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This review is taken from PN Review 228, Volume 42 Number 4, March - April 2016.

Cover of Washing My Hair With Nettles
Ross CoganOld Wives’ Tales Marina Tsvetaeva Milestones, translated by Christopher Whyte (Shearsman Books 2015) £9.95
Emilia Ivancu Washing My Hair With Nettles, translated by Diarmuid Johnson (Parthian 2015) £8.99

‘What is writing poetry but translating?’ Marina Tsvetaeva wrote to Rilke in 1926 – a translation in which something inevitably goes missing. Fittingly, then, Tsvetaeva herself is famously difficult to translate. Her syntax is elliptical, often twisted or compressed; her metaphors dense. Poems suddenly pause and change tempo; word order is dramatically distorted.

To make matters even harder, rhyme and metre are crucial to her work (as they still are in most Russian poetry). Omit them and you lose something vital; bungle it and – especially given her extensive use of dashes – one of Russia’s greatest poets could end up sounding like a third-rate Emily Dickinson.

So Christopher Whyte is to be applauded for taking on a thankless and near-impossible task. Milestones (as he follows Robin Kemball in translating Versty) was written in 1916, when Tsvetaeva was twenty-three, and takes the form almost of a verse journal, with entries carefully dated. And his versions certainly contain some gems, for example:

Dark as a pupil, and absorbing light
as pupils do – I love you, sharp-eyed Night.

Singing’s ancient mother, in your hands
the reigns of the four winds, give me a voice

to summon you, one that can sing your praise –
me, shell in which the ocean murmurs on.

This has some of her oddness, some of her passion, but also fulfils Whyte’s aim of devising ‘formal constraints for each translation which, while not identical with those to be found ...

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