Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922)
Alex Cigale

Immediately after the publication of the first volume of Paul Schmidt's Khlebnikov Collected, The New Republic ran Joseph Brodsky's review which I don't think it would be unfair to characterize as acerbic; scathing, really; dismissive at the least. Brodsky, though still a year away from being recognized by the Nobel Prize committee, never short on certitude regarding his aesthetic judgments, summed it up thus: "Khlebnikov's work is a phenomenon of towering incoherence." One of course might look on the brighter side and see grudging respect in that qualification. "Towering" is, after all, not inconsequential.
I had written to Brodsky later that same year (1986) with a handful of translations of his poems I had completed the previous year for my honors thesis at the University of Michigan. To an absolute beginner, I must say that his response was quite generous. Praising them as "nervy" while insisting that "rhyme and meter are what guarantees an utterance's longevity on the bookshelf," he suggested that I be in touch again. After his Literature award, I found that prospect too daunting and, to my deep regret, put translation aside for the next decade and never contacted Joseph again.
When I met Paul Schmidt, almost a decade to the date -- entirely unbeknownst to both of us, we were translating the same younger, then living poet, Andrey Turkin, for an anthology that was to appear in 2000, after both the poet and the translator had sadly died (Crossing Centuries: the New Generation in Russian Poetry) -- again I felt too intimidated to broach the subject of translation, let alone raise the specter of Brodky's criticism. Nor did I dare then even consider that one day I might myself tackle the complexity of translating Khlebnikov, let alone think I could improve on Paul's work.
My specific reason for responding to the controversy now is that the importance of Khlebnikov to so many of the non-conformist poets in the above-mentioned collection can not be overstated (nor, I think, can his wide acceptance as an important modernist in America.) Given that the divide between the traditionalists and the innovators is even greater in Russian poetry than it is in the American, as a bi-cultural poet I have attempted in the past and will continue to try to mediate if not bridge that gap.
Roman Jakobson, the father of Structuralist linguistics, had called Velimir Khlebnikov "perhaps the most important modern poet," and it is as a critique of Modernity that we might frame the conflicting responses. In his review, Brodsky presents Khlebnikov as a "product of an era now famous for its hysterical, apocalyptic pitch, for its millenarian sensibility, the era marked by the turn of the century...." For those possessing Russian, the link below to the video interview with Brodsky in which he discusses the relative merits of the great poets of the Russian Silver Age revolves around this very point and the poet he holds in greatest regard, Tsvetayeva, unsurprisingly and for more obvious reasons that Brodsky raises, was the one who reacted least to the revolutionary hype.
One can't help but suspect that a partial reason for at least some of the venom is revealed right upfront, the rightful indignation of an apolitical poet repressed by the Soviet state at the utopianism of the Futurists, so easily swayed as they were by the myth of revolution and progress. After all, Khlebnikov's budetlyanen or man of the future was the same so easily molded into Soviet Man that the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz profiled most acutely in his first book, The Captive Mind (1953). The other reason is of course the traditionalist's open dismay at a grouping whose very manifesto unarguably immaturely and possibly irresponsibly prefigured the Stalinist terror in declaring the necessity of "Throw(ing) Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy... overboard from the Ship of Modernity."
These might also account for the relatively low regard in which Brodksy held Pasternak's poetry, the latter's aesthetics being colored by his youthful flirtation with Futurism. It should be noted, as Brodsky does not, that both Pasternak and Khlebnikov were the first to be disillusioned and to part ways with Futurism proper, either just before or immediately after the Revolution. Pasternak's survival, though as translator rather than as poet, yet a member of the Writer's Union, in comparison to the fates of all the dead and of the lone surviving Akhmatova, might still have been unpardonable in the eyes of a '60s outsider. Such conjecture regarding the ulterior motives of the dead risks being ungenerous, but since it does seem difficult to separate ethics from aesthetics, at a minimum questioning the objectivity of aesthetic judgments would appear to me to be legitimate.
Miłosz had often pointed out that the single greatest difference between Polish and Russian modern poetry is that the former had long ago liberated itself from the tyranny of meter and rhyme. I recall my own exchange with him at Michigan on the subject of translation, regarding the relative merit of Robert Lowell's Imitations. I was standing with that book in my hands at a remainders table outside of Borders, then a single literary bookstore in Ann Arbor, and Miłosz, taking his constitutional, paused at the intersection of State and Liberty to disapprove in his inimitable French-flavored Polish-accented English: "He is not faithful." Miłosz's singular measure for the task of the poet, a word he intoned solemnly often, was a moral one: being "faithful." And it is precisely this moral accusation that I think lies behind both Brodsky's attack on Khlebnikov's character and his criticism of the "unfaithfulness" of Schmidt's translations.
First the ad hominem: Brodsky immediately diminishes Khlebnikov by portraying him amidst "one of his seemingly aimless wanderings through the land in which his entire adult life was spent. He was a foot and railroad-car man as much as a writer." He then levels the accusation of graphomania, unfair it would seem against a writer who did not live long enough to edit and select his own work. "His output runs to six volumes, and the word that comes to mind considering his works' quantity and quality is exactly this: mileage.... 80 percent of Khlebnikov's verse and prose are utterly unpalatable and incomprehensible. The remaining 20 percent are diamonds of an unparalleled splendor."
