Joseph Brodsky Reads Iosif Brodskij: “A Part of Speech” and the Poetics of Translation

Michael Wachtel, Princeton University

Iosif Brodskij was interested in translation from an early point in his career, but when he emigrated to the West, it became a crucial issue for reasons both intellectual and professional. Brodskij not only “authorized” English renditions of his works, he essentially created a monopoly on them. Anyone wishing to cite his Russian poetry in English is legally required to quote these versions.

In terms of the Russian poetic tradition, which has been so enriched by multiple translations of the same poem, such severe restrictions are surprising. In Brodskij’s case, they are perhaps even more surprising since, in an essay on Cavafy (Less Than One, 55), he explicitly recognizes the advantages of multiple translations. However, the point of my paper is less to question Brodskij’s decision than to explore its consequences. I have chosen for analysis the cycle of poems “Čast′ reči” (“A Part of Speech”) for several reasons. First, Brodskij himself obviously viewed it as one of his major achievements (and most readers seem to agree). Second, since it was written soon after his emigration, it marks his transition from Russian to European/American poet. Finally, it was translated into English by the author alone, not (as so often) co-translated, which would raise a host of additional problems.

Since no poetic translation can hope to mirror all of the qualities of the original, translators necessarily make decisions about what features must be retained at all costs, what can be sacrificed, and what can be added (without losing the “spirit” of the original). The English “A Part of Speech” tells us quite a bit about Brodskij’s approach to verse. The sacrifices are at times astonishing: five of the twenty poems are omitted from the English cycle; the order of the remaining poems is changed in unexpected ways; ambiguities (both grammatical and semantic) are often made clear. Through it all, the rhyme schemes (not the meters) emerge as the inviolate element. Brodskij retains them regardless of the semantic changes they entail.

The paper will concentrate on a few specific examples and conclude not with a judgment of the English “A Part of Speech” (though this is to some extent unavoidable) but with a consideration of the ways that it serves as an aide to understanding both “Čast′ reči” and, more broadly, Brodskij’s poetics.