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Solidus Online



Tony Brinkley

Boris Pasternak
Hamlet
Translated by Tony Brinkley

The stir quiets. I ascend the stage.
Framed against an open door,
I catch a distant echo
that my century offers.

Night blankness pins me to its axis
through a thousand opera-glasses
with a wasp-sting. Father! Abba!
Take this cup from me if it is possible.

I love your obstinate themes, the stubborn
plan, its strict arrests. And I would
play my part. But this new play is alien.
Acquit me! let me part!

Everything drowns with the pharisees,
solitary—I—alone—
in being living—no field to walk,
the tally of acts foils.

                                          1946, Moscow

 

Boris Pasternak
The Garden of Gethsemane
Translated by Tony Brinkley

The gleam from alien, distant
stars lights the turning in the road
that circles the Mount of Olives,
where the Kedron streams.

Spring meadows open
onto the Milky Way.
Silver branches stretch
their limbs
and step into the air.

Behind a stranger’s garden,
a passage of earth, he leaves
his followers waiting, outside the wall:
“The soul grieves for death tonight. Watch
               with me awhile.”

Without resisting, as things
borrowed, he dismissed
omnipotence and miracles—
he was as human as we are.

Then night-distance edged
extermination, non-existence,
universal spaces uninhabited—
only this garden left for his existence.

And gazing through dark failures
—blank, empty—without origin
or ending—as if like tears his sweat
were bleeding, he prayed that his father
            would “let this cup pass from me.”

Eased by prayer from deadly anguish,
he left his garden-refuge and found
his followers on the grass beside the road,
mastered, scattered by weariness.

He rouses them: “In my time the Lord
gives life, and here you sprawl.
The hour strikes—the Son of Man
betrays himself into the hands of sinners.”

He finished—but where did they
             come from? God only knows—
a crowd of slaves and wanderers,
fire and sword, and at their head—
Judas—the traitor’s kiss on his lips.

Peter struggled, drew his sword,
cut a servant’s ear. Then Peter
listened: “Put up your sword.
Steel will not answer steel.

“Couldn’t my father arm ten thousand
angels to protect me. Not a hair of mine
would be disturbed—my enemies would
scatter, sown without a trace.

“But now the book of life has reached
a page that binds with blessings—
we are bound—writing must come
true, let it be tallied. Amen.

"See how the centuries' progress
becomes parable and blazes in fiery passages—
in a parable’s name, in its terrible grandeur,
I freely give myself to torture, I descend

"into the tomb, I go down into the grave,
in three days I return, resurrected. And
like rafts on a river, drifting toward me
for judgment, like convoys of barges,
                 centuries float out of the darkness.”

                                         1949, Moscow

 

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             ГАМЛЕТ

Гул затих. Я вышел на подмостки.
Прислонясь к дверному косяку,
Я ловлю в далеком отголоске
Что случится на моем веку.

На меня наставлен сумрак ночи
Тысячью биноклей на оси.
Если только можно, Авва Отче,
Чашу эту мимо пронеси.

Я люблю твой замысел упрямый
И играть согласен эту роль.
Но сейчас идет другая драма,
И на этот раз меня уволь.

Но продуман распорядок действий,
И неотвратим конец пути.
Я один, все тонет в фарисействе.
Жизнь прожить -- не поле перейти.

 

         ГЕФСИМАНСКИЙ САД

Мерцаньем звезд далеких безразлично
Был поворот дороги озарен.
Дорога шла вокруг горы Масличной,
Внизу под нею протекал Кедрон.

Лужайка обрывалась с половины.
За нею начинался Млечный путь.
Седые серебристые маслины
Пытались вдаль по воздуху шагнуть.

В конце был чей-то сад, надел земельный.
Учеников оставив за стеной,
Он им сказал: “Душа скорбит смертельно,
Побудьте здесь и бодрствуйте со мной”.

Он отказался без противоборства,
Как от вещей, полученных взаймы,
От всемогущества и чудотворства,
И был теперь, как смертные, как мы.

Ночная даль теперь казалась краем
Уничтоженья и небытия.
Простор вселенной был необитаем,
И только сад был местом для житья.

И, глядя в эти черные провалы,
Пустые, без начала и конца,
Чтоб эта чаша смерти миновала,
В поту кровавом он молил отца.

Смягчив молитвой смертную истому,
Он вышел за ограду. На земле
Ученики, осиленные дремой,
Валялись в придорожном ковыле.

Он разбудил их: “Вас Господь сподобил
Жить в дни мои, вы ж разлеглись, как пласт.
Час Сына Человеческого пробил.
Он в руки грешников себя предаст”.

И лишь сказал, неведомо откуда
Толпа рабов и скопище бродяг,
Огни, мечи и впереди -- Иуда
С предательским лобзаньем на устах.

Петр дал мечом отпор головорезам
И ухо одному из них отсек.
Но слышит: “Спор нельзя решать железом,
Вложи свой меч на место, человек.

