Thoughts: Selected Poems, by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, translated by Robin Milner-Gulland and Peter Levi

From children’s fantasy to soviet poetry. Such is the world of literature.

There’s a good translator introduction in this slim volume of poetry, which I appreciated but which also made me sad I can’t read Russian. It set out clearly the wider historical interest of the poems and poet (some of the first mainstream poetry to come out of the USSR into the West, and not overtly political, but concerned with ordinary life) and the direction the translators took with the work.

I appreciated it because I am also a translator, and I find this stuff interesting in general, but also because poetry is a particular challenge, a complex interplay of meaning, teferences, imagery, wordplay, rhyme, typography, words that pull a thousand times their own weight in the reader’s mind, all as economically as possible. You sort of can’t do it really. There are always compromises to be made, and the better the work, the more compromises you need. And that’s not even touching on the fact that different cultures* prize different things as “good poetry” – some cultures love identical rhymes (check out French holorime to blow your mind) and others consider any rhyme at all cheap and lazy (there’s no glory in rhyming anything in Japanese). Some cultures prefer following structured forms and others consider freeverse more clever. And probably every language has some unique features by which it can judge its poetry that don’t even exist in the target language. So sometimes even translating something “faithfully” can do the work a disservice.

The introduction explained that Yevtushenko is a master of wordplay, rhythm and rhyme, but the translators didn’t even attempt to recreate it exactly in their translations, focusing on other aspects instead. Understandable, but sad nonetheless. I kept wondering how it would read in Russian, whether it would be more pleasing to the ear. But these are things we can never have. Unless I learn Russian, I suppose.

I liked the poems as a whole, some more than others. They may have lost their original mystique to a Western reader, of a glimpse behind the Iron Curtain, but they still hold a certain time and place pressed between the pages, fresh and real. Zima Junction, the longest poem and I think Yevtushenko’s most famous, really is lovely.

One thing I will say if you’re reading on Kindle (I don’t know about other ebook versions) is that the transfer of text to digital hasn’t been done perfectly. I assume the publisher used one of those programs that automatically detects the text, but they also seem to have failed to give it even a cursory proofread – every time there’s a “t” followed by an “l”, it’s rendered as a “d” presumably because of the original typeface. There are a couple of places where things like this happen and it’s jarring to have to pause and decode the word visually.

There’s also a table at the back as a pronunciation guide to the Russian names and words which appear in the poems, which is a really nice touch (the translators say that even if you’re reading Russian to yourself it’s important to know where the stress falls on the words, which I absolutely agree with, especially in poetry where rhythm is so important)… except in the ebook version at least, it’s missing the accents to denote stress. These little flaws are a disservice to the book, poet and translators, especially because it’s so short and surely it wouldn’t have taken much time or effort. It just says that the publisher didn’t consider it a priority.

* And yes, of course, one culture will contain many, many schools of poetry! Not just English language poetry either, we’ll have none of that.

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