NEW TRANSLATIONS OF OSIP MANDELSTAM, Ed. by ILYA BERNSTEINJULIE R. ENSZER Reviews
New Translations of Osip Mandelstam, Edited by Ilya Bernstein (with translations by Ilya Bernstein, Ian Dreiblatt, Lev Fridman, Andrey Gritsman, Alex Halberstadt, Christian Hawkey, John High, Kevin Kinsella, Eugene Ostashevsky, Luba Ostashevsky, Ian Probstein, Natasha Randall, Alan Shaw, Val Vinokur, Seth Zimmerman)
(Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, NY, 2006)
There is a particular joy in encountering a book that you know was made with love. There is even more joy when you realize that the book was made by people, who are unknown to you but who share with you a love for books. That’s how I felt encountering Osip Mandelstam: New Translations.
Osip Mandelstam was a Russian poet and essayist who lived from 1891 until 1938. He is one of the central figures of the Acmeist school of poets, which also included Anna Akhmatova. Mandelstam saw the school as “yearning for a world culture.”
Ugly Duckling Presse has gathered eighteen poems by Mandelstam translated from Russian by a variety of translators into a small, elegantly produced chapbook. It opens with these lines from the poem “Hagia Sophia” as translated by Ian Probstein,
Hagia Sophia--it was commanded by the Lord
That kings and nations halt in wonder here!
Your cupola, in the eyewitness’s word,
Seems raised towards heaven on a chain.
Mandelstam’s work captures the world in which he lived as above in “Hagia Sophia” and in the poem “Leningrad” included in this collection. Mandelstam also writes about other significant events of the time as in “Impressionism” where he evokes the work happening in the art world at the time.
Perhaps the most transcendent poem of the collection is the final one written approximately eighteen months before Mandelstam’s death. Here it is as translated by Ilya Bernstein in its entirety,
There are women who belong to the damp earth,
Whose every step is like resounding sobbing.
To escort the resurrected and to be the first
To greet the dead is their calling.
To demand tenderness from them is a crime,
And to part with them exceeds our powers.
Today, an angel, tomorrow, a worm from the grave,
And the day after—nothing but a shadow. . .
All that was moving once will be removed. . .
Flowers are immortal, the sky is all-embracing,
And what will be is no more than a promise.
In addition to making available these new translations of poems in a beautiful chapbook, this book gathers multiple translations of a single poem. This great contribution and textual practice not only brings greater insight into Mandelstam’s work, but also engages the reader in thinking about the decisions of translators and highlights the significance of translation work.
Ugly Duckling Presse is the great publisher that made this fine book available. According to their mission statement,
Ugly Duckling Presse is a nonprofit art & publishing collective producing small to mid-size editions of new poetry, translations, lost works, and artist's books. The Presse favors emerging, international, and "forgotten" writers with well-defined formal or conceptual projects that are difficult to place at other presses. Its full-length books, chapbooks, artist’s books, broadsides, magazine and newspaper all contain handmade elements, calling attention to the labor and history of bookmaking.
I trust I am just one of the many readers appreciative of their work.
Julie R. Enszer is a writer and lesbian activist living in Maryland. She has previously been published in Iris: A Journal About Women, Room of One’s Own, Long Shot, the Web Del Sol Review, and the Jewish Women’s Literary Annual. You can learn more about her work at www.JulieREnszer.com.