The reason for these personal failures? Amateurism. "First and foremost he was a philologist and a visionary.... The proximity between philology... and the art of letters is such that often an individual who practices one mistakes his occupation for the other. Thus Roman Jakobson in his youth wrote poetry (which was, as a matter of fact, every bit as Futuristic as anything produced by Khlebnikov)." (We might note that this simultaneously serves as a swipe at the single most authoritative contemporary proponent of Khlebnkov's "greatness" as a poet.) Regarding the inventiveness and imagination at the root of Khlebnikov's accomplishments, Brodsky offers the following nod: "Beautiful or grotesque, the results are often memorable, if only because the trophy of a word's meaning is paid for with the casualties of his mutilated grammar."
There is no resolution or compromise possible here, of course. From the very start, Brodsky's insistence on what he terms "The Meaning of Meaning" privileges logos, the semantics of logic. This is yet again that old conflict between content and form, and it is not that Brodsky's work is deficient in feeling but his allegiance clearly lies with Rationality and Reason and thus with the techne of meter and rhyme. Just as in his message to me about what constitutes not just "faithful" translation but faithful poetry, the central motivation, the proof in the pudding shall we say, becomes "the utterance's longevity." "An utterance must make sense. To survive, it must contain a grain of truth, be that a psychological, social, scientific, philosophical, or metaphysical truth; it also has to be stylistically distinct." To sum up, Khlebnikov is "[s]hort on the former and very drastic on the latter...."
Just like the semantic instability Brodsky eschews, neither Truth nor Beauty, however, are to be easily evaluated. Brodsky's personal loyalty to that very Acme that Mandelstam worshiped so unwaveringly, to a World Culture, though a most honorable ideal, did not admit even the possibility that, to paraphrase Adorno's words, "culture is the shadow of tyranny,"or Heidegger warning against techne and "calculative thinking" and certainly not Derrida's condemnation of the inauthenticity of logocentrism. So what does all of this have to do with translation, either Paul Schmidt's or my own?
Brodsky: "Schmidt’s book runs to 255 pages, out of which 100 purport to give samples of Khlebnikov's poetry...." Purports because "At his best, Khlebnikov is an extremely difficult, highly hermetic writer, even in Russian. The very process of comprehending him is in itself a simplification. Translation is only the next step in that direction..." and "since Schmidt rather omits from the text than adds to it. The rationale behind these omissions is, interestingly enough, not that of a failing translator, but that of an editor." The essential question then becomes what constitutes "faithfulness"? Is the translator's primary allegiance to the author, the reader, or the text? What could the last of these possibly mean in practice? Does privileging the target text so as to make it palatable to a reader constitute being unfaithful to the author, even when the purpose is to serve the author by making him or her more readily available?
"Schmidt tailors the material to his own liking, i.e., according to his own notion of what a successful modern poem should be. For the same reason, he reshuffles the lines like a deck of cards, writes in his own lines, skips rhymes as he pleases, alters the meter, "straightens" complex images, and juggles chronology." Is it inadmissible to ask whether a translator may improve on the original? Since so few of the possibilities of the original are available in the target language, may it ever be legitimate for the translator to add her own contributions suggested by the possibilities of the new language?
For those who have yet to turn to Brodsky's own words, I highly recommend doing so for far more than his being a recognized English prose stylist. We have here something absolutely unique and I think unprecedented, Brodsky's own translation of one of Khlebnikov's longer poems which he carries out to contrast Schmidt's inadequacies, primary among them "smoothing out," simplifying complexity for the purpose of readability in English. Brodsky's impromptu performance here, while not entirely readable English, makes one wish that he had lowered his impossibly high standards for translation and applied himself to that art. Nabokov's similarly absolute and rigid demands for reconstructing the original also guaranteed a limited body of translation work (Pushkin's Onegin and a few other classics). By contrast, Beckett rejected his translator and, after the first book, turned to translating himself for exactly the opposite reason; translation is rewriting, creating a parallel text, an original in the new language.
I have tried here to present the two sides impartially, but I am not without an opinion. To echo Voltaire, the great is indeed often the enemy of the good. Neither in a poem nor, certainly, in a translation is perfectability possible and I have repeatedly voiced my belief that Brodsky's control and insistence on translating himself, itself a sort of tyranny over the free market of ideas, had served to stifle the life of his Russian poetry in English. Every generation makes the time ripe for a new translation and it has become a matter of practice for me to consider the passage of twenty years sufficient to justify a re-translation. As the present work suggests, it is my intention to undertake a Khlebnikov Selected and I have written Brodsky's estate to reiterate that making Joseph's poems available for new translations would help restore his presence in American poetry.
It would be judicious, I think, to entrust at least part of this last paragraph to Paul Schmidt's own words. Honor Moore's afterword and Catherine Ciepiela's introduction to Schmidt's Stray Dog Cabaret, his group portrait of the poets of the Russian Silver Age, makes clear how much Paul's translation practice was an extension of his life in the theater. "Beyond the formal concerns, you have to find... the internal consistency of the poem. What I mean is this: for me translation is a performance.... You're given a text to perform....Your responsibility is to transform it... to make it resonate, to bring it alive, in whatever way possible." And I would close by echoing the words of another poet, that specter of Marxism, Mao: "Let a million translations bloom."


Joseph Brodsky's review of Paul Schmidt's Khlebnikov translations

Russian video interview of Joseph Brodsky on the relative merits of Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, et al.

Paul Schmidt's posthumous Stray Dog Cabaret with free access to Catherine Cipiela's substantial introduction and Honor Moore's touching tribute in the afterword

An excellent group portrait of the Petersburg poetry scene c. 1915 that produced the Acmeists, Futurist, Imaginists and the rest of Silver Age ferment

Slap in the Face of Public Taste or the Russian Futurian manifesto