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Flowers never die. Heaven is whole.

On Wang Jiaxins translation of a poem by Osip Mandelstam: A trilingual


comparison.

Authors name: Robert Tsaturyan


Graduate Student, School of Liberal Arts, Renmin University of China
Field: Chinese Contemporary Literature
Address: Haidian District, Beijing, China, 100872
Emailrtsaturyan@ruc.edu,cn
Mobile: (0086) 18510040775

Poems to Natalya Shtempel 1937 5


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Abstract

Osip Mandelstam is a widely translated poet, despite the highly stylistic and deeply emotional
layers his verse presents. Wang Jiaxins translations of Mandelstam and many East European
poets, though translated mainly from the English language, have left a long shadow starting from
the 1980s. A prominent poet himself, Wang Jiaxin perfectly realizes that we are living in a time
when the idea of translating from the original is the ruling paradigm. Are the influential
translations of Wang Jiaxin an open challenge to the universal measures? Has he pushed the
limits of translatability beyond merely linguistic battles? In this essay, attempts will be made to
make a trilingual (Russian, English and Chinese) comparison, where available, of a single poem.
Though originally untitled, the poem is sometimes referred to as, Poems to Natalya Shtempel
in several English translations, written on the 4th of May, 1937, months before his death in the
Vtoraya Rechka transit camp. The aim of the essay is to display the limitlessness of creative
translation as opposed to the universal paradigm.

Key Words: Wang Jiaxin, Osip Mandelstam, trilingual comparison, translatability, creative
translation.

Introduction
Poetry translation is a hard labor, often with an inadequate reward. The edges of failure and
success overlap each other. The translator has numerous choices to make long before touching
the text. While the modes of intention and theories may vary, the degree of translatability of a
certain work is a crucial factor while making these choices. As Walter Benjamin puts
2

it:Translatability is an essential quality of certain works, which is not to say that it is essential
that they be translated; it means rather that a specific significance inherent in the original
manifest itself in its translatability...1 So translation is not merely an interpretation of the text
from one language to another. And it is not even a search for the closest equivalent in the target
language, but an exclusive act of creation.
Mandelstam is almost untranslatable, says Wang Jiaxin, but the destiny of a poem is in the
translation itself.2 The quest for the destiny of Mandelstams poetry resulted in some ingenious
creations in the Chinese language. While realizing that a trilingual comparison is almost an
impossible task to accomplish, considering the fact that the translators from Russian into English
have already made significant changes and the interpretations of Mandelstams poetry vary from
one poet-translator to the other, the endeavor is itself rewarding. A trilingual comparison is
mainly an attempt to question the idea of an ideal translation. So how does Wang Jiaxin deal
with this problem? It is worth mentioning that several other translations in Chinese are available
directly from the original Russian, namely the recent publication of Wang Jianzhaos translation
of Mandelstams complete poetry. A comparison with those translations, nevertheless, will not be
done in this essay.
It will be nave to think that Wang Jiaxin is accepting English language texts as the soul of
Mandelstams poetry. Not surprisingly, numerous versions are available in the English language.
We have individual modes of translations, which differ greatly in interpretive perspectives,
etymological overtones, images, rhythm, rhyme, meter, etc. Though Wang Jiaxin mainly

1 Walter Benjamin, The Task of the Translator, Selected Writings (Volume 1, 1913-1926),
(London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005), p. 254.
2 Wang Jiaxin, My century, my beast The poetry as well as the destiny of Mandelstam,
(2015), p.18. ,(From the
personal archive of Wang Jiaxin).

translated from the version by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin, he at the same time consulted
the versions by Ilya Bernstein, James Greene, Richard and Elizabeth McKane, Bernard Meares,
as well as the transliteration of the Russian text. The original version will be viewed along with
the English ones, to which Wang Jiaxin has referred to in the process. (The poem in three
languages may be found at the end of this essay.)

Trilingual comparison: An example of a single poem


The poem is dedicated to a woman called Natalya Shtempel, who the poet and his wife got to
know in Voronezh and eventually became friends with. That is why the poem is sometimes
translated as, Poems to Natalya Shtempel in English.
Now take the opening lines of Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwins translation, which I will
from now on refer to unless otherwise stated.
Limping like a clock on her left leg,
at the beloved gait, over the empty earth,
,

Wang Jiaxin translates:

First of all W.S. Merwin has transformed the whole image in these opening lines. The original
version doesnt have the words left leg and clock. Probably Mandelstam was aware of the
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fact that his life was walking towards its end, so this can be viewed as an accurate metaphor for
time. is turned into limping like a clock on
her left leg by W.S. Merwin; it is said that Natalya Shtempel was slightly limping during
Mandelstams and her (probably) last meeting. Wang Jiaxin here makes an even deeper
transformation. He translates the clock as(pendulum), making the whole image more
afflictive. As a metaphor pendulum can be viewed as a tool for torture. Since it requires time
before the final execution of the victim. Hard to say if Mandelstam had it in his mind while
writing these lines, but the creative interpretation of Wang Jiaxin definitely presents the reader a
scene deeply metaphorical and deeply true to the historical pain.
Lines 3 and 4 of the poem:
she keeps a little ahead of the quick girl,
her friend, and the young man almost her age.
- -
-.

