Ryan Hardy on translating Anna Akhmatova

Ryan Hardy

on translating Anna Akhmatova

Epilogue II concludes Akhmatova’s Requiem, an elegy reflecting on the Great Terror (1936–1938). During this period, Stalin’s regime targeted ethnic minorities, those with ties to non-socialist countries, Soviet intelligentsia, and “anti-Soviet elements” (an intentionally broad term used to justify arrests). Millions of Soviet citizens were subjected to state violence. Written from Akhmatova’s perspective as she stood in lines with other women, waiting to see their loved ones in prison, Requiem memorializes the collective suffering of Soviet peoples during the Terror and immortalizes its victims and survivors.

In Requiem, Akhmatova implements imagery of state violence that plays large roles in historical memory surrounding the Great Terror. The names of those targeted by authorities were placed on lists, signed by the high-ranking Soviet officials in the state security apparatus, and led to the arrests and prosecution of millions of Soviet citizens. “Black Marias” refer to the cars used by NKVD raids, which happened with little to no notice and often at night.

This translation is the result of several hours spent poring over the same lines. Having mostly translated prose, I don’t usually pay as much attention to rhyme and meter, but I felt the need to do this poem justice in maintaining the AABB rhyme scheme and eleven-syllable meter. Akhmatova’s attention to rhyme and meter in her work allows for an emotional spiral in its recitation. This is particularly evident in Akhmatova’s recitations of Requiem, which are widely available online.

about the author

Anna Akhmatova was born in Odessa (in modern-day Ukraine) in 1889 to Russian and Ukrainian parents of noble descent. At a young age, Akhmatova moved to Tsarskoye Selo, a literary capital of the Russian world just outside of Saint Petersburg, where she studied at the village’s esteemed Lyceum. She began writing poetry when she was eleven years old. Her work was influenced by Aleksandr Pushkin, Nikolai Nekrasov, and the Symbolist Movement. After marrying her first husband Nikolai Gumilev, Akhmatova moved to Saint Petersburg in 1910, where she became involved in artists’ circles, meeting other poets like Osip Mandelstam and Marina Tsvetaeva. In poetry, Akhmatova was highly influential in the Acmeism Movement.

Following the formation of the USSR, her husband was executed for alleged conspiracy against the state. As the widow of an alleged anti-Bolshevik figure, it was hard for Akhmatova to find work outside of translation after Gumilev’s death. She started a relationship with Nikolai Punin following the death of her first husband, but Punin was sentenced to hard labor in a Gulag. Her son Lev Gumilev was also imprisoned on suspicion of his bourgeois and anti-Bolshevik heritage. Her work was censored by state authorities during the Stalinist period because of its “overly feminine” qualities and “bourgeois elements.”

Anna Akhmatova is one of the few poets of her time who was targeted by the state and lived to an old age, receiving more widespread recognition in the Krushchev period. She continues to inspire future generations of poets around the world.

about the translator

Ryan Hardy is an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, pursuing a degree in Russian and Eastern European studies. Ryan has held various writing and editing positions for the School of Russian and Asian Studies, Pomona College’s Vestnik, and Doublespeak Magazine. With interests in the study of underground cultural movements in Soviet and post-Soviet Eurasia, Ryan’s work most recently centers late-Soviet rock, contemporary rap and pop in Ukraine, and cultural exchange in the Eastern Bloc. Ryan enjoys biking, climbing, and cats. He plans to continue learning languages, having most recently started a course in Czech. Ryan’s collaborative translation of Tamara Dmitrievna Skoblikova-Kudryavtseva’s memoir, Words for Oneself, is pending release with Slavica Publishers.