Are futurist poets notoriously untranslatable?
Russian translator Veronika Bowker has shared with us the translations of two poems by futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov, which you can read in the Translations & other writing page.
This is the way she introduces Khlebnikov:
“In their early pamphlet ‘Slap in the Face of Public Opinion’ Russian futurists called themselves chairmen of the world. They unanimously considered Viktor Vladimirovich Khlebnikov (1885-1922) to be the first among them. This was a person who not only created art of and for the future but lived the life of a futurist. Khlebnikov came to literature through natural sciences and painting. Throughout his short life he was formulating universal laws of history which would demonstrate the futility of all wars. Osip Mandelstam called him a ‘citizen of all history’ (‘гражданин всей истории’). He was also creating a language which would transcend surface meanings and enable all people on the planet to understand each other. He called it ‘заумь’ [zaum’ – za/beyond + um/ intelligence] – a supraconscious language.
In view of the above Khlebnikov is notoriously difficult to translate and often is considered untranslatable. Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English (2000) edited by Olive Classe doesn’t even mention his name (though it doesn’t mention Mayakovsky either). Probably the best Khlebnikov in English can be found in R. Chandler’s translation in his forthcoming Anthology of Russian Poetry for Penguin.
Comparison with more well known futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky may give the translator an idea of the formal features of Khlebnikov’s writing. Initially Khlebnikov learnt a lot from Mayakovsky’s verse form, later Mayakovsky was influenced by the way Khlebnikov appropriated it. His language of ‘zaum’ developed into a complex and diverse phenomemnon rooted, on the one hand, in linguistic and literary sense (combination of folklore and neologisms), and in historical and ideological perception of the world (reconstructing future), on the other. Whilst Mayakovsky dealing with epic themes remains a deeply lyrical poet, Khlebnikov is epic even in a very short poem. Zaum is always a constituent part of any of his texts, it defines the context of a poem and places it in the universal context of the whole human reading experience.”
A translation challenge for you, our reader!
Back to our initial question ‘are futurist poets notoriously untranslatable?’ We invite you to take up the challenge to translate the following poem by Khlebnikov. You don’t need to know Russian to do it. Veronika Bowker has provided a word-for-word translation and a transliteration. We encourage you to be as creative as possible and defy the untranslatability belief. Finally, we would be delighted to receive your translations and post them on our blog. Please email your translation(s) as attachments to
О достоевскиймо бегущей тучи!
О пушкиноты млеющего полдня!
Ночь смотрится, как Тютчев,
Замерное безмерным полня.
Oh, dostoyevskijmo (Dostoyevsky + pismo/writing) of running cloud!
Oh, pushkinoty (Pushkin + krasoty/beauty) of melting midday!
Night looks (at itself) like Tyutchev*,
Filling immeasurable (beyond measure) with immense (unmeasured).
© (Veronika Bowker) 2014
Transliteration (stressed vowels are unerlined)
O dostoyevskijmo begushej tuchi!
O pushkinoty mleyushevo poldnya!
Noch smotritsa kak Tyutchiv*,
Zamernoje bezmernym polnya.
*(Fyodor Tyutchev (Федор Тютчев) (1803-1873) – Russian poet, worked as a diplomat in Germany and Italy.
Veronika Bowker says more about this poem:
“The first two lines demonstrate Khlebnikov’s typical method of creating neologisms which he explained through the method of pointilist painting when ‘two pure colours applied next to each other from the distance create a shimmering sense of a third one’.
This is a portrait of Russian literature represented by the names of its most important figures against the landscape of a fleeting change of early morning, midday and twilight/ night in the space of one day. Literary figures and parts of the day give meanig and light to each other: Dostoevsky with his ‘White Nights’, Pushkin – ‘the Sun of Russian poetry’, Tyutchev and his theme of twilight of life…
The last line places this portrait/landscape within the context of immense art enriching the eternal universe.
This an early poem. Russian futurism strongly denied symbolism but at its early stage in many aspects continued its legacy. Tyutchev and Verlaine were two sacred names for Russian symbolists.
It is intersting to see the parallels between Khlebnikov’s poem and an extract from Verlaine’s ‘Art poétique’:
C’est des beaux yeux derrière des voiles,
C’est le grand jour tremblant de midi,
C’est par un ciel d’automne attiédi,
Le bleu fouillis des claires étoiles!
My English version above is just an explication of the inner workings of the original. I would be interested and grateful if anybody would like to take it as a challenge and offer their own reading and possible version/s in English”.