Radical Sacrifices: Three Questions on Translation with Eugene Serebryany

American author Paul Auster has referred to translators as the “shadow heroes of literature.” Too often unsung, these linguistic cryptologists “make it possible for different cultures to talk to one another…to understand that we all, from every part of the world, live in one world.” Eugene Serebryany here discusses his English translation of a poem by Marina Tsvetaeva, featured in AGNI 87 under the title “Sunrise on the Rails.”

Lauren Peat/AGNI: Literary translation is frequently described as a game of gain and loss: when smuggling a text from one language into another, the freedoms and constraints of the “new” language often diminish certain nuances within the original, and magnify others. When translating Tsvetaeva’s poem from the Russian, how intentional was your reckoning with gain and loss? Was there a particular element within the original that you felt was most important to communicate in the English version, and if so, were any sacrifices made to achieve that end? 

Eugene Serebryany: There were plenty of sacrifices—if one takes a literal view of translation, then almost everything was sacrificed. The original poem has highly regular iambic meter and is divided into quatrains with the classic ABAB rhyming scheme. The translation keeps none of these things. Translators often say that a poem’s tone is the most important thing to convey—yet even the tone had to be subtly altered. “Sunrise…” is an emotionally intense poem. I judged that strong emotions are expressed in modern English poetry in a more subdued or indirect way than in the Russian poetry of Tsvetaeva’s time, so my translation has fewer exclamation marks than the original. There are a few images in the original that I downplayed in the translation; several others I emphasized. A few others I had to interpolate, either to make explicit cultural and historical allusions the original’s Russian reader would understand implicitly, or to recoup in another way some of the original’s tonal intensity.

What was gained in exchange for these radical sacrifices? A syntax more natural to English, for one thing. I felt that a poem this personal, this intense, could not stand with a stilted syntax or with word choice affected by meter or rhyme. A greater clarity was gained, I hope, because this poem is not only personal: it is journalistic, historical, and political, too. Those broader themes had to be conveyed—and where needed, clarified—if I were to avoid footnotes. Above all, I hope the translation gained a greater capacity for fostering empathy between the speaker and the reader across differences of time and place. I took care also to preserve or allude to the technical lexicon, drawn from civil engineering—that is, the railroad terminology Tsevtaeva’s original leans on. Something about this vocabulary seemed essential: the way it connects art and science, mental and physical construction; the way it grounds the poem in something solid, hard, and international.

LP/AGNI: Tsvetaeva led an intense and deeply tragic life: she lived through the Russian Revolution of 1917, as well as the subsequent Russian famine. In an effort to save her daughter Irina from starvation, Tsvetaeva committed her to a state orphanage in 1919. Irina died shortly thereafter. With her remaining family, Tsvetaeva then spent time in Berlin, Prague, and Paris, where they suffered increasingly desperate conditions. In 1941, upon returning to Russia, her husband Sergei was executed on charges of espionage; Tsvetaeva committed suicide that same year.

Written in October of 1922, “Sunrise on the Rails” recounts Tsvetaeva’s experience as a refugee from Russia. It is shot through with the pain of the grieving—of someone who has lost, but still harbors hopes of retrieval—as well as the pain of recognizing that things have irrevocably changed. “I can still keep Russia / Intact,” Tsvetaeva writes:

I can still stitch it together
From the drab fog, like a playhouse
For orphans—quickly now,
Before the switchman wakes.

I was certainly struck by Tsvetaeva’s biography. Do you think that your translation was marked by your own understanding of her life? Or were you more consciously motivated by the original Russian itself?

ES: Yes, certainly the tragedy of Tsvetaeva’s own life influenced the translation. Tsvetaeva’s daughter, as you mentioned, had died in an orphanage; her husband had been forced to flee Russia earlier (because, as a royalist military officer, he had fought against the Red Army during the civil war). So conveying the feeling of orphanhood was definitely important. The broader historical and political context of her life was very important also: her contemporary readers knew it and had lived it, but now, a century later and a continent away, I felt it needed some explanation. This is how the description of sunrise as a “red thumb” got into the translation—that’s not in the original at all, but was my attempt to briefly conjure up the history and outcome of the Russian Civil War and Tsvetaeva’s relation to it. The early stanzas, up through the passage you quote, were the ones where I took the most liberties of this kind, to set the stage; the latter ones hug the original more closely.

