January 01, 2019

On Translating Krylov

On Translating Krylov

As a translator of poetry I always try to retain as much as possible of the form of the original, only committing small formal infidelities when I feel I absolutely have to in order to reflect meaning and create a well-formed work in English. When I accepted Russian Life Books’ commission to translate a fair number of Krylov fables (ultimately 62 + two more in this issue), I decided to adopt a somewhat relaxed version of this guideline. I would translate into iambs, Krylov’s only meter. However, since the fabulist varies line length, rhyme scheme and poem length at will, for any given poem, I would stay within the guidelines of the original works and not be too rigid about getting these aspects to exactly match an individual poem. This made my task a great deal easier and I felt I could claim that, though perhaps an individual translation did not sound exactly like the original Krylov poem, it did sound certainly like a Krylov poem.

Another issue was how much of the archaic language I should retain.  The fact is that I learned Russian from teachers, including my own father and the nineteenth century literary masters, who spoke essentially nineteenth century Russian. So when it comes to understanding, I am at least as comfortable with something in Russian written in the second decade of the nineteenth century as I am with something written in that language in the second decade of the twenty-first. I set out to write in neutral understandable English, especially since we were hoping that our book would be read by and to children. When I read what I wrote, however, I saw that it was natural for me to include somewhat archaic terms, for example, “twas for naught,” not only for rhyme but to give a bit of the original atmosphere. I also, here and there. include a modern phrase, which I hope adds an additional flavor of humor.

My third concern particular to Krylov was to retain the pungency of the phrases that are still quoted (with a frequency analogous to English use of lines from Shakespeare) in Russian today. This was especially diverting when the quoted lines formed a rhymed couplet, for example, “Then Dragonfly felt hunger’s pang, And, no surprise, no longer sang,” and “Yes, I know their singing stinks, And yet not one among them drinks!”

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