Here and There: Some Reflections on Translating Arkadii Dragomoshchenko

Context N°20

by Evgeny Pavlov

According to Marcel Proust’s oft-cited observation, all literature opens up a kind of a foreign language within language. It seems that another thing is also true (Proust’s translator Walter Benjamin would agree): the degree of foreignness opened up by specific works determines their appeal to translators. The story of how I got into literary translation is a good case in point.

It all began for me in 1992 when I met the St. Petersburg poet Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. A virtual unknown to the larger reading audience in Russia at the time, Dragomoshchenko had risen to prominence in the United States after the San Francisco poet Lyn Hejinian whom he met in 1983 began translating his work into English. Dragomoshchenko’s first translated poetry volume, Description, was published in the U.S. even before his very first collection of poetry officially came out in Russia. Description and a second American volume, Xenia, garnered a great deal of attention in the U.S., with the electronic journal Postmodern Culture dedicating half an issue to Dragomoshchenko’s work, and led Marjorie Perloff, a leading Stanford critic, to speculate that contemporary Russian poetry might be exerting a certain influence upon American writers.

Back in 1992 I knew nothing of this. In that year I attended a bilingual reading by
Dragomoshchenko at the State University of New York at Buffalo where he was then a visiting fellow in Charles Bernstein’s poetics seminar and I was a doctoral student. I had never heard Arkadii’s name before, let alone read his work. Charles Bernstein, a leading member of the American Language poetry movement, introduced Arkadii as a radical innovator whose work has few, if any, apparent links to the dominant Russian poetic practice of the last several decades, and is hence hard, if not impossible, to fit into the established paradigms of Russia’s contemporary literary history.

After the reading I was asked how Dragomoshchenko’s work sounded to a Russian Ear—whether its ostensible affinity with American Language poetry did not make for a certain foreignness, “constructedness,” a certain out-of-the-test-tube quality. At the time I was unsure. The poetry indeed sounded strange and foreign, but definitely not constructed or contrived. And above all, it was extremely compelling. A few days later, after I was introduced to Arkadii and borrowed his copy of Xenia, along with the manuscript of its English translation by Lyn Hejinian, I realized that the powerful effect of the work I had heard in the bilingual reading was enhanced a thousand-fold by the English translation. It was not a simple case of rendering one poetic text in the language of another. It was perhaps what Benjamin described in that impossible text of his, “The Task of the Translator,” as a loving and detailed incorporation of “the original’s mode of signification” in another language, that makes “both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel”. Hejinian’s translations of Dragomoshchenko’s poetry are among those rare examples of poetic synthesis whose likes we find in Paul Celan’s German translations of Osip Mandelstam.

I was therefore quite astonished when a few weeks later Arkadii suggested that I try to translate his prose into my non-native English. My first impulse was of course to refuse, but that same day I found myself attempting to produce an English version of a short prose text from his essay collection Fosfor. The genre of the piece—as for that matter, all Dragomoshchenko’s prose— was hard to define. Hejinian once called it “unbounded prose poetry,” and for want of a better designation I may as well stay with hers. The piece was definitely non-narrative, but also non-descriptive. To borrow a formulation from the American critic Mikhail Iampolskii, it more resembled a dynamic palimpsest, like two (or more) overlaid cinematic sequences. This idiosyncratic and strangely entrancing effect was achieved by a most peculiar use of syntax for which one is not likely to find any parallels in Russian literature, including contemporary writing. To illustrate the various challenges Dragomoshchenko’s discourse presents to the translator—and ultimately, to explain why I could not resist the challenge—I will provide a page-long excerpt from Kitaiskoe solntse, a prose text I am currently attempting to recreate in English.

