Interview with Ilya Kaminsky

On April 2, 2019, the poet Ilya Kaminsky gave a reading as the Margolies Visiting Writer in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. Afterward, he spoke with the poet Dora Malech, and this interview is an edited version of their conversation.

Dora Malech: You’re someone who has both translated and been translated a lot, and you’ve talked in the past about what is translatable—what remains versus what gets lost in translation. You’ve mentioned image as something that can survive in translation, and possibly metaphor and rhythm as elements that can come across in a translation. And I would perhaps add narrative and drama to that list. Music can get lost in translation, and cultural context can get lost in translation. In reading your new book, Deaf Republic, with its compelling narrative and imagery, I kept thinking about those elements as ones that might survive translation. I began to make much of this and wonder if you purposefully wrote a book with the ability to move beyond one language, but I’m happy to be corrected. Do you see these translatable elements as an inherent strength or even a moral imperative, or do you want to push back and say, “No, that wasn’t my intention at all?”

Ilya Kaminsky: Do you believe you have a soul? Can you tell me where in your body it is? Well, translation is the art form that thrives on that kind of certainty/uncertainty.

Translation is necessary: without it, in English, we wouldn’t have the Bible, we wouldn’t have Homer, we wouldn’t have Dante. Or, in Russian: we wouldn’t have Shakespeare, Milton, and so forth.

It’s a necessary art.

But it is also impossible. Which is why every single year we get another Dante, or two or three Dantes, published.

It is an ongoing conversation, it is an attempt to summon the spirits via our very primitive tools, so to speak.

What tools?

I would argue that image is perhaps the most useful tool. It is far easier to translate poetry that is heavy with imagery. Tone is also easier to translate, which is why Mayakovsky, who is a far inferior poet to, say, somebody like  Mandelstam,  is  far  more  accessible  in  English, because Mayakovsky is all about tone. I’m not saying he’s a bad poet; he’s a wonderful poet, but Mandelstam = tone + 55 other things. And that is much harder to bring across.

How are we to translate somebody like Hopkins—“The world is charged with the grandeur of God”—when so much depends on the alliteration and assonance. Think about Blake—“Tyger Tyger, burning bright / In the forests of the night”; people remember it from lullabies or from kids’ books, but it is also a Metaphysical poem. “What the hammer? what the chain? / In what furnace was thy brain?” He’s having a Metaphysical crisis in the middle of the poem. You translate the poem into Russian, and it will be a poem about a big cat. So much depends on the music of the poem—music that is very specific to the language in which it originates. Now, rhythm can be translated. I can go like this . . . [Walks around the room quickly and lightly]. Or I can walk like this . . . [Marches heavily and slowly]. You can imitate another human being’s gait. You can feel rhythm. Syntax is a whole other category that is extremely helpful, and actually, that is where translation is very useful. I just mentioned Hopkins, and there are wonderful poets and critics who say that Hopkins became the great poet that he is because he tried to adapt Greek grammar to English, Greek syntax to English. Louise Bogan believed that, for instance. Or, here is another case: Paul Celan is an amazing poet, who according to every law we know, should not be available in translation at all. He is so rooted in his relationship to (and assault on) the German language of his time. And yet he is very moving to us in English. This is partly because of what he does to syntax, his breaking of the language via his syntax and its relationship to his line breaks and his imagery.

Let me give you some context: Paul Celan was a poet from Romania whose native language was German. He was a Jew. His family—most especially, his beloved mother—was murdered by the Germans. Even though he spoke Romanian, he spoke French, he spoke Russian—a number of other languages—he continued to write poetry in German. This makes his case different from other 20th-century Jewish authors who began to write in a different language after a traumatic experience. Joseph Brodsky began to write essays and poems in English, for instance. Elie Wiesel wrote in French. But Celan continued to write in German.

He continued to write in the language of his mother’s murderers.

But in doing so, he tried to write in a German in which Nazis could not exist. He tried to reinvent the language.

This reinvention was in many ways a response to the question posed by the great philosopher Theodor Adorno, who said, “Well, how is it moral to write poetry after the Holocaust?” To which the American poet Mark Strand once responded with a lovely joke, “Well, how is it moral to eat a sandwich after the Holocaust?”

But it’s a valid question, and Celan (and many other poets in different ways, Polish poets in a completely different way) found a way to respond.

In fact, Adorno, once he read Celan, said: Perhaps I was mistaken to claim that it was immoral to write poetry after Holocaust.

But it is important for us to remember that like any poet, Celan doesn’t really live within a world of philosophy, he lives in a world of poetic devices, and a main poetic device for him was syntax. He used syntax as his response to the impossible philosophical question. The great philosopher Adorno had to change his mind. That is a feat of the lyric.

DM: Do you think we have certain responsibilities in terms of our participation in translation?

