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My Barbaric Yawp: Alina Dadaeva on translating Walt Whitman

[Click to Enlarge] Writer and translator Alina Dadaeva spent months translating all 52 sections of Song of Myself into Russian.
[Click to Enlarge] Writer and translator Alina Dadaeva spent months translating all 52 sections of Song of Myself into Russian.
 As thousands of students around the world prepare to embark on the journey through "Song of Myself" as part of Every Atom: Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, the University of Iowa’s first Massive Open Online Course, the Shambaugh House blog is delighted to present a new series:  "My Barbaric Yawp: on translating Walt Whitman" in which the translators of online multimedia gallery WhitmanWeb—men and women who have spent hundreds of hours pouring over the poem--offer a rare glimpse into the process, challenges, and delights of rendering Whitman’s words, world, and  intent into another language. Since 2012, WhitmanWeb has inspired an international conversation about Whitman’s poetry and ideas by presenting translations of Whitman’s epic poem "Song of Myself" alongside commentaries, discussion questions, forums, archival photos, and audio recordings. The gallery has published translations in 13 languages, including the first-ever complete translation of the poem into Persian, and is now preparing to add two more: Kurdish and Khmer.  In this first installment, we hear from Uzbek writer and translator Alina Dadaeva, who translated "Song of Myself" into Russian for WhitmanWeb.

How (well) is Whitman known in Russian?

Alina Dadaeva: It’s curious — and very sad — but even though Whitman’s work entered into Russian literature in the beginning of the 20th century, it has not been widely read (if we talk about the general audiences) until recently. That said, ever since the first publication of Whitman’s poems in translation (that of Ivan Turgenev, in 1872), the interest of Russian writers in American poets was consistently high. Since then it has become obvious that a renewed effort is needed to help Whitman’s work find its way to Russian readers, who have been raised in the traditional syllabic-tonic poetry system and are very conservative in their literary tastes. As you may know, the very structure of the Russian language — its flexibility (determined by its grammar), its vast variety of rhymes, and its ability to generate endless permutations (contemporary poets often invent their own rhyme structures, beyond the classical conventions) — has led to the syllabic-tonic system becoming the main criterion for most readers.

Whitman’s free verse thus was, and remains, too free to be seen as verse by those accustomed to a strict poetry system. Children learn to think that verse must have rhyme, and a rhythm, and be easily learned by heart and recited in literature classes, for nobody in Russia graduates without memorizing many of these kinds of poems. Unfortunately, they then also think this way as grown-ups because а) people today don’t have much interest in poetry (especially in contemporary work, where free verse is as common as syllabic-tonic poetry) to change their conception of it, and b) the fledgling period of free verse in Russian poetry is too short to overcome the inertia in the general reader’s mindset.

Will this situation change in a few decades? Probably not. Does this mean that Whitman has no influence on Russian culture? Again, no. His impact is already apparent through his influence on other writers, the greatest example being Vladimir Mayakovsky. And his influence will continue, directly and indirectly — which is exactly how he wanted it.  

What is your favorite section of the poem and why?

AD: To choose my favorite section of Song of Myself is like trying to choose the best star in the universe (which the poem is surely similar to). I can only answer by starting to enumerate «1, 2, 3, … » — and then stop adding because the sections are totally connected, and their very inseparability illustrates the philosophic ideas of eternity, immortality, infinity, and immensity that Whitman represents like nobody else can. Describing some of them («A child said, What is the grass?»; «Who goes there? hankering, gross, mystical, nude»; «Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son»; «Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me»; «And as to you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to try to alarm me»), I sometimes joke that if a busy person wanted to get an overview of world philosophy in a day, he would only need to read these passages instead of hundreds of books. But to understand, feel, and live this poem completely, one’s whole life wouldn’t probably be enough, for perceiving and imagining the idea of the cosmos really doesn’t provide the tools to measure it.

Which passage(s) were particularly difficult to translate? Why?

Probably the most difficult moments of the translation were the political (if one can call them that) points of the poems. Especially with the definition of democracy, which is one of the first words in Whitman’s poetical and ideological vocabulary but (because of its connotations, its media value, its political weight) the very last word that should be included in a poem, according to the perception of poetry common in Russia. This was not what Chukovsky — the great Russian writer and the first translator of Song of Myself — believed, facing this problem in the beginning of the last century. But living in our own time, I needed to consider the vicissitudes of interpretation and take some risks, translating for instance the phrase «I give the sign of democracy» literally, as the poet would probably want it to sound.

How did your relationship with Whitman evolve over the course of the translation? How did translating Whitman inflect your own thinking and your sense of American culture?

AD: Thanks to world culture, which definitely would have been different had Whitman not impacted it, many of his ideas, thoughts, and images (including the images of America he gave us) were familiar to me. But being known doesn’t mean being accepted, absorbed, taken as a part, as an essence, of the other person. Giving Whitman the possibility to speak though me, I gave myself the opportunity to adopt, to accommodate him inside of me. As a result, the most attractive aspects of Whitman’s poetry — the cosmic perspective, the volumetric vision, the anti-hierarchical stance — became my own once Whitman and I joined up in language, allowing me to grow, evolve, and affect other people around me — both those who had already read my translation and those who never will.

What did this translation teach you about your own language’s special traits?

AD: Every translation means a plunge, not only into the writer one translates but also into the target language. And the greater the translated writer is, the more profound the language he has opened becomes. The reaches of alliteration in Whitman made me feel the interior music of the Russian language as never before, which in turn helped me translate some lines that at first glance seemed untranslatable. Staying with the music metaphor, Whitman taught me to listen to hidden sounds, rhythms, and waves of poetry — and what can be more important for a person who pretends to be a musician (a poet, a translator in my case) than to hear?

In the line “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” (section 52), how did you translate the onomatopoetic “yawp,” and what can you tell us about the decisions that went into finding the best equivalent?

AD: Between three possibilities considered at the beginning, I chose the word «крик» [kr:ik], which can also be translated as «scream» or «squawk». Although this word is more common than the «yawp» of the original, I chose it because the connection (both linguistic and literary) between the Russian words «ястреб» («hawk») and «крик» is very strong, and because this word can equally refer to a bird or a man. The other reason is that «крик», like the English «yawp», also consists of one syllable, which helps to represent the sharpness, decisiveness, and swiftness of the original. This being quite fortunate for the translator as Russian words are in general longer than English words, so the syllabic equivalent — when one is indispensable, as in this case — is extremely difficult to find.    

Read Alina's Russian translation of "Song of Myself" on WhitmanWeb.

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