aims at other things, depending on the translator. Usually, though, it’s the tone that he’s after, which of course is paradoxical if he doesn’t speak the language. The tone has to be gleaned from other sources: the poet’s prose, comparing multiple translations, working with native speakers, gut instinct.
I don’t speak or read Russian. I did these versions from word-by-word translations provided by Ilya or Helena Lorman (a scholar at Northwestern) as well as transliterations of the originals (the Cyrillic changed to the Roman alphabet) so that I could tell where the rhymes were happening and get a sense of the sounds. I also worked with a lot of scholarly sources to help me think about the context of individual poems.
I wanted to call my poems versions, but as I say in the afterword, the marketing department wasn’t keen on that, for sound reasons. They won.
Read the rest here.