Неужто тьмы крылатых легионов
Отец не снарядил бы мне сюда?
И, волоска тогда на мне не тронув,
Враги рассеялись бы без следа.

Но книга жизни подошла к странице,
Которая дороже всех святынь.
Сейчас должно написанное сбыться,
Пускай же сбудется оно. Аминь.

Ты видишь, ход веков подобен притче
И может загореться на ходу.
Во имя страшного ее величья
Я в добровольных муках в гроб сойду.

Я в гроб сойду и в третий день восстану,
И, как сплавляют по реке плоты,
Ко мне на суд, как баржи каравана,
Столетья поплывут из темноты”.

 

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N o t e   o n   T h e   Z h i v a g o   s e q u e n c e

Boris Pasternak began to translate Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 1924 and returned to the play repeatedly until the end of his life, but the most intense period began in January1939, when his friend Vsevold Myerhold commissioned him to prepare a new Russian translation of Hamlet for a Leningrad performance at the Puskhin Theater. The work was in progress in March when Myerhold was arrested. In the coming months he was tortured and then shot. Myerhold wife, the actress Zinaida Raikh was brutually assualted, blinded with a knife, then stabbed to death in their apartment as an added warning to any who might sympathize with Myerhold’s fate. “It is indescribable, and all of it touched me closely,” Pasternak wrote at the time, but far from abandoning Myerhold’s commission, he worked with renewed intensity on the translation, “haunted by the fear that some contingency might prevent me finishing the translation,” and completed it in December.

Lazar Fleishman, on whose wonderful biography I am depending, notes that was in fact on the “list of Myerhold’s accomplices” (Stalin instructed subordinates “not to touch this cloud-gatherer,” and Pasternak survived). “In this extreme situation,” and “anticipating arrest,” Fleishman writes, Pasternak’s “word on the translation [of Hamlet] focused all his lyrical and creative energy,” so that “everything he had been unable to express . . . he poured into his work on Shakespeare.” He imbued “Shakespeare’s Hamlet with enormous personal significance.” It was “Hamlet who became his alter ego,” and “Pasternak called his work on Hamlet not only “happiness” but “salvation.”The translation was published in 1940, and Pasternak gave two acclaimed public readings (in moments of extremity Pasternak’s courage was formidable; to me he is exemplary of the just man who assures by his action that there will be justice and courage in the world), but the play was not produced (Stalin intervened again, asking in a phone call to the Moscow Art Theater where it now to be produced, “why do we need Hamlet at the Art Theater?”). Pasternak had to survive Stalin’s death to see his Hamlet staged in 1954.

In 1946, perhaps with the 1940 public readings in mind, perhaps as an epilogue to the events I have just recounted, Pasternak wrote the short lyric soliloquy which he titled “Hamlet” and which later became the first in the sequence of poems that conclude Doctor Zhivago and that are attributed to the novel’s hero. Like the novel, the poem was never published in the Soviet Union during Pasternak’s life-time, but it was nevertheless well-known and was recited by mourners at Pasternak’s funeral in 1960.

The Zhivago sequence ends with “The Garden of Gethsemane,” a poem Pasternak wrote in 1949 at a time when he once again expected his arrest. In January 1948, Pasternak recited the “Hamlet” lyric in public and, as Ronald Hingley suggests, “by the very act of reciting . . . risked setting motion precisely the process of martyrdom which is invoked in the text.” At the time the Minister of State Secuirty, Viktor Abakumov, had initiated an investigation that included the arrest of Pasternak’s lover Olga Ivinskaya and designed to lead to his arrest as a British spy (did Stalin intervene again?). It was in this renewed period of extremity that Pasternak composed “The Garden of Gethsemane” with its Hamlet-like Jesus for whom like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “readiness is all.” By this time much of Doctor Zhivago had been written and from the start “Gethsemane” was probably written for Pasternak’s fictional hero, but as I translated “Gethsemane” and “Hamlet,” I liked to image that the same voice spoke in both and that it was at once Pasternak’s, Zhivago, Hamlet’s, and an actor play Hamlet. In Gethsemane, where they conclude in Christ’s voice, they do so not with any god’s authority, but in “a parable’s name” and “its terrible grandeur,” the story that like Hamlet offers what Pasternak called “the rhythm of free speech, the language of a man who sets up no idols” and therefore becomes “judge of his own time” in the future. Apparently Stalin was always baffled by the applause that Pasternak received when he read his work since the police could find no evidence that Pasternak had organized the demonstration.

 

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Like torah, both original and translation are dybbuks.
Conversation with Tony Brinkley
Ewa Chrusciel

What is your view on translation? Is it possible? How do we translate the aura/the soul of the poem? Goethe, for example, used to say that in order to translate a poem, one must travel first to the country of the poet.