Wang Jiaxin turns into:

There is a subtle difference between the original and Chinese versions here. - (she goes slightly ahead) is translated as(she already
reached). It might be argued that the original meaning hasnt been preserved here, but one can
almost feel, while reading the Chinese version, the efforts she makes with a limping leg to keep
up with her friends.
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Then follow these crucial lines: (Note that for these lines Wang Jiaxin has referred to the
translation of Bernard Meares.)
What involves her, drags her down
Is the cramped freedom of her inspiring handicap,

The translation by Wang Jiaxin is sharp and to the point, one has even a feeling that it is closer to
the truth than the original.

literally translated is deformed, spastic freedom, comparing with the


original which means restrained, restricted freedom. While
pondering over this sentence in his article, Wang Jiaxin notes: Here deformed is not only
limited to the poems limping heroine, but it is a portrayal of our own limitation. The limited
freedom and obstacles themselves, motivate human beings to dedicate themselves to freedom.3
If we dare make a trip back to the years of Stalins terror in the Soviet Union, deformed
freedom is probably closer to the reality than restrained freedom. So how does it happen that
the translator is closer to the reality than the original author? The very origin of a certain poem is
mysterious, such is especially the case in Mandelstams. As his poems were not created so much

3Wang Jiaxin, Escorting the dead and a tribute to the very first Resurrector, (2015), p.4.
,(From the personal archive of Wang
Jiaxin).

from linguistic battles as from pacing back and forth in his apartment reciting the sounds from
within. The task of the translator here is to catch those sounds.
The closing lines of the poems first stanza, for which Wang Jiaxin has once again consulted
the translation by Meares.
the primal mother of the vault of death,
And this beginning shall be forever be renewed.
- ,
.

In Wang Jiaxin's rendering:

In the original is a powerful line, encapsulating the


climate of the time. It encompasses the past and the future of the Russian fate; the primal
mother is the collective image, painfully tragic. In Wang Jiaxins translation,
literally translated as This primal mother, the deaths leap, is not a substitute for
the original lines, and it is not even an equivalent, but a spiritual dialogue, one that only a poet
that has endured much can sense Mandelstams pain. Death making a leap from Moscow to
Voronezh, and seems, it will go on like this forever. is almost a literal
translation from the original , which is to prove once
again that Wang Jiaxin has consulted much more than just translations.
Then the mournful opening lines of the poems second stanza:

There are women with the dampness of the earth in their veins.
Every step they take theres a sobbing in a vault.
,
- ,

The second stanza of the poem has shifted from individual and specific scenes to a general
discussion, the intonation also embodies much deeper tragic power. 4 The lamentation in Wang
Jiaxins translation:

Some women, inborn, belong to the earth of pain is the literal translation of Wang Jiaxin.
Here he has added the word inborn, in order to make an emphasis on the inevitability, the
womens inability of abandoning the pain. Comparing with the original -
, literally translated Some women are dear to the wet earth with
which Mandelstam probably wanted to describe the pain he saw in the eyes of the women
surrounding him. Their wet eyes, belonging to the Soviet soil, buried in pain. And they belong to
that earth, nowhere else to go.
The following lines, again translated from the version by Meares, reads:
To accompany the dead and be the first
To greet the resurrected is their vocation.

- .

4 Ibid., p. 5
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Who is the Dead? Who is the Resurrected?, Asks Wang Jiaxin. Obviously, first of all,
Mandelstam himself.5 This becomes more vivid in the Chinese translation.

Vocation or in the original is translated by Wang Jiaxin as


which may sound strange to a Chinese ear. Nevertheless, it is deliberately done, in order to make
a foreign poem sound like a foreign poem, for Mandelstam sound like Mandelstam. And most
importantly, in order to emphasize the grieve vocation of the women surrounding him (notably
his wife Nadezhda Mandelstam and their friend Natalya Shtempel).
The closing lines of the poem are a combination of love and anguish. We are witnessing the
moment when a poet silently accepts his tragic fate; and in his last breath, he writes:
- - ..., which W.S. Merwin translates as
What used to be within reach - out of reach. Wang Jiaxins translation,
, which literally means The step we took, no longer can we
take, can be read as a metaphor for distance, time and the limitlessness of human beings.
The unreachable step becomes the climax of the poem.

What used to be within reach - out of reach.


Flowers never die. Heaven is whole.
But ahead of us weve only somebodys word.
- - ...

