Slot:       28B-6         Dec. 28, 10:15 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.                                              

Panel:     M. L. Gasparov and the Poetics of Translation

Chair:     Irina Reyfman, Columbia University


Title:       Mikhail Gasparov on the Art of Translation

Author:   Barry Scherr, Dartmouth College

In addition to his contributions to verse theory and to his studies of individual poets and poems, Mikhail Gasparov was both a scholar and a major translator of Classical literature, providing Russian versions of works by Aristotle,  Pindar, Horace, Ovid, and Cicero, among others.  His range of interests naturally led him to explore the nature of translation. While he never articulated a complete theory, in numerous articles he had occasion to explore the issues involved in rendering a poem from one language into another. 

The goal of this paper is to examine representative instances when Gasparov looks at the art of translation into Russian, with the purpose of specifying the criteria he used for analyzing translated works and to piece together the theoretical considerations that informed his approach.  One criterion was his “index of exactness” (see “Briusov i podstrochnik,” in Izbrannye trudy, vol. 2 [Moscow, 1997]), which measures the percentage of times that a translation retains — rather than changing, dropping or adding — significant words (nouns, verb, adjectives and adverbs). This admittedly crude measure nonetheless allows him to characterize certain translators as more exact, and others as freer in their approach.

As it turns out, he comments unfavorably on the success of simple “literalism” as an approach. No one translation, no matter how exact, can truly convey everything that is in a poem; therefore there are no ideal translations, no translations for all time. Every translator makes choices; when the choices express the taste of an era, and when the translator’s own taste results in a consistency of approach and style that convey key qualities of the original with true mastery, the result is a translation that will speak to a generation of readers.  (“Sonety Shekspira — perevody Marshaka,” Voprosy literartury, 1969, no. 2; written with N. S. Avtonomova).


Title:       Mikhail Leonovich Gasparov as “stikhoved” and “stikhotvorets”

Author:   Michael Wachtel, Princeton University

Mikhail Leonovich Gasparov was one of the great literary scholars of the twentieth century, and his recent death forces us to consider his vast and varied legacy. The title of my paper is drawn from essays Gasparov wrote about Belyi and Briusov, in which he analyzed the relationship of the theoretician of verse to the practicing poet.

Gasparov himself was not a poet in the ordinary sense of the word, but, as his Zapisi i vypiski indicate, he possessed a poet’s sensibility and style. In his scholarship he often looked at poetry from the perspective of a poet. This is especially true in his voluminous work on translation. As a scholar of verse form, Gasparov of necessity studied the way translation (whether equimetrical or not) affected the meaning of the original poem and the identities of both poet and translator.

Given his fascination with verse form, it is not surprising that Gasparov was distinctly uncomfortable with the idea of free verse. Partially this was a reflection of Russian poetic practice, where free verse has always existed on the margins and where poetic translation (often done by the foremost poets) made claims for itself as poetry in its own right. In this context Gasparov’s book Eksperimentalnyi perevod (SPb, 2003) came as a complete surprise. In it, Gasparov not only translated almost exclusively in free verse; he also allowed himself freedoms that would horrify most scholars (in particular, by shortening the texts, in his phrase, “sadistically”).

Though Gasparov’s book contains texts come from Western poetry ranging from antiquity to European modernism, my paper will focus on the most notorious section: the translations of Russian elegies (e.g. Pushkin, Lermontov) into free verse. Looking closely at these renderings, I will demonstrate that they do not quite support Gasparov’s own contention that in them “mnogo ubavleno, no nichego ne pribavleno.”  Ultimately, I will show that Gasparov’s work provides a fascinating polemic to the famous (in American scholarship) notion of the “heresy of paraphrase.”  In fact, paraphrase is one of the most essential qualities not only of these experimental translations, but also of Gasparov’s strictly scholarly publications.


