Nikolai Gumilev (essay date 1919)
SOURCE: "On Translations of Poetry," in Nikolai Gumilev on Russian Poetry, edited and translated by David Lapeza, Ardis, 1976, pp. 34-8.
[In the following essay, Gumilev demonstrates the Acmeist emphasis on formalism and precision in literary structure in his outline of nine criteria for the proper translation of poetry.]
There are three methods for translating verse: by the first, the translator uses whatever meter and combination of rhymes happen to come into his head, his own vocabulary, often alien to the author, and at his personal discretion now lengthens, now shortens the original; clearly, such translation can only be called amateurish.
By the second method, the translator acts, for the most part, in the same way, but introduces a theoretical justification for his act; he assures us that if the poet being translated had written in Russian, he would have written in just that way. This method was very widespread in the eighteenth century. Pope in England, Kostrov in our country translated Homer that way and enjoyed extraordinary success. The nineteenth century rejected this method, but traces of it remain in our own day. Even now some still think that it is possible to substitute one meter for another, for example, pentameter for hexameter, forego rhyme, introduce new images and so forth. The spirit preserved is supposed to justify everything. However, a poet worthy of the name uses precisely the form as the only means of expressing the spirit. I shall try to outline now how this is done.
The first thing that attracts the reader's attention and, in all probability, the most important, if often unconscious, basis for the creation of a poem is its idea or, more exactly, its image, since a poet thinks in images. The number of images is limited, evoked by life, and the poet is rarely their creator. Only in his relationship to them is his personality revealed. For example, the Persian poets thought of the rose as a living being, the medieval poets as a symbol of love and beauty; Pushkin's rose is a beautiful flower on its stem, Maikov's rose is always a decoration, an accessory; in Vyacheslav Ivanov the rose assumes mystical value, etc. Naturally, in all these cases both the choice of words and their combinations are essentially different. Within the bounds of the same relationship there are thousands of nuances: thus, the comments of Byron's Corsair stand out against the background of the author's psychologically flowery description of him in their laconism and technical choice of expressions. In his gloss to "The Raven," Edgar Allan Poe speaks of an undercurrent theme, scarcely outlined, and for that very reason producing an especially powerful impression. If someone translating that same "Raven" were to transmit with greater care the external plot of the movements of the bird, and with less—the poet's longing for his dead beloved, he would have violated the author's conception and failed to complete the task he had taken upon himself.
Immediately after the choice of image, the poet is confronted with the question of its development and proportions. Both determine the choice of the number of lines and stanzas. In this the translator is obliged to blindly follow the author. It is impossible to shorten or lengthen a poem without at the same time changing its tone, even if the quantity of images is retained. Both laconism and amorphousness of image are determined by the conception, and each extra or missing line changes its degree of tension.
As for stanzas, each of them creates a particular train of thought, unlike the others. Thus, the sonnet, stating some proposition in the first quatrain, reveals its antithesis in the second, outlines their interaction in the first tercet and in the second tercet gives it an unexpected resolution, condensed in the last line, often even in the last word, for which reason it is called the key of the sonnet. The Shakespearian sonnet, with quatrains unconnected by rhyme, is supple, flexible, but devoid of sufficient strength; the Italian sonnet, with only feminine rhymes, is powerfully lyrical and stately, but of little use for narrative or description, for which the usual form is perfectly suited. In the ghazal, the same word, sometimes the same expression repeated at the end of every line (the Europeans incorrectly break it into two lines) creates an impression of gaudy ornament or incantation. The octave, extensive and spacious like no...
(The entire section is 1843 words.)