SLATE, METAPHOR AND TRANSLATION: Alistair Noon translates Osip Mandelstam from Russian

by Alistair Noon

Osip Mandelstam’s “The Ode on Slate” is a poem where the vacuum cleaner of Russian literary criticism, with its statistical analyses of recurrent collocations and hundred-page treatments of individual poems, really whines up to full power. Half of Omry Ronen’s 300-page An Approach to Mandelstam (Jerusalem, 1983) mines the poem’s seemingly inexhaustible seams of reference and reworking, line by line. It would support the view you still sometimes hear (despite daily empirical evidence to the contrary) that poetry can’t really be meaningfully translated.

True, many of those seams, particularly the ones that lead all the way back to Russia, are blocked off in the translation, or if they are open, few readers will venture down them. But the view of poetry’s ultimate untranslatability only really holds if you also conceive of poems in general as having finite meaning, interest and effect. William Carlos Williams’ influential definition of a poem as being a “machine made of words” pithily encapsulated the interaction and interdependency of a poem’s parts, but also, perhaps unwittingly, implied that the thing can be taken apart and put back to together again. Despite its modernist heritage, the metaphor can easily be appropriated by those whose expectation of poetry seems to be that it should surprise when placed in the mouth, but after not too much chewing can then be swallowed and digested, never to be regurgitated again.

This is where the machine metaphor reaches its limitations. I like poems I can come back to again and again over decades and discover ever more, not ever less in them. I won’t pretend to and I don’t want to have fathomed The Ode on Slate, but I am pretty sure that Mandelstam didn’t write the thing as (only) an exercise in exegesis. What you get, you get, what you don’t, you don’t. We aren’t in the exam room here. And there’s plenty else in the poem to ponder and enjoy in any case.

In the world of metaphors, where illuminating one aspect of a concept always risks occluding another, having your cake and eating it is possible after all. I’ll let you in on one allusion you might have got without prompting anyway: the first two lines of the penultimate stanza recall the churchyard scene in Hamlet, Act V, Scene 1: “What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?” (1st Clown). And there is a key allusion in the title and prime image of the poem which would be available to most Russian readers and signposts one of the poem’s entrances, namely eighteenth century court poet Gavrila Derzhavin’s final poem, written on a piece of slate just before his death:

Rushing onwards, time’s river
bears away all human things.

It drowns them all in oblivion:
nations, kingdoms, kings.
And if there’s something that survives
in the sounds of lyres and pipes,
it won’t escape the common fate:
eternity’s maw will take it.

(My translation)

The original poem is an acrostic, in which the first letters of the lines spell out the Russian for “HEED THE RUINS” (did I imply poetry can always be rebuilt in another language? But maybe someone else will manage this Burj Khalifa). The prefatory quotation, if you’re wondering, is from the original 1923 draft of the poem, which included an extra eight lines demolished in the 1937 refurbishment.

What poems get translated and what don’t is often a bit arbitrary and determined by a translator’s tastes, and a good thing too. An organic, visceral reaction to a poem can be a good starting point for the translator to begin drafting their own version in another language. But sometimes a nudge out of the comfort zone can be good too. During an initial trawl of Mandelstam’s Collected Poems a selection of which I have been working on for several years and hope to finalize before the world truly goes to pot this poem simply swam through the net. But becoming aware that this particular poem is held to be something of a delicacy by some readers (not least Omry Ronen, mentioned above), I turned my attention back to it, filleting and salting it and I hope, ultimately, serving up an acceptable dish.

Attentive readers will have noticed that I’m being attentive to my metaphors. Translators have long had to put up with the old chestnut (there we go again) of the Italian pun “traduttore tradittore” (roughly, the translator’s a traitor but imagine a doctor being told constantly that because they are not always able to cure their patients, their entire profession is suspect and worthless). Which is why translators can and do look around for alternative, better metaphors for what they do. Mine is the compass. I set it down on the table and the needle springs to one side. Then to the other. Then back again. And again and again. Till finally it finds true north. The direction is not the destination. But the needle does point that way.

In my own practice, I find my drafts oscillating between two quite distinct types. My initial draft is nearly always performed without paying particularly close attention to the original beyond its immediate semantics and general thrust as I understand them at that point in proceedings. My aim is to simply capture my immediate poetic reaction to the original. In my first revision, I go back to the original and start checking where I may have missed things, of whatever kind. I then revise again but, similarly to the first draft, without reference to the original, again aiming for flow. Which in the following revision I then cross-check again. And so the process continues, until I have something which I think might point in the right direction.

The Ode on Slate – Osip Mandelstam, translated by Alistair Noon

Only the voice is able to tell us
what once scratched and struggled

The mighty joins of star upon star,
the flint path formed from ancient song,

language of flint, language of air,
flint join water, horseshoe join ring.
That milky sketch up there on the slate
isn’t the writing of the spheres
across the clouds’ yielding shale,
but the dreaming sheep’s delirium.

We sleep on our feet in the crowded dark,
under a warm, sheep’s wool hat.

Like a chain or a warbler, as if it were talk,
into its shoring, the spring babbles back.
With milky strokes from lead pencils,
it’s fear and the fault that write.
Here, the flowing water has pupils
whose notebooks are almost ripe.

The goats possess steep cities
on mighty strata of flint,

and still, there are further ridges
where the sheep have churches and villages.
Their preacher there is the plumbline.
Water schools them. Time gnaws.
And the air’s transparent forest has long
been filled and soaked with it all.

The gaudy day’s a dead hornet
swept from a honeycomb in disgrace,

and night’s black kite has transported
bright chalk to nourish the slate.
From that iconoclastic tablet
we wiped the day’s impressions,
shaking their transparent phantoms
from our arm as if they were fledglings.

Grapes ripened. Fruit swelled.
The day raged as days will rage.

The game of knucklebones, delicate,
and sheepdogs’ fur coats at midday.
Like the icy summits’ waste –
those inside-out pictures of green –
like a whelp with a tail to chase,
the hungering water streams

and crawls towards me like a spider,
each join splashed by moonlight,

and on those astounded heights
I can hear the squeaking slate.
Bright chalk, I quarry the night
to harden the moment in writing.
I swap that noise for the arrow’s song,
harmony for the bustard’s anger.

Am I a mason, his frame drawn up,
a builder of roofs, or a shipwright?

I double-deal, my soul is double,
scout for the day and friend of the night.
Blessed is he who names the flint
the flowing water’s disciple,
who takes that strap and binds it
to firm soil at the sole of a hill.

I’m studying away at the scratches
of the slate’s summertime diary,

at the air and the flint’s language,
their strata of darkness and light;
into that path that flint once formed
from ancient song, I’ll lay my fingers
as if that path were a sore:
flint join water, horseshoe join ring.

1923, 1937