5 Ibid., p. 5
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, ,
, - .

Wang Jiaxin feels, as a poet-translator, the agony in these lines, and he presents it to the Chinese
readers in his own style.

Owing to the trilingual dialogue of Mandelstam, W. S. Merwin and Wang Jiaxin, the three
influential names in their respective generations, we now have at least three startling poems in
three different languages. The linguistic differences in these translations are so subtle, so
meticulously created that one may have an impression that these lines in three languages have
been written by the pen of a single poet. An orphan poet, in Brodskys words, a poet of
civilization.6

Conclusion
Despite the fact that linguistic and cross-cultural studies examine much more details than that
of poetry and literature, poetry is what most vividly reflects the differences and similarities in the
cultural sense. Examining poetry means translating and integrating them into the linguistic and
cultural borders of a certain society, a certain civilization. Only by examining the fate of a true
poet and his/her poetry one can make the true image of the era. Painful to accept, poetry works
6 Joseph Brodsky, The Child of Civilization, Less Than One: Selected Essays, (New York:
Ferrar Straus Giroux, 1987), p.139.

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best when there is a sense of terror. Knowing the harsh truth and ignoring it is the common
nature of human psychology. Only through getting informed (shocked) through written or visual
documentary one starts to believe that what he/she knew before is indeed the reality. In this sense
poetry is written not for its language and society, and even not for its time, but it is written for
the many others. I argue that poetry is initially written for translation. Its energy is directed into
the languages foreign to it. Only through translation it returns to its true self, being transformed
into a documentary of the era. Civilization is the sum total of different cultures animated by a
common spiritual numerator, and its main vehicle speaking both metaphorically and literally
is translation, says Joseph Brodsky.7 It is true in Mandelstams case, that the translation of his
poetry, however untranslatable it may be, is a search for the truth. Though his poetry never found
its home in any language, not even in Russian, it nevertheless became the treasure of the others.
Hence, it may be argued that the quality of translation is more important than the original
composition itself.
In the dedicated translations of Wang Jiaxin, Mandelstam is as much a Russian a poet as he is
Chinese. It is a tribute to the tragic life and death of one of the twentieth centurys most
celebrated poets.
The poem in Russian.
.

,
7 Ibid., p.139.
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- -
-.

,
, ,
,
- ,
.

,
- ,

- .
,
.
- , - ,
- .
- - ...
, ,
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, - .

4 1937,
In English, translated by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin.
Limping like a clock on her left leg,
at the beloved gait, over the empty earth,
she keeps a little ahead of the quick girl,
her friend, and the young man almost her age.
Whats holding her back
drives her on.
What she must know is coming
drags at her foot. She must know
that under the air, this spring,
our mother earth is ready for us
and that it will go on like this forever.
There are women with the dampness of the earth in their veins.
Every step they take theres a sobbing in a vault.
They were born to escort the dead, and be at the grave
first to greet those who rise again.
It would be terrible to want a caress from them
but to part with them is more than a man could do.
One day angel, next day the worm in the grave,
the day after that, a sketch.
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What used to be within reach - out of reach.


Flowers never die. Heaven is whole.
But ahead of us weve only somebodys word.
And in Chinese translated by Wang Jiaxin.

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Notes
1. Wang Jiaxin is a prominent poet, editor, literary critic and an influential

translator. He has translated the works of Paul Celan, Emily Dickinson, Marina
Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova, and many others. Wang is a professor of Literature at
Renmin University of China.
2. Wang Jianzhao is a poet, translator and a professor of Russian Literature

at Beijing Foreign Studies University. His complete translations of Osip Mandelstam


has recently been published by the Shanghai Art and Literature Publishing House.

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3. I would like to thank Wang Jiaxin for his support and encouragement throughout the

essay. His two articles and other materials, provided from his personal archive, have
been of great help and a rich source of inspiration.
4. All the translations from Chinese language articles are mine unless otherwise stated.

Bibliography
Joseph Brodsky, The Child of Civilization, Less Than One: Selected Essays, (New York: Ferrar
Straus Giroux, 1987).
Osip Mandelstam, Osip Mandelstam: 50 poems, Translated by Bernard Meares, Introductory
Essay by Joseph Brodsky, (New York, Persea Books, 2007).
Osip Mandelstam, The Selected poems of Osip Mandelstam, Translated by Clarence Brown and
W.S. Merwin, (New York, New York Review Books, 2004.
Walter Benjamin, The Task of the Translator, Selected Writings (Volume 1, 1913-1926),
(London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005).
Wang Jiaxin, Escorting the dead and a tribute to the very first Resurrector, (2015).
,(From the personal archive of
Wang Jiaxin).
Wang Jiaxin, My century, my beast The poetry as well as the destiny of Mandelstam, (2015),
,(From the
personal archive of Wang Jiaxin).

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