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This article is taken from PN Review 163, Volume 31 Number 5, May - June 2005.

Anna Akhmatova in Translation Marjorie Perloff

'In 1973,' Judith Hemschemeyer explains in her Preface, 'I read a few of Anna Akhmatova's poems in translation in the American Poetry Review and was so struck by one of them that I decided to learn Russian in order to read them all.' The poem in question was the 1912 eight-line lyric Pot usknel na nebe siniu lak ('The sky's dark blue lacquer has dimmed'). 'Three years later,' adds Hemschemeyer, 'when I could read the Russian and compare the existing Akhmatova transla-tions with the originals, I became convinced that Akhmatova's poems should be translated in their entirety, and by a woman poet, and that I was that person.'

It's a bold declaration. True, Hemschemeyer had published a few volumes of her own poems, but were her poetic gifts equal to her chosen task? And can she have learned enough Russian in three years to translate such a complex and difficult oeuvre as Akhmatova's? Hem-schemeyer admits to relying on what she calls 'literals' throughout - a habit now common enough in the translation world but never, to my mind, quite as successful as translations produced by genuinely bilingual (or multilingual) authors: Pierre Joris on Paul Celan, Richard Sieburth on Hölderlin and Gerard de Nerval, or Michael Heim on Chekhov, Thomas Mann, and Milan Kundera.

Despite such cavils, Hemschemeyer's two-volume edition, published in 1990, the result of more than fifteen years of work, must be regarded as a milestone. Not only ...


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