Josef Brodsky and languages
(Выступление на районной НПК)
I would like the English language to be my future profession. But I am interested in different languages, not only English. Everything that is connected with the translation from one language to another attracts my attention. So I was very thankful to my English teacher when she advised me to get acquainted with Josef Brodsky’s biography and especially with his interviews.
The matter is that Josef Brodsky’s views on the language in general, and his opinions about his native language – Russian, and the English language which has become his second language, especially when he compares them, are not only very interesting, but also extremely important for those who deal with languages.
Besides, Josef Brodsky’s biography is particularly interesting from that point of view that the first half of his life took place in the USSR, and the second one – in the USA. So, half of his life he spoke Russian, and the rest part of his life he had to speak English.
At first it seems there is nothing special in it. Lots of immigrants do it every time they come to America. But Josef Brodsky was not a common immigrant. He was a poet, a man of arts. And he used English not only as a means of communication as ordinary people do. He used it to write his literary works.
The history of literature knows such names as Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov who were born in Russia and later left it for another country. Joseph Conrad is known as a famous English writer, and Nabokov is known as both a Russian and an American writer.
And what can we say about Brodsky? What was he? What has the English language become for him? There were a lot of questions for me to be answered. So, to answer them I have decided to make a research.
The aim of my research is to answer the question whether Josef Brodsky can be called an English-speaking writer.
My hypothesis is Josef Brodsky cannot be called an English-speaking writer.
Josef Brodsky and the language
He inherited his love to languages from his mother who was a professional translator.
He was fond of working with lots of languages. For about thirty years of his life were devoted to the translation of the poems by poets of different nationalities. He has translated poems from about ten languages.
After he had been forced to leave the USSR he decided to choose the USA. He hoped he would be able to write there. And he did.
But he remained a Russian poet because he wrote his verses mainly in Russian.
Sometimes when he wanted to show that he was able of writing poems in English he did it, but it was not usual for him.
He also tried to translate his verses from Russian into English himself, especially when he was not satisfied with that how it was done by the others.
But all this was done because of his love to experiments, not more. It was the question of technique only. But real poetry was written by him in Russian.
But Brodsky is known not only as a poet. He has written some essays and lots of journal articles as a literary critic. The whole of his prose is written in English. He was sure that the essay was typical of the English culture. He sincerely believed that the Russian language is not suitable for writing essays, and consequently, an essay can be written only in English.
Brodsky and his translators
Brodsky’s poems being created in Russian had to be translated into English to be appreciated by his English-speaking readers. Sometimes he did it himself but usually it was done by other people who were professional translators.
His and his translators’ opinions often differ mainly because he insists on being exact, and the translations often suffer inaccuracy.
To illustrate some problems of the translation process mentioned by Josef Brodsky in his interviews I have taken Brodsky’s poem Cape Cod Lullaby, as an example.
Firstly, we know that to formulate one and the same idea different languages use different means. Very often trying to be exact the translator has to add some words which are absent in the original. This is a usual thing. And these words shouldn’t change the sense of the phrase, and do any harm to it.
But there are cases when the additional words give some additional meaning to the phrase, which is alien to the author. The idea may not belong to him.
For instance, the adjective “great” together with the word “flag” adds some special meaning to the phrase on the screen.
In the Russian version of the verse the author does not express any special attitude to the American flag – the word “flag” is used with the adjective “local” which has no any positive or negative meaning. And the Russian readers see no special author’s respect towards the symbol of Brodsky’s new residence as his American readers do.
Perhaps, Brodsky did not mind this addition because he was thankful to the country that had given him a shelter. And still, the two versions of the poem sound quite differently to the readers of the two countries. This is an example of one of the “beauties” fancied by the translator, or his own idea which he ascribes to the poet. But it is connected with some political views, and Josef Brodsky never touched political themes.
Secondly, as far as it concerns inaccuracies, there are such lines in the poem:
Тело похоже на свернутую в рулон трехверстку,
и на севере поднимают бровь.
The English variant says:
The body, like an upright, Rolled-up road-map, lifts an eyebrow in the North.
As we see the translator has misunderstood the phrase, and in his translation “The body lifts an eyebrow”.
But it is not right. The “body” looks like “an upright, Rolled-up road-map”, and “the eyebrow” is lifted by someone unknown, and there are many of them, and they are “in the North”, but not where the body is.
In the Russian tradition “to lift one’s eyebrow” means to be surprised, and the words “in the North” hint at the geographical position of our country which has always been associated with snow and cold, so typical of the North.
I suppose, Brodsky meant the surprise of those in the USSR who had forced him to leave the Motherland and hoped that he would have failed to survive and continue his writing.
I am afraid, the translator was not aware of all the details of Brodsky’s biography, and this explains his mistake. But the poet devoted the poem to his son Andrei who stayed in the USSR. The poet was sure that in Russia he would be understood.
The next issue is losses caused by translation. As an example of such a loss I would take the phrase:
… and a car bends length Around corners in spite of Euclid.
продлевает пространство за угол, мстя Эвклиду.
If we compare the emotions evoked by the two versions, we shall come to the conclusion that the English version is more neutral: “in spite of” means a rebel but not so evil as it is felt in the Russian variant where the car “is having revenge”.
The word “revenge” is used by the poet not by chance: it reflects his own feelings that are accumulated in the atmosphere, and the poet cannot but mention it.
So, to sum up I should say that studying Josef Brodsky’s biography and his interviews I tried to answer the question whether it is possible to treat him as a man belonging equally to two cultures – Russian and American.
Having made the research I have come to the conclusion that I am right when I say that Joseph Brodsky cannot be called an English-speaking writer. It is so because he did not belong to the British-American culture: he thought in Russian, and he brought his Russian way of thinking, his Russian constructions into his English.
But using both languages, remaining a Russian poet in the English-speaking environment Joseph Brodsky belongs to the world culture.
The creations of Joseph Brodsky are translated into many languages of the world, and reading them, people become the participants of a great dialogue of cultures.