IK: I will speak here just for myself. Personally, I try to call whatever translation I do versions or imitations. I don’t always succeed, because publishers have their own agenda, but most of what I do really is versions or imitations. I could not sit here and honestly pretend to you that I translated Marina Tsvetaeva. That’s a complete lie. If you find anybody who can translate Marina Tsvetaeva, I’m just gonna kneel, okay? Because it’s not possible, to my mind. How can anybody translate Hopkins? Tsvetaeva was a kind of poet who was like Hopkins, she clashed the language against itself to produce a highly emotionally charged music. But unlike Hopkins, she did so in many different kinds of tonalities; she was a master of many genres. She could write a worldly political poem, an angry love poem, a prayer, an epic, a verse play, and so forth, and she found the right language, different kinds of registers of language, for all of that.

So personally, I don’t claim to be faithful. If someone else can be that, it would be lovely. Christian Wiman—a wonderfully brilliant poet in his own right—has translated Mandelstam in a book called Stolen Air, which I highly recommend. He has a great ear, Wiman. He doesn’t know Russian. And so, by every law that we know, it shouldn’t be a faithful translation. And much of it isn’t. And yet, there are some poems that just astound you by how close they are. In fact, every person who knows Russian and English equally well says “Wow, this has nothing to do with Mandelstam, and yet it has everything to do with Mandelstam.” It is not a faithful word-by-word translation, but somehow he got exactly what Mandelstam was doing, and he is reproducing what Mandelstam was doing in English. It may or may not be word-by-word—it may not be faithful in that way, but it is faithful to the poet’s approach to language.

DM: I’d like to ask you a little bit about form. You’ve told me before that when you wrote in Russian, when you were very young, you wrote quite formal poetry. But in English, I read your sense of form as quite intuitive and thoughtful, but not fixed. As a reader of yours in English, I have a sense of what shapes the music of your work, but I was curious if you have thoughts on why you might have written more formally in one language and in another language you went in a different direction. What shapes those decisions for you?

IK: There’s more than one way to speak about it. You can speak about form in English, or you can speak about form across traditions.

For example: Japanese has 46 syllables that all end in one of five vowel sounds, with the exception of “n.” Also, the verb comes at the end of the sentence, and the ending of the verb is changed based on the conjugation. Meaning, a past tense verb will basically always rhyme with another past tense verb, etc.

This means rhyming is incredibly common in Japanese and therefore not interesting or notable. There are probably a lot of songs that technically rhyme, but not on purpose.

Traditional Japanese poetry is usually based on constrained writing (for example, the five-seven-five syllable structure of haiku), symbolism and allusions, and plays on words that sound similar or have multiple readings. So to write a haiku, a small constrained poem with symbolism and allusions and wordplay, etc. is far more interesting. In other traditions, there are other situations too.

How do you deal with that in English? I mean: when you translate a haiku, how do you show that you are dealing with a very strict form in a language where rhyme is actually common, and that fact is actually important for the poem in hand. How do you show that in rhyme-poor English?

But if you don’t show it: the form attains a very different meaning. It is just an exercise wherein the urgency is lost.

So when we speak about form, to my mind, we don’t just speak about end rhyme, and other such devices, we speak about patterns and ways in which the patterns intensify urgency.

In my first book, Dancing in Odessa, I was pretty conscious that I was still very much in a Russian mindset, and I didn’t really have any ambition to write in English, a language I was still learning. My ambition, instead, if I had any—I was a kid—was to write in a language of images. I wanted to write in a language that I could see. That probably had to do with the fact that I didn’t have hearing aids until I came to this country, so my Russian, too, really was a language of images. And so writing in English, where I already had hearing aids, I was probably still trying to recreate that world of unheard Russian on the page.

With this second book, I was feeling that if I wrote another Dancing in Odessa, with all its homages to Russian poetry, if I went back again to all those Russian poets, I would start playing a Russian.

I came to the US in 1993 and the first book was published in 2004, so I had already lived in the US for 11 years at that time. I was already dating the woman I married, who became my wife, and we spoke English at home. So Deaf Republic was very much a conscious decision to start living in the English language. Having said that, Deaf Republic is, still, definitely not a book by a native speaker. Most of my friends who write poetry in English are kind of quite obsessed—especially in America; it might be different in the UK—are obsessed with the idea of strangeness. I couldn’t care less for that because by virtue of who I am, I am already strange. Everything I say here is going to sound strange to you. This is what it means to be a stranger in this land.

So I am far more interested in the idea of enchantment. I come from a fabulist tradition—Isaac Bashevis Singer, Isaac Babel, Sholem Aleichem. It’s a fabulist Jewish Eastern European tradition. But going back to form, you can see in some of the poems, I was trying to go into more of a Mother Goose style: little lullabies, little songs, spells, lovers wooing—the lyrics have those kind of patterns.

But let’s stop talking about me. Let’s take a broader look: Russian literature began, let’s say if I had to pick a year, in 1824, when Alexander Pushkin was writing Yevgeniy Onegin, the centerpiece of Russian literature. What is 1824 for English literature? Byron was dead by 1824, and who the heck is Byron? You know, before that you had Milton, you had Shakespeare, you had many, many more. You had the 17th century! You know, with English literature, you could just end it with the 17th century and you would have dozens of brilliant poems.