Title:       Zhabotinskii and the Hendecasyllabic Line

Author:   Ruth Solomon Rischin, Independent Scholar

In the article on the tendencies toward tonicity in the Italian use of the hendecasyllabic line, “Ital′ianskii stikh: sillabika ili sillabo-tonika?” (Problemy strukturnoi lingvistiki, 1978; “Nauka,” 1981; “Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie,” 1995), Mikhail Gasparov explores works in  Italian letters from medieval Sicily and Tuscany to twentieth-century Modernist poetry as models for the adapability of the hendecasyllabic as a prosodic genre to Russian letters. Within the context of Italian models of the eleven-syllable line, after surveying the employment of the eleven-syllable line in Russian poetry from the seventeenth  through the nineteenth-centuries, Gasparov postulates four models or patterns in its Russian adaptation.  He then  brings together as a set four examples of its use by twentieth-century Russian poets: the translation by Sergei Solov’ev of Mickiewicz’s Konrad Wallenrod, two renderings  by A. Iliushin of the Ugolino episode from Dante’s Divine Comedy, and the translation by Vladimir Zhabotinskii of Chaim Nakhman Bialik’s poema, “Megillah Ha-Esh” [Scroll of Fire]). Based on this comparison he then attests to Zhabotinskii’s use of a line that combines features of the Dante hendecasyllabic and of that employed by the  twentieth-century novelist and playwright, Gabriele D’Annunzio. Methodologically quantitative, Gasparov’s article affirms a tendency toward tonicity as characteristic of the Russian adaptation of the Italian verse form.  In its comparisons, in its almost tender survey of the Italian models down through the centuries, in its look at the Modernist Russian users of this borrowed form, Gasparov makes  a statement about literary cultures.

Most provocatively for this literary scholar, in analyzing the hendecasyllabic line that Zhabotinskii sustains, in a translation of well over one thousand lines, M. L. Gasparov inadvertently identifies a key to the poetics of this remarkable translation. A magisterial work in Modernist letters on the theme of a defunct messianism, Bialik’s “Megillah-Ha-Esh” (1905) bore the subtitle, “Be-Megillot Ha-Hurban” [“From the Scrolls of the Catastrophe”] and allegedly was composed in response to the defunct messianism that the author felt to be the situation of his co-believers in the wake of the aborted 1905 Revolution. A deft retelling of Talmudic legends combines with the use of  transparently Fall of Man epic devices in the classical shapeliness of the Hebrew original. 

Nowhere does the translator mention D’Annunzio.  Rather, in the  Preface, he states: “‘Svitok o plameni’ v podlinnike napisan prozoi.  Perevodchik ne risknul  peredat′ etu izumitel′no ritmicheskuiu i garmonichnuiu prozu inache kak belym stikhom, postroennym po obraztsu ital′ianskogo endekasillabo—s ob′′iazatel′nym udareniem na 4-ili 6-m sloge; raznoobraznyi, meniaiushchiisia ritm etogo razmera, mozhet byt′, do nekotoroi stepeni peredast tonicheskoe padenie originala” (Gasparov,1989, p. 30. citing Zhabotinskii).  Indeed, a reading of the stylized dramas of Gabriele D’Annunzio, especially of the 1904 Daughter of Jorio, written in hendecasyllabics, has led this scholar to suggest that D’Annunzio’s hendecasyllabic line pointed the way for  Zhabotinskii to  bring Bialik’s poema  out of the Miltonic Paradise Lost mode of the original Hebrew into the Modernist theater of collective sacrifice, ritual, recollection in the life of a people. And that has been  represented preeminently by Gabriele D’Annunzio.  There was a veritable D’Annunzio cult prominent in Russia that extended from the theater of Vera Kommissarzhevskaia to Ivan Bunin’s stories of the 1910s (the ascent of the Abruzzi mountaineers in Bunin’s “Gentleman from San Francisco” is one of its  later  registerings). In his discussion of Zhabotinskii’s contribution to the revival of the hendecasyllabic line in Russian letters, Gasparov comments on the translator’s “excellent ear. ” Here, one may point to the Hebraic-Slavonic syncresis of place names, of the many names for the poema’s Protagonist (Sabaoth) and Antagonist (Satan), of the metaphorical use of animals (Sera Zari for the morning star—literally, Gazelle of the Dawn), and of their real appearance, which throughout contribute to the psychological instrumentation of the eleven-syllable line. Finally, the translator’s use of the free-standing  hemistich especially to demarcate narrative juncture, adds a theatricality that confirms the translator’s attentiveness to the theater of D’Annunzio and its relevance to his project.

Diversifying his many analyses of metrical genres in Russian letters, Gasparov, reintroduced the Zhabotinskii translation, so that again in a 1993 anthology (Russkie stikhi 1890s-1925-go godov [M., Vysshaia shkola], pp. 145-146), the opening lines of “Svitok plameni” appear as an example of a sillabicheskoe stikhoslozhenie s udarnoi konstantoi [ital′ianskii tip] and again with the commentary, “original, kak eto ni stranno, napisan prozoi.”