Night walked on without a splash: there’s someone who crossed waters
“as dry land”! The voices of mother, father, guests moved incidental shadows, like shaky islands of tender disturbance, across my room; the windows, as usual, restructured the dusk. Beyond the edge of indistinct voices, a steady, dull noise rolled on; back then, the sense of its wave-like approach was especially pleasant. It was as if one were reaching the threshold of sleep, the ivory gate that immediately issued one back, into the anticipation of the blissful instant of transition, transformation, into the moment that contained (in a triple exposure) the unrealized past, the already actualized present, and that which was just about to enter itself, having enclosed the all-reflecting nexus of time, or the absence of the word that signifies this possible never radiating in all directions in a luster of incredible blindness and omnivision where no means are left, only aims: always remaining an anticipation of that same past that never happened. The sequence is familiar: first, parents catch up with you, then disappear leaving you to your own appearance, then you create your parents disappearing in their last return to you.Was I the continuation, the source, the beginning of the noise—or of the voices coming from down below? The day’s majestic yet helpless and pitiful world unhurriedly turned its gigantic disk, lengthened shadows, re-drew contours. Grass is straight, it stretches in a stratum of ochre to the borders of consciousness. As if for the last time (every night in a new approximation), with a strangely groundless and sentimental feeling, I touched sunflower
stems, rough fence boards, seemed to press myself to the tangible, balsamic odor of dry daisies, dried fish, and, dissolving in it, fleshless and unconquered by space, moved on to the brass tinkling of window glass, studying the membranous, mother-of-pearl stamping of French perfume, the curvature and speed of a light ray, of printer’s ink, the ice of playing cards, the keys of the Blüthner grand piano. Pubescence. Carpets revealed spirals of Sufi precepts, the bony hornet of porcelain buzzed by the teeth, splitting molecular conjunctions of walnut dust, while behind the windows, a high water of cabbage butterflies, whitewashed to cinders by noon, flowed like the dry waters of the Koran. These butterflies—I’m now quite certain—will never leave that time, just as the silhouettes of train engines never for a second leave de Chirico’s potato clock dials. The origin of a child’s love lies at the center of the galactic dizziness of absolute loneliness. Soot. Calm clarity upsets: the landscape is a dictionary whose silkworm nests overflow with the vanishing of the touches that make it—and of yourself, with your fingers dipped into the frosty fire of your own shadow.

It is impossible to stop and sort out these images—they are dynamic like the flow of butterflies. Their palimpsests include a simultaneous movement of several temporal streams, and none of them can be safely isolated without violating the elusive whole. “Was I the continuation, the source, the beginning of the noise—or of the voices coming from down below?” An answer to this question is not to be found in the passage that follows it. Postulating noncoincidence with the origin as the essential condition of poetic language and the world it generates, Dragomoshchenko’s prose of necessity questions the most basic of narrative conventions, without, however, willfully destroying them. Instead, Chinese Sun introduces its own rules—those required by the logic of relentless transition and unpredictable shifting. As the author explains elsewhere in the text, “Individual facts held by memory in a particular sequence or chain, remain isolated facts extracted from a certain moment of time (this may be the origin of the mysterious, vertiginous charm and elusiveness they sometimes occasion). Subsequently, something else is becoming: not facts themselves, not events, but the way in which they correlate with my/your current intentions, with my today’s desire, intent.” In Chinese Sun, as well as the short piece Here, it is the experience
of this becoming that unfolds into the ever-expanding labyrinth of encroaching oblivion/incomprehension, while the space of the unfolding is language itself. Herein lies the translator’s most daunting challenge: the promise of a straightforward mnemonic narrative is at every point disrupted by poetic observations on the act of perception that is both identical with, and different from, the act of remembering. But the becoming that is the work of memory is to the same extent the work of translation. The daunting challenge facing the translator also holds an irresistible attraction.

