Mandel'shtam’s Translations of Petrarch

Tom Dolack, University of Oregon

The least studied area of Mandel'shtam’s oeuvre, as with many poets of the period, is his translations. Usually passed over as secondary, they should be considered important in Mandel'shtam’s case if only because they represent a significant body of published work during the later years of his life. Therefore his choice of poems to translate alone (that is those he was not commissioned to do) should interest the scholar. Yet an analysis of his translations shows that there is much more of interest in his translations than simply selection. Using Mandel'shtam’s translations of four Petrarch sonnets from shortly before his death, I hope to show that his translatingactivities were a significant part of his literary production.

In fact, the systematic alterations and reworkings of the poems would seem to qualify them as original poetry. Certainly in lyric poetry where intertextuality and allusion can play such a large role, the distinctions between translation and allusion can be difficult to make. It is my contention that by erasing the boundary between translation and original work — at least under certain conditions — we can gain further insight into both the act of poetic translation as well as the work of many prominent poets. Historically, this distinction was much blurrier. In Renaissance Europe the practice of imitation (or imitatio) of accepted authorities, a cross between these two modes, was the accepted way to achieve greatness in poetry. Placing Mandel'shtam in this context, which he knew quite well, is more productive than the standard translator-translated dichotomy.

By departing from the source text in the “translation” new levels of meaning can be generated, which can only be deciphered by comparing the two texts (or sub-reading). At the same time the speech of the latter poet is placed, à la Bakhtin, into the mouth of the earlier one. It is not hard to see how this process could be significant for Soviet poets whose speech was restricted — at least in the public sphere. In this respect the example of Petrarch is productive in Mandel'shtam because the four poems, on the one hand, represent a separate whole, an individual cycle, and on the other are “mistranslated” in consistent and significant ways — for instance he gives conclusion where Petrarch is open-ended and indeterminate. By taking a fresh look at this aspect of Mandel'shtam’s work I hope to open a new window on one of the major figures of Silver Age poetry.