Monday, 30 December 2013

A New Translation of Osip Mandelstam's 'Tristia'

Osip Mandelstam at the time of his arrest in 1934

On 27 December, it was 75 years since the untimely death of the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938). This previously unpublished translation of Mandelstam's 'Tristia' has been kindly contributed by Mark L Mosher, a California-based translator with whom I occasionally correspond about poetry and especially poetry in translation. He has already appeared on the blog as Leif Hendrik, with his translation of Georg Trakl's 'Decline', and he blogs at Nordic Mountain. You can read his translation of 'Tristia' below, as well as the original Russian poem, and Mark's biography.

'Tristia' is a complex, subtle poem beloved of many poets and readers. With its meditation on "the science of parting", it feels very personal, but it is suffused with the uncertainty following the Russian Revolution of 1917. Through its title and subject matter, it also references the Tristia of the Roman poet Ovid, who wrote a series of laments while in exile. The poem contains allusions to traditional Russian divination practices, which took place particularly around New Year's Eve, such as the attempt to see shapes in wax or the future in a mirror. The cockerel, too, could be a reference to such practices, or to the dawning of a new day and life - but the poem is constantly ringed round with uncertainty, like the women's attempts to see the future.

This poem made me think of a comment by poet and critic Ilya Kaminsky: "I don’t think there exists a poet on this planet without a duality. Duality is a mother of metaphors." 'Tristia' is all about duality, which makes me it particularly appropriate for the end of one year and the beginning of another, a time when people naturally look both forwards and back. (January is named after Janus, the Roman god with two faces, who looks ahead and behind.) It reads like a palimpsest - past, present and future overlaid, the ancient Roman setting visible through the contemporary reality of 20th-century Russian political and personal upheaval. All of its times, settings and themes are both ghostly, and real. Science and superstition, women and men, literal and metaphorical death - all are present. "All happened long ago, all will happen again,/Only recognition of the moment is sweet", says Mandelstam. Paradoxically, in the fusion of prophecy and contemplation which comes naturally to poetry, such moments of pure being can emerge. 'Tristia' feels like a moment both peaceful and unsettling, in the eye of the storm.

TRISTIA (Osip Mandelstam, translated from the Russian by Mark L Mosher)

I have learned the science of parting
In bare-headed laments of night.
The oxen graze, the waiting goes on - 
The final hour of vigils in town,
And I honor the rituals of cockerel night,
When, bearing the weight of a journey endured,
Tear-stained eyes gazed into the void
And a woman's cry mixed with singing of the muse.

Who can know, with the word 'farewell',
What kind of separation awaits?
What promise for us in the cockerel's cry,
When fire in the acropolis burns,
And at the dawn of some new life,
When the ox chews lazily in its stall,
Why does the cockerel, herald of new life,
Beat its wings upon the city wall?

And I love the habits of weaving:
The shuttle twists, the spindle hums.
Look, like swan's down,
Barefooted Delia already runs forth!
O, meagre foundation of our life,
How pitiful the language of joy!
All happened long ago, all will happen again,
Only recognition of the moment is sweet.

Thus will it be: a transparent shape
On a clean porcelain plate,
And, like a squirrel's spread-out pelt,
A girl leans over the wax and gazes in.
The Greek Erebus is not for us to divine,
Wax is to woman what bronze is to man.
Our lot falls only in battle,
While for them divination is the death. 

Я изучил науку расставанья 
В простоволосых жалобах ночных. 
Жуют волы, и длится ожиданье — 
Последний час вигилий городских, 
И чту обряд той петушиной ночи, 
Когда, подняв дорожной скорби груз, 
Глядели вдаль заплаканные очи 
И женский плач мешался с пеньем муз. 

Кто может знать при слове «расставанье» 
Какая нам разлука предстоит, 
Что нам сулит петушье восклицанье, 
Когда огонь в акрополе горит, 
И на заре какой-то новой жизни, 
Когда в сенях лениво вол жуёт, 
Зачем петух, глашатай новой жизни, 
На городской стене крылами бьёт? 

И я люблю обыкновенье пряжи: 
Снуёт челнок, веретено жужжит. 
Смотри, навстречу, словно пух лебяжий, 
Уже босая Делия летит! 
О, нашей жизни скудная основа, 
Куда как беден радости язык! 
Всё было встарь, всё повторится снова, 
И сладок нам лишь узнаванья миг. 

Да будет так: прозрачная фигурка 
На чистом блюде глиняном лежит, 
Как беличья распластанная шкурка, 
Склонясь над воском, девушка глядит. 
Не нам гадать о греческом Эребе, 
Для женщин воск, что для мужчины медь. 
Нам только в битвах выпадает жребий, 
А им дано гадая умереть. 


Mark L Mosher is a freelance translator. Beginning with Two Brothers, his translation of a play by Mikhail Lermontov (California State University, 1996), he has published translations from Russian, German, Spanish and Danish. His translation of excerpts from the memoirs of Mikhail Nesterov was published by Atlantis Magazine in 2004. He has participated as a translator in three exhibitions sponsored by the American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation (Washington and Moscow, 1999-2009). His poem 'Doña Alba on the Ranch' recently appeared in 200 New Mexico Poems, an official project of the New Mexico Centennial Commission in cooperation with the University of New Mexico Press. He is currently working on an English translation of Johannes Vilhelm Jensen's Himmerland Stories. He lives in San Francisco, California and writes on topics literary, cultural and personal at

Translation © Mark L Mosher, 2013.

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