Night noiselessly “crossing waters as dry land” is the crowning metaphor of the sequence. Its approach heralds the imminent disappearance that never quite comes but is only anticipated. Hovering at the threshold of darkness, sleep, oblivion, the first person singular merges with the intoxicating blur of acoustic, visual, tactile, and olfactory images only to vanish in the soot of their bodiless, “dictionary landscape” at the end of the passage. It is the formal features of this landscape that the translator must recreate with utmost precision, for the signifier of Dragomoshchenko’s prose is also quite inseparable from the signified. The passage speaks of lengthened shadows, redrawn contours, and we find this lengthening and redrawing mirrored and enhanced in the shape of its sentences: each movement of thought is prolonged by numerous clauses and modifiers. The unrealised anticipation of the “blissful moment of transition” is similarly enacted on the level of syntax: the moment of comprehension always slips away, and by the end of the sentence one needs to retrace one’s steps, go back to the beginning. The Russian language achieves this complexity with relative ease. Being inflected, it allows for strings of cases seamlessly to extend sentences, endlessly to augment and qualify nouns and verbs. And though Dragomoshchenko explores this capability of his language to a considerable extreme, the Russian reader will hardly find his expression particularly strained or artificial: one glides across the surface of his textual landscape without much effort. The realization of impeded comprehension is then all the more unexpected and striking. Thus the task of the translator facing this text is to match its idiosyncratic formal effect as much as any other aspect of meaning. Yet English is far less adaptable to the endless winding of clauses and modifiers, which means that the precise syntactic structure of the original must be retained at the expense of the natural rhythms of the English sentence. This could betray the original as well. At the same time, breaking sentences up—a traditional remedy used by translators of syntactically complex Russian prose—is not an option here either. Such a solution would necessarily alter the very meaning of the text and would thus fail to convey to the English reader its original intent.

Following the example set by Hejinian, whose work overwhelmingly proved the possibility of retaining Dragomoshchenko’s syntax in English, I chose to try to maintain the semantic possibilities inherent in the formal complexity of the Russian text by preserving the sentence length in the translation. In order to at least partially preserve the smoothness of the original, I had to “rehash” clauses within some sentences, to accentuate certain grammatical relations, and, of course to make extensive changes to original punctuation. Similarly, certain semantic sacrifices had to be made in order to recreate striking alliterative effects. But it is precisely the “metaphysical” impossibility of fulfillment that makes the challenge so compelling. Indeed, as we read in Here, “After how many editorial changes . . . after how many corrections and insertions determined by the desire for authenticity (faithfulness to the source, truth?) will we consider the first version canonical, and subsequently, original?”

I can now go back to the story of my first experience of translating Dragomoshchenko’s prose. My initial intuition was to begin translating without first attempting to analyze the text at hand, without first conducting the customary job of dissection in order to isolate particular difficulties. I am now quite certain that the first intuition proved right: getting a weak grasp on the text through the act of producing the first rough draft of its translation put me in tune with its tonality, its elusive logic, rhythm, and contemplative detachment. Until then I had thought of translation as mainly a craft—possibly, an art too—but I had never imagined it could ever be an act of—dare I say it? —existential significance. Dragomoshchenko who himself is an avid translator of English poetry once, in a letter to Lyn Hejinian, described the experience in the following terms: “Maybe one could call it meditation: no me, no reality, no non-reality, no time, no space. Who knows, probably in our unconscious we always already have striven for . . . the possibilities of non-existence, non-being, in a word, for a fabulous blank space, the point where every meaning is only its own possibility, bearing in itself the shadow of a future embodiment, which simultaneously means an instant disappearance. Which is to say . . . we have always been very diligent explorers of disappearance per se, and we have come to know just this, that ‘art’ and ‘life’ in the end become the same.”

But what about the end product of this exploration? Will its reader equally discover “the otherness of seeming non-existence”? Or will s/he, despite best intentions, be repelled by a jumble of words and clauses whose otherness is that of simple impenetrability? I imagine this anxiety is familiar to most literary translators. Yet as long as Dragomoshchenko’s prose engages the translator to be an active participant in the production of meaning, there is always a chance of perfecting one’s failure to arrive at “the fabulous blank spot.” As Deleuze and Guattari write in A Thousand Plateaus, “We employ a dualism of models only in order to arrive at a process that challenges all models . . . Arrive at the magic formula we all seek . . . via all the dualisms that are the enemy, an entirely necessary enemy, the furniture we are forever rearranging.”

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