Mandel’shtam’s Nightingale and Literary Ventriloquism

Tom Dolack, University of Oregon

In his 1932 poem “K nemetskoi rechi [To the German Language]” Mandel’shtam writes “God-Nightingale, give me the fate of Pylades/Or tear out my tongue – I no longer need it.” These lines are often taken to represent the poet’s resignation to silence in a world without the type of friendship represented by Pylades, the great companion of Orestes in his attempt to seek revenge against Clytemnestra. But the subtext reveals the exact opposite. In Greek mythology the nightingale was related to Philomela, who was raped by her brother-in-law, had her tongue torn out and was kept prisoner away from her family. Despite her forced silence she is able to tell of the crime, and seek justice against the criminal, by weaving the story into a tapestry and sending it to her sister. Thus, Philomela is able to regain the ability to speak, even without her tongue, through artistic production.

Mandel’shtam was put in a similar situation. His tongue was “torn out,” so to speak, with his increasing difficulty in publishing his own works in the 20s and 30s. He is, however, able to overcome this forced silence through his main outlet of published work in the later part of his career: his translations. By speaking through another poet, using another’s words to express his own thoughts, Mandel’shtam (like other Soviet poets including Pasternak) is able to regain his lost speech. I refer to this process, drawing on the work of Bakhtin and Thomas Greene, as literary ventriloquism. As the subtext insinuates, there is not merely an artistic component to this process, but political and moral implications as well. Indeed if we recall Pushkin’s prophet who has is “sinful tongue” torn out before he can speak the Word of God, there is even a messianic note to this process as well.

In this light I wish to examine some of Mandel’shtam’s later translations, in particular his translation of Petrarch’s sonnet #319, which directly addresses the topic of “harsh fate.” Mandel’shtam’s rewriting of the poem not only applies to his own harsh fate, but injects elements which speak to the relationship between the poet, his art and translation in the broad sense.