Translation must be possible because it occurs. What is less clear perhaps is the nature of what it is that occurs? Marina Tsvetaeva says that there are no Russian or French poems but that poems can occur in Russian and French. Can the poem that first occurred in Russian also occur in French? What would this mean? Tsvetaeva’s contemporary and lover Osip Mandelshtam thought that words only turned into poetry when an inaudible energy impelled them like a wave moving through water. Otherwise the words were not more than their paraphrase, the sheets had not been rumpled, and poetry had not spent the night. Synonyms for this impulse (in Russian, порыв) might be will (воли) or spirit, pneuma (душа). It would recall the self that Emerson like the Gnostics thought was what was oldest and best in us, that was never born and never died. To translate a poem in my experience is to find that the impulse of the original impels the words of the translation. Then poetry spends the night. It is very much like finding that a poem is impelling words you are writing but in this case it words that the original provides you in the language of the translation, the way for instance when in Pasternak’s “Hamlet” the Russian на моем веку offer phrases in English like “my time,” “my age,” “my century,” even “my eyelids” and you begin to notice a poem in them. Then the sheets begin to be rumpled?

What was your first experience/encounter that triggered/spurred translation?
Why do you translate Russian poets?

I had written a book of poetry called Stalin’s Eyes in which Mandelshtam is a little like Blake’s Los and Stalin is a little like Blake’s Urizen, and I wanted to know Mandelshtam better. I could read him in the available English translations but I couldn’t find him there. So I began to look for him in the Russian texts and try to recognize enough Russian to find him. And I discovered that if I tried to translate what I was finding, Mandelshtam would teach me how to write poetry in English. He became this wonderfully generous mentor.

Do you appropriate the text of translation towards the target language or do you leave it estranged for the reader to complete the work of understanding of the other?

I tried to find a poem that carries the impulse of the original into an American idiom. Often the best way to find the impulse is as a rhythm. From the perspective of English, Russian is both remarkably elliptical and wonderfully free in its verbal juxtapositions (word placement is free form). As an inflected language, it rhymes. It words often have far more syllables than their English equivalents, and this produces remarkable rhythms in even the simplest statements. Meaning is concise while sound overflows. And in English? Joseph Brodsky says beautifully that Pasternak was a poet of “stereoscopic vision,” who used “traditional rhyme and meter” but in “a cubist fashion,” so that “the overall feeling is that . . . you have been given the world in the multi-faceted eye of the honey-bee.” The goal then is to have a traditional feel but juxtaposed fields of verse—like finding the Picasso in a Velásquez or the Franz Kline in the brushwork of a late Rembrandt.

Has translation have something to do with the dybbuks?

In Jewish folklore, a dybbuk is the soul of an incomplete life that continues to live in another in order to continue the life-work. Since a given in Talmudic Judaism is that the work is always unfinished, that even if the Messiah arrives, small plants will need to be planted (according to Rabbi Tarphon, “it is not necessary for you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it”—and perhaps necessity requires that you not finish the work?), every life is partial, no original is ever complete, what Benjamin calls its translatability will be its need to continue its life work. So yes, like torah, both original and translation are dybbuks.

How has the experience of translation affected your poetry?

The poet you translate teaches you to write in your own language. It is not a matter of imitation, however, since the voice in the translation is not one that has occurred in your language before. I can imitate Stevens or Crane in English, but how do I imitate Mandelshtam or Pasternak? Nor would they expect me to. And curiously enough, I think Mandelshtam and Pasternak make it easier to find a new poetry in Stevens or Crane as well?

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TONY BRINKLEY‘s poetry has appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, Beloit Poetry Journal, The New Review of Literature, Cerise Press, Otoliths, Drunken Boat, and Poetry Salzburg Review. His translations have appeared in Shofar, Beloit Poetry Journal, The New Review of Literature, Cerise Press, May Day, Otoliths, World Literature Today, and Hungarian Review. He is the author of Stalin’s Eyes (Puckerbrush Press, 2002) and co-editor with Keith Hanley of Romantic Revisions (Cambridge University Press, 1992).

BORIS PASTERNAK was born in Moscow on January 29, 1890, the son of a major Russian painter and a talented pianist. At first he thought he might be a composer (Scriabin encouraged him) and then a philosopher, but while studying with Hermann Cohen in Marburg and, by his own account, while responding to a vision of his open books as a great fern — a paporotnik — he decided to pursue philosophy by writing poetry and fiction. A master translator of Shakespeare and Goethe, Pasternak struggled to survive Stalin in order to write an account of his generation (Doctor Zhivago) — to be its Horatio as well as another Hamlet — and died on May 30, 1960, under vigorous attack from Stalin’s heirs, but with his life’s work complete. As much as any poet of the last Century, Pasternak seems, in Wordsworth’s phrase, “to see into the life of things.” Or, as Joseph Brodsky writes, Pasternak gives you “the world in the multi-faceted eye of the honey-bee.”