WALT WHITMAN IN RUSSIAN TRANSLATIONS
There is a valid claim that vers libre most solidly entered Russian literature owing to translations of Walt Whitman's poetry. But in the history of Russian literature there were earlier treatments of free verse in poetry. For example, taktovik meter appears in Russian bylini, rhymed stressed verse in early asyllabic poetry, and free verse in Old Slavonic liturgical verse after it lost its antiphonal syllabic character.
Walt Whitman first came to Russia in reviews with few quotations. The first article about Whitman's poems appeared in the January edition of "Otechestvennye zapiski" ["Notes of the Fatherland"] of 1861, and its author was certain that the work was not poetry but a prose novel. After this mention it was only in 1882 in V. Korsh's "Zagranichnii vestnik" ["Foreign Messenger"] that there appeared a translation of a lecture by American journalist John Swinton about the literature of the United States of America that devotes to Whitman a few lines. In 1883 in the same magazine there appeared a more detailed article about Whitman, N. Popov's "Walt Guitman [sic]," with poorly translated quotations. In 1872 I.S. Turgenev took such an interest in the poetry of W. Whitman that he made an attempt to translate into Russian several of his poems and sent some of them to E. Ragozin, the editor of "Nedelya" ["Week"]. Ninety-four years later, one manuscript of Turgenev's kept in the National Library was identified as a draft of a translation of a well-known poem of Whitman's BEAT! beat! drums! written in 1861.
This discovery was made by I.S. Chistova, a researcher at the Pushkin House of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. She published Turgenev's translation in the journal "Russkaya literatura" ["Russian Literature"].
The Turgenev text represents a rough draft or, more likely, a word-for-word translation. Therefore, we cannot hold it to high standards. There is reason to believe that in subsequent versions Turgenev attempted to come nearer to the rhythmic structure of the translated text.
Consider the first line: "Beat! beat! drums!—Blow! bugles! blow!" It has only seven syllables with seven stresses, and that is why it sounds energetic and nervous. In Turgenev's translation there are sixteen syllables. This is somewhat ductile and flabby, although it is worth noting the definite difficulty in reproducing the rhythmic abruptness in the translation from English to Russian due to the lack of correspondence between the average word length in the two languages: each Russian word is an average three times longer than the English. K. Chukovskii found a better way to minimize the number of unstressed syllables: "Bej! Bej! Baraban! -- Trubi! Truba! Trubi!" Instead of sixteen syllables there are eleven, which against the background of Russian long-wordedness are perceived like the English seven.
The text translated by Balmont is interesting for the fact that at the time of its creation the specifics of free verse were not defined by theorists, so the translator had to decide on his own how to render it in Russian. Balmont chose for this an arrhythmic tonic line. Since in the original there is not a single rhythm-producing factor, more significance is gained by common free verse measures of repetition, such as isosyntaxism, alliteration, anaphora, sometimes metrics (in Whitman's original the fourth line is in dactyl and the sixth in trochee). The translator introduced a single degree of repetition and on that account somewhat shortened the rest.
In the second line Balmont uses alliteration on "v" (in Whitman "th"), but does not pass on the inner rhyme of "doors" and "force." The third and fourth lines of the original are built on anaphora, and additionally, the fourth is organized metrically, and in it is the consonance of "school" and "scholar." From all of this Balmont preserved only the same beginnings. In the sixth line the morpheme peace is repeated twice, which is not reflected in the translation; in the fifth line Whitman brings in the emphatic form of the imperative, and in the sixth an inversion, for which there is also no correspondence in the Russian text. In the seventh line the translator omits the repeated "so" and, additionally, in order to more fully pass on the meaning, sacrifices the effect of the lapidary style, translating Whitman's single line into two lines.
The translator K. Chukovskii strives to execute the translation as accurately as possible. He does not create such deviations from the original as "siloyu zvuka vorvites." Chukovskii attempted to be faithful to the rhythm of the original and did not introduce into the poem a different rhythmic foundation. Before us is free verse. But much is lost in the process of translating. The alliteration of the first line in the translation is distributed into two components: repetition of "v" and repetition of "tr." Further, Chukovskii does the same as Bal'mont: he gives the alliteration "v" and refuses to search for an equivalent internal rhyme. He preserves the anaphora of the third and fourth lines but he does not transmit the metric of the fourth line. In the fifth line of Whitman there is a repetition of the morpheme bride; Chukovskii decides to preserve the effect, but in so doing plays loose with the meaning, changing it not for the better, translating Whitman's "Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happiness must he have now with his bride" this way: "Zhenikha ot nevesty proch', chtob ne smel zhenikhat'sya" ["The bridegroom is away from the bride so he couldn't be courting"].
