Englishing Metarealism

Patrick Henry, University of California, Berkeley

Most accounts of Russian literary postmodernism have been based primarily on evidence in prose fiction and the poetry of Moscow conceptualism (Dmitry A. Prigov, Lev Rubinshtein, etc.). The other major tendency in late-Soviet unofficial poetry, metarealism (Ivan Zhdanov, Aleksei Parshchikov, Aleksandr Eremenko, etc.), proves an awkward fit in such discussions, when it is considered at all. Recently some critics, such as Dmitry Golynko-Volfson, have attempted to beef up the metarealists’ postmodernist credentials by stressing their connection to Language writing in the United States. Exhibit number one in this argument is the ongoing 20-year collaboration between Arkady Dragomoshchenko and Berkeley poet Lyn Hejinian, which has yielded several books of translations in both English and Russian. Other examples include Michael Palmer’s translations of Parshchikov and Kit Robinson’s translations of Ilya Kutik.

In this paper I propose to read American translations of metarealist poetry as a way of understanding metarealism's place in the context of (Russian) postmodernism. On the whole, metarealist poetry has entered the American literary system on the pages of the very journals and magazines and in books published by the very small presses that promote experimental domestic writing. Many of its translators, including Hejinian, Palmer and Robinson, have been leading American avant-garde writers. And yet, Hejinian’s work aside, a curious thing has happened to metarealist poetry in translation: the “meaning” of this poetry, which was a primary target of the campaign against complexity launched by Soviet critics in the 1980s, has become easier to grasp in English. This has resulted from a complicated process of domestication. For the most part, the translators of metarealism have adopted a literal approach, making no attempt to reproduce formal features of the source texts such as rhyme and meter. The constitutive role of imagery in metarealism (as opposed to sonic effects, for instance) makes it far more amenable to this approach than, say, Russian concrete poetry, yet the decision to translate in prose-like free verse also modifies metarealist poetry to fit current norms in the target culture. At the same time, a subtler but more powerful form of domestication occurs at the semantic level, where the multivalence of images in the source texts is reduced, on occasion specifically in order to conform to target-culture stereotypes. For the purposes of this talk I will focus on Palmer's translations of Parshchikov, in which the process and consequences of such domestication are clear.