Elizabeth Balabayev on translating Osip Mandelstam

Elizabeth Balabayev

on translating Osip Mandelstam

In “XXV,” I really wanted to do more with mythology because it should be noted that this poem appears in both Tristia (1922) and Вторая Книга (Second Book, 1923), which were written during Mandelstam’s exile in Crimea. Tristia refers to Ovid’s Tristia, who was also exiled from Rome to the Crimea. I added the word “her” in the penultimate line and changed “Taygetos” to “Taygete” in order to highlight neoclassical themes. Mandelstam intersperses rhyming couplets throughout the poem, but it’s nearly impossible to recreate a rhyme scheme in another language. I relied on internal rhyme, slant rhyme, and some end rhymes to somewhat capture that effect. I also ran into a problem with “Pulmonaria,” which is медуница (“medutsina”) in Russian, and sounds similar to “honey” (мёд or “meyod”). The obvious choice would have been “honeysuckle,” which I’ve seen in other translations, but I wanted to create a connection between Persephone at the beginning of the poem by capitalizing Pulmonaria. Pulmonaria is commonly called lungwort, and is used to treat asthma and bronchitis in folk remedies. It is a small, purple flower; the name partially betrays its color. It’s a shade-loving plant and, along with the color, creates an echo of Persephone’s dark underworld- and pomegranate-stained hands.

about the author

Osip Mandelstam was born in Warsaw, Poland, Russian Empire, on January 14, 1891. His family moved to St. Petersburg soon after and he was educated at the prestigious Tenishev School, where Pushkin attended. He then studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, the University of Heidelburg, and the University of St. Petersburg, converting from Judaism to Methodism so that he could attend the latter. He was a founding member of the Poets Guild, with Gumilev, Akhmatova, and Gorodetsky, which created the Acmeist movement in Russian poetry. His poetry collections include Каминь (Stone, 1913), Trista (1922), Вторая Книга (Second Book, 1923), as well as essays, short prose, and literary criticism in The Noise of Time and Feodosiya (both 1925) and The Egyptian Stamp (1928). He also worked as a translator. In 1934 he was arrested for his poem, “Stalin Epigram,” and was sent to a transit camp in Vladivostok. Later, he was exiled with his wife, Nadezhda, to Cherdyn in the Northern Urals. Mandelstam was arrested a second time during Stalin’s Great Terror and was sent back to Vladivostok, where he died on December 27, 1938, of starvation.

about the translator

Elizabeth Balabayev studies English literature and creative writing (C’21). She studied Russian at Penn and Bryn Mawr’s Russian Language Institute. She also studied in Germany and speaks fluent German. Her poetry focuses on technology and the environment, but her plays and screenwriting draw from history and women’s stories. She is from Texas, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, and considers herself both Southern and Northern. Her family is American and Russian.