Yehudith Dashevsky on translating Anna Akhmatova

Yehudith Dashevsky

on translating Anna Akhmatova

This set of two poems are part of a longer cycle called Requiem, which Anna Akhmatova wrote during the Great Purge in Soviet Russia, 1936–1939. The cycle moves between Akhmatova’s personal suffering during that time — having a son imprisoned — and the suffering of the Russian people in general. Unique qualities of Akhmatova’s poetry include intimacy, intensity of emotion, and a terseness; these are present in this cycle as well. Crucifixion comes near the end of cycle and veers away from the situation in Russia into a biblical scene. The basic parallel is clear: that of a mother’s loss of her son. Interpretations of this parallel are hazier, however. Is the stoicism of the M/mother thrust upon her, or chosen?

One of the more daring choices I made in this translation is not to render the beloved disciple’s expression literally. In the original, the disciple kamenel, a passive, reflexive verb that means “became petrified”; that is, he turned cold and blank as stone. The passive tense of the word is important, because the responses of the disciple and Mary are meant to be understood as involuntary reactions. However, in English it is impossible to render the word in a passive tense without using the word “was” or “becomes.” “Was petrified” misses the physical aspect; it can refer simply to fear. It also loses the gradual, in-the-moment component of “becoming;” however, “became petrified” sounds clunky. It seemed important that Mary Magdalene and the disciple have some reaction that is involuntary, in-the-moment, and physical. This would contrast with the voluntary physical act of looking that the narrator points out they did not do in the presence of a newly grieving mother. Therefore, I chose to change the image: I used “turned blank as a book,” hoping that that would convey some feeling of petrification, while keeping the reaction involuntary, gradual, and physical, to set up the contrast.

about the author

Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966) was an acclaimed Russian poet of the “Silver Age” of Russian poetry, the first half of the twentieth century. After moving to St. Petersburg, Akhmatova became part of the Acmeists, a literary group of six people who attempted to write poetry in traditional forms that focused on the objects and incidents of everyday life, in contrast with the highly experimental poetry in fashion at the time. In the post-revolutionary years, Akhmatova’s former husband Nikolai Gumilev was shot, her son Lev was imprisoned and exiled to Siberia, and her close friend Osip Mandelstam was arrested, exiled, and killed in a labor camp. Requiem, along with many other poems, was a response to those times. Beginning in 1925, Akhmatova’s poetry was banned by the Soviet government; even when the official ban was lifted, an implicit ban remained. Still, her poetry circulated orally and on scraps of paper that were burned upon reading. Akhmatova is seen as a mother of the modern Russian voice. She is also known as one of the only well-known poets to outlive the Stalinist era, stay in Russia, and chronicle those times.

about the translator

Yehudith Dashevsky is an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania studying English literature with a concentration in Poetry and Poetics. Her current projects include a thesis about ten translations of Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem, an article documenting educational triumphs in a woodworking shop in Philadelphia, and a chapter of a children’s book.