So how do you bring Russian poets such as Joseph Brodsky into English when at the time of his writing, the Russian tradition is only 150 years old? Who do you translate him into? Into Lowell? Into Eliot? Into Plath? You see what I’m saying? Now Brodsky in Russia was reading English and was robbing it blind. He was taking from Stevens— whom he claimed to hate, by the way—he was taking from Auden, he was taking from Eliot, and so forth, so there was a lot of shopping the other way.

But you can also see that in his self-translations, every time Brodsky is trying to bring Russian music into English, it doesn’t quite work. So one has to be careful with this. I am not the first to say this. Others said this many times. Milosz spoke about this quite a bit. So, for a non-native speaker, when one is faced with this kind of limitation, one has to ask: what can this limitation do, how can it work, to help me, to try to answer impossible questions, questions about silence, questions about metaphysics. How do I make up for the music that I hear elsewhere, but not here? What other poetic devices can reproduce that effect in English? That is what I am interested in.

DM: That’s beautiful. Thank you. Before we started recording, you laughed when I said I wanted to ask what you were reading while you were writing Deaf Republic; I imagine you were reading too much to summarize. I know you were translating and you were editing, but if there is anything that you were reading that you think had a more specific impact on Deaf Republic, I’d be very curious.

IK: Part of the difficulty, part of the reason the book took so long—it took 15 years—was because I did not have a model. If I had a model it would take six months. It’s nice to have models. But I’m happy to talk about longer sequences and longer poems that I think would be useful. In Russian, most people would agree that the most famous 20th-century long poem would be Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem.” Of course, it doesn’t stand alone. It stands in the company of Blok’s “The Twelve,” Tsvetaeva’s “The Ratcatcher,” Pasternak’s poems from Zhivago (as well as his 1905 and Lieutenant Shmidt sequences), Zabolotsky’s sequences, Mayakovsky’s long poems, and so on. And yet, I would still point to “Requiem,” as that’s a great poem of witness that arguably stepped outside of the typical poetry world and became a larger cultural phenomenon. Solzhenitsyn, after hearing Akhmatova read from it, is reported to have said that for him in this poem Akhmatova symbolized Russia itself.

In English, American English, I would highly recommend “Middle Passage” by Robert Hayden—which is respected, of course, but is somehow not really talked about all that much. I am afraid Robert Hayden in general is a highly respected and completely not talked about poet whom we should try to bring back, and it’s a very interesting poem in the way that it’s kind of based on Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” He follows different patterns of language—not patterns, exactly—he takes language from the 17th century, he takes language from slaveholders’ diaries, he takes language from slave songs, and he creates this incredibly moving narrative poem of about, I don’t know, five to six pages, that feels much larger than that—truly an epic in those pages.

The story I heard, years ago, was that W. H. Auden was teaching at the University of Michigan, and he brought Eliot for a reading, and Hayden was Auden’s student, and he heard Eliot give a big reading, many people drove for hours to go to that reading, and he came home and he started writing “Middle Passage.” And it took many years, but he did it beautifully. So I would highly recommend that. A lot of Brooks is really moving to me too. I mean, there’s so much we can talk about. It took 15 years; I can’t really say what I was reading for 15 years! I love Gilgamesh. I love Ovid. I love Shakespeare. I love Goethe, and so on.

DM: But it is interesting to hear your thoughts on some other sequences. Speaking of 15 years, I was thinking about that span of time, and in a book that deals with political oppression and political dissent, I couldn’t help but think about the fact that you wrote the book in America, in a time span that covers three different American presidencies, and obviously a lot of political change and political upheaval all over the world. I was curious if you in some way tuned it out and said, “I’m going to write this parable that perhaps sadly will speak to whatever era we’re in,” or whether you felt an urgency to embed some of our political moments into the book that you were writing during that time.

IK: There are probably two or three answers to this question; I’ll try to be concise. So I come from Ukraine, and Ukraine is at war right now, and has been at war for about five years. So that story is very much a part of the book; I can’t escape that. The story also follows a husband and wife and a newborn child. The woman and man die, but the child survives. And another woman adopts the baby.

That’s the story of my father. That actually happened, more or less. But I am not a confessional writer. It’s just not who I am by temperament. I have nothing against confessional writers, it’s just not my muse. So I had to write a fairytale. All of that is lovely and all of that is true, but the other layer that I had has to do with writing in English. And it really felt dishonest to have this Russian historical stuff in English and to milk it to no end. This is because I am no longer a young boy from Russia. I have lived in the United States for a long time. So, writing a “this is what happens in the Old World” kind of thing just doesn’t feel honest. Instead, I wanted to find out what I am: what does it mean to be a refugee? What does it mean to see America for what it is—with a stranger’s eyes? So, in the beginning of the book, there is the repetition of a certain image, an image of a boy killed by a soldier. And that is a very American image. And the image of the whole neighborhood being completely quiet for many, many hours, and avoiding it like it didn’t happen, is also a very, very American kind of silence. And when I found a way to use that in the book, to depict it in the book, I knew that I had an arc of the story that felt true for me. It is Eastern European, yes. And, yet it is very American. It reflects the truth of who I am at the moment. So in that way it is also a kind of formal decision: it is a situation where you have to have something like a kind of rhyme or echo between different parts of the self. The tension between them. And by means of image and music, the book builds the world around that tension.