In fact, the passage you quote is a good illustration of the fairly radical approach I resorted to in those early lines. The original has no orphans in that particular stanza; what it does have is a juxtaposition of the word сырость (“syrost’,” dampness) and серость (“serost’,” grayness/drabness). The word сырость is repeated multiple times in the poem, building up the tension until it gets finally resolved by another wordplay that juxtaposes сырость and сирость (“sirost’,” orphanhood). By this language trick the one is “revealed,” in a sense, as the other. I decided not to attempt a comparable wordplay in English, so the notion of orphans had to be there from the start. Likewise, the original has no stitching and no playhouse; it talks only generally of “re-constructing” Russia. But the sense that the poet’s life as well as country had been torn asunder, and may yet be stitched back together by some furious feat of imagination—this made the choice seem natural (natural for English, that is!). And, of course, the entire poem is an act of constructing a sort of “playhouse for orphans”—an imaginary city, an imaginary home for herself, her remaining daughter, and her fellow refugees…. This stitching, this re-construction, is a self-consciously quixotic act, in a way: it recognizes itself as a game, a self-delusion, a stage of grief, even as, on a parallel level, it’s also an act of journalism, a show of determination.

LP/AGNI: Philosopher and biblical scholar Friedrich Schleiermacher (and later translation theorist Lawrence Venuti) famously entertained the idea of translation operating between two poles, even extremes: the first “foreignizing”—whereby a translation is made to reflect the “foreign” quality of its original—and the second “domesticating,” whereby a translation is made to fit seamlessly into the landscape of the new language. What is your own view of this theory? Do you align with either method, or do you have your own understanding of the relationship between a translation and its original?

ES: Yes, I was certainly conscious of where on that spectrum the translation would end up. After struggling through many drafts that preserved the form of the original (the rhyme, the meter, the exclamation points…), in the end I opted for a radically higher dose of “domestication,” as well as my explanatory interpolations. As you point out, there is an ideological choice involved. I am an immigrant myself, and Russian is my native language. So the greater challenge for me is usually to avoid over-foreignizing: creating a translation that is too syntactically awkward or culturally obscure for most of its intended readers to empathize with. A translation has to create cultural connection, this cross-cultural, cross-generational empathy, to convey the image of a mind or of a felt reality that is inaccessible without it. To create such a connection, especially with a text rooted in a specific cultural and historical moment, the translator has to intervene in the text in some ways, like a guide to a foreign landscape.

Such a “guided tour” might seem heavy-handed, but in cases like this I think it’s justified. Translation necessarily implies analysis, interpretation, explanation, and finally a new synthesis in another tongue. Even the most cautious translators can’t be completely transparent. They choose which poem to translate, and when, and for whom. I felt that the time and place that we inhabit needed this poem carried across, and that there was urgency in connecting to it. What if somewhere among the war refugees of our own time there is another Tsvetaeva? What if she could speak for some of them?

AGNI Monkey

ES reading photoEugene Serebryany was born in Moscow, Russia, and moved to Massachusetts as a teenager. He attended Yale University, where he was strongly influenced by Peter Cole’s course on literary translation. His translations of XX century Russian poetry have appeared in AGNI, Cardinal Points, Inventory, and Modern Poetry in Translation. In his parallel life he is a scientist. He obtained his PhD in biochemistry from MIT and is currently a postdoctoral fellow in chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University. His scientific interests include protein folding, protein aggregation, and cataract disease. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

Peat Photo


Native to the rolling British midlands and the great metropolis of Toronto, Lauren Peat is a current poetry MFA candidate at Boston University and an intern at AGNI.


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