The first translations of some poems, executed by K. Balmont, appeared in the journal "Vesy" in 1904. In 1908 Bal'mont slightly more adequately conveyed the rhythm of a different Walt Whitman poem. Capturing the irregular metric of some of the lines of the original, he used the alternation of three-accentual meter with dol'nik, but he did not sustain the method to the end of the text and went astray with four- and five-foot iambs.
It is significant that the translator did not consider it necessary to preserve the length of the original lines, breaking them up according to the number of between-phrase pauses, transforming this unusual text in the formal sense into a conventional one, depriving it of a large share of its draw.
Indeed, in the history of Russian Symbolism the poetry of Walt Whitman has played a very minor role. Neither in the art of Bal'mont nor in the works of other Symbolists are the style and themes of Leaves of Grass reflected. But the works of some Russian Futurists, especially in the early period of their creative activity, bear a clear mark of Whitman's poetics. At the beginning of his literary life Velimir Khlebnikov was strongly under Whitman's influence. Khlebnikov's poem "Zverinets" ["Menagerie"], placed in the first version of "Sadka Sudei" ["A Trap for Judges"] (1910), seems a typical work from the book Leaves of Grass and is reminiscent of a passage from "Song of Myself."
The structure of the poetry as well as many ideas in "Zverinets" Khlebnikov borrowed from Whitman. For example, the idea that "the gaze of an animal means more than piles of read books" is repeated many times in the poems of Leaves of Grass. But the vivid imagery of "Zverinets" is pure Khlebnikov, going beyond the limits of Whitman's poetics.
A group of Cubo-Futurists were drawn to Whitman in common hatred of conventional aesthetics and the gravitation towards a "natural," "unpolished" poetic form. In St. Petersburg's Ego-Futurism there was a definite cult of Walt Whitman. Ivan Oredezh diligently imitated the style of Leaves of Grass.
Vladimir Mayakovskii at the beginning of his literary work creatively absorbed and reworked the poetry of Leaves of Grass. He was mainly interested in the role of Whitman as a destroyer of literary traditions and a creator of his own original principles of poetry. Lines of Whitman, which at one time Mayakovskii enjoyed quoting out loud from memory, contain images close to the Russian poet's own hyperbolic declaration.
With regard to Mayakovskii, we cannot speak of direct borrowings from and stylistic influences of Whitman's poetry; he was never an imitator of Whitman's, since by the age of twenty-two he had developed into an original poet with his own themes, his own style. But perhaps Walt Whitman's style was one of the components that contributed during Mayakovskii's search for his own versatile poetic style with fully realized metaphors, hyperbole, and eccentricity.
We will examine a few of the most striking examples. Whitman titled one of his works with his name: "Poem of Walt Whitman, American"; Mayakovskii does likewise, naming his tragedy "Vladimir Mayakovskii." The motifs of Whitman's poetry suggest themselves in the poem "Chelovek" ["Man"], which Mayakovksii wrote, creating a new Gospel with a new Christ, just as the American poet created a new Bible.
In the twentieth century a whole line of poets and translators turn to the legacy of Walt Whitman and attempt to convey the original style of his writing. K. Bal'mont, I. Kashkin "polish" and formalize the original, often transforming the image system; worrying about the adequacy of the rhythmic and phonetic aspects, they sometimes sacrifice meaning. D. Maizel went to the other extreme, producing a word-for-word translation, apparently not considering the original rhythm. M. Zenkevich, generally an outstanding translator, often improvised and simplified the system of images in pursuit of conveying alliteration and other phonetic effects.
More felicitous translations of W. Whitman's poems, taking into account both the form and the meaning of the original texts, in our view belong to K. Chukovskii, V. Levik, N. Bannikov, and A. Starostin.