Anna Andreevna Akhmatova (1889-1966) was born near Odessa, Ukraine, “on the coast of the Black Sea, but lived much of her life in the city that changed its name three times during the first half of the twentieth century — St. Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad” (Petukhova ix). As O. Petukhova points out, the rapidity of this changing city name underscores the dramatic changes in Russian politics and daily life that Akhmatova would live through: the fall of Imperial Russia, two World Wars, and the rise of the Soviet Union, including Stalin’s regime and his purges. In line with all this change, her poems did present marked shifts in style and content, though her imagistic and intense interior voice remained constant. Early in her career, she was a founding member of the “Acmeism” movement with her first husband Nikolai Gumilev. Acmeism, like the American “Imagism” movement of the 20th century, also emphasized “a taste for simplicity, clarity, economy, and craftsmanship” (Reeder 44). Her writing, often categorized, condemned, diminished by her critics as too bourgeois, ostensibly classical and “feminine” (in her early life, this dismissal of her work was especially possible because of her focus on the stereotypically female domain of the love poem), evolved through early Acmeism and beyond. The most famous incarnation came in her later, formally experimental, more public (yet still full of interiority) epic Requiem, combining hints of elegy, the odic tradition, lyric poetry, folk-song elements and more, “the cycle of poems about the Great Terror that have made her world-famous” (Reeder 297, 211; Bailey).
Akhmatova’s life was almost archetypically poetic in terms of the great tragedies that pursued her, mimicking and provoking the themes in her work: the political execution of ex-husband Gumilev (the father of her only son) and her son’s later imprisonment and exile during Stalin’s regime, which we can surmise resulted from the stigma placed on him because of his father’s “marked” status; he was only released after Stalin’s death. Akhmatova, too, was closely monitored by the state; her close friend Osip Mandelstam noted that she, like many artists and dissidents, was being watched (Reeder 289). Her work was denounced multiple times, early in the twenties as “anachronistic and useless to the Revolution,” and in the forties critics attacked her own person in deeply gendered (and indeed, archetypical) terms, as “half-nun, half harlot” (Kenyon 5). Ironically, that terminology, meant to diminish Akhmatova’s agency and credibility as a poet and as a woman, belies the complexity and sensitivity with which her poems address issues of interiority and embodiment, and address or use innuendo to hint at both sexual and platonic forms of love.
I focus on several of Akhmatova’s poems as I first encountered them, lyrically and sensitively translated by the Ann Arbor-born American poet Jane Kenyon and anthologized in the volume A Hundred White Daffodils. Kenyon prefaces her translations in A Hundred White Daffodils by noting the difficulty and imperfection of translation. Kenyon’s most radical and to some, perhaps sacreligious departure from the original Russian is that the translations are “free-verse versions of rhymed and metered poems”; this “sacrifice” of “form for image” privileges the image above all else, a departure from the characteristics of the original Russian Kenyon justifies by noting her belief that “this [embodiment] of feeling [in image] is perhaps the greatest treasure of lyric poetry” (7). The elevation of the image and sensory detail is what makes Akhmatova such a compelling subject for Kenyon, and is also the way that many Western readers would be first introduced to Akhmatova through Kenyon’s translations (though Akhmatova has been translated by other Western poets, perhaps most notably Stanley Kunitz and D.M. Thomas, and others with their own particular aesthetic bents). I also argue that by eschewing rhyme and meter, Kenyon’s free verse translations immediately, if inadvertently, make the poems feel more modern, or less “traditional,” at least to an American ear.
Kenyon saw herself as a disciple of sorts of Akhmatova, which was her primary motive as a translator: to learn from and translate a “master.” Kenyon told poet Robert Bly, when he encouraged her to choose a literary giant as inspiration for her own writing, that she would have to choose Akhmatova and the “luminous particular” of her poems over his other suggestions, because Kenyon’s master could not be a man (Harbilas). In the term master we can read Kenyon’s respect and reverence for Akhmatova, a small and symbolic destabilization of the power structure which might say a master of poetry has to be male. In addition, this motivation for translation–to learn from a master–emphasizes that Kenyon chose Akhmatova’s poems because they speak to her own poetic vision, a highly personal (though certainly also public-facing, in publishing her translations) initial reason. In heightening sparse images at the expense of form, Kenyon’s translations also embrace what is often said to be strongest in Kenyon’s own poetry: a Keatsian negative capability, the ability to linger in and embrace mystery rather than demanding resolution, which is also one of Akhmatova’s fortes.
Translation is always imbued with political and power implications, as Mira Rosenthal writes in her discussion of Milosz’s translations of Anna Świrszczyńska: “The question then becomes, does a specific translation initiate, maintain, or oppose power structures, be they cultural, political, social, or otherwise?” (Rosenthal 59). The transformations and manipulations in Kenyon’s translations are defined by the translator’s aesthetic taste, which privileges the image above all else. How does this focus on image relate to power? In my reading, Akhmatova’s images in Kenyon’s translations are emphasized as vehicles for the expression of the female speaker’s agency and identity. By choosing to elevate the image, Kenyon blurs the lines between Akhmatova’s cultural conception of the female self and her own idea of the self, emphasizing the speaker’s agency rather than subverting image and “I” to formal constrictions like rhyme and meter. Kenyon’s hand is extremely visible in these translations, and because translation is always a subjective task, a manipulation of the original text, this visibility is, I would argue, a positive example of how the power dynamic inherent to translation can play out. In Kenyon’s translations, it is relatively easy to tell from the poems who translated them because of their particularly lyrical and free verse quality, and readers who are familiar with the original Russian or even with other translations can recognize immediately that we are seeing Akhmatova through Kenyon’s specific lens.
Her aesthetic preference for image paved the way for Kenyon’s most foundational decision: the poems that she chose to translate. Kenyon’s translations focused primarily on selections from Akhmatova’s earlier revolutionary-era poetry, though she did indeed also translate some later poems. As Kenyon writes in her introduction: “we revere Akhmatova for her early lyrics–brief, perfectly made verses of passion and feeling” (3). And who is this we who might prefer the earlier work? Kenyon, but the plural first person might also include, Vera Sandomirsky Dunham, a Russian-born American academic with whom she worked to help preserve the tenor of Russian language through translation. Fascinatingly, Kenyon hints later that Sandomirsky Dunham may have disapproved of this form of translation, despite her participation: “Her fear that a free-verse translation of Akhmatova may be fundamentally misconceived has not prevented her from offering her time, her erudition, and her hospitality” (Kenyon 8). The subjectivity and potential controversiality of this translation is clear, but Kenyon is at least clear about her subjectivity, and about the equally subjective value of these translations for others depending on their own preference.
Bailey, Sharon M. “An Elegy for Russia: Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem.” The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 43, no. 2, 1999, p. 324., doi:10.2307/309548.
Kenyon, Jane. A Hundred White Daffodils: Essays, Interviews, the Akhmatova Translations, Newspaper Columns, and One Poem. Graywolf Press, 2000.
Petukhova, O N. “The Queens of Language: Gender and Creativity in Anna Akhmatova and Emily Dickinson.” ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global, 2001, proxy.lib.umich.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.umich.edu/docview/304726439?accountid=14667.
Reeder, Roberta. Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet. Figueroa Press, 2006.