“Fearless Dots on Top of I’s”: Translators reflect on taking up the gauntlet of the early texts of Mykola Bazhan

Lev Fridman and Oksana Rosenblum, editors (with Anzhelika Khyzhnya) of the bilingual volume “Quiet Spiders of the Hidden Soul”: Mykola (Nik) Bazhan’s Early Experimental Poetry, here present four short excerpts from the book, with accompanying comments from the translators.

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As a process, assembling a bilingual Ukrainian-English collection of the early experimental work of Mykola Bazhan bore all the hallmarks of an experiment. It was a search for elusive texts fraught with elusive language to be paired with translators (often, groups of translators) who welcomed the challenge. Many encountered this side of the poet for the very first time, and were bewildered by it. Then, there was the other extreme: translators and scholars who had engaged in battles with certain texts for many years, privately; the fruits of their labors had been unseen, until the publication of “Quiet Spiders of the Hidden Soul.”

We wanted—and often felt obliged to—offer our eventual reader a peek behind the curtain and share the climb as well as the summit. So we asked our translators to reflect on their work without providing a format or asking a specific set of questions. The translators’ essays that supplement almost every chapter of the book were conceived as experimental pieces or a common ground for testing out various ideas about the process of translation itself. In this post we present several excerpts from those essays paired with excerpts from the works they discuss.

Note: the title of this post is also an excerpt: the full line reads: “Fearless dots / On top of “i’s,” / To write, to read one’s own verdict / While the filthy envelopes of dirty windows hide their testimonies.” It comes from one of the longer poems in the book “Heart to Heart Conversation” (1929) translated by Oksana Rosenblum and Jon Frankel. Three years ago, when this project was not yet conceived but rather imagined, we were chatting casually with Vitaly Chernetsky, and he remarked on the subject: “Bazhan’s early poetry is wonderful but quite challenging, so this project is not for the faint of heart.” We applaud our team of translators and contributors for proving him right and rising to the challenge.

—Lev Fridman and Oksana Rosenblum

 A translator’s first encounter with a Ukrainian Futurist poem is like the first eye contact between a gaucho and a wild horse. A stallion from Mykola Bazhan’s artistic prairies is always hot-blooded, and the only way for the whisperer to tame it is to learn its ways, its lithe anatomy and its wayward rhythms, to fathom its instincts and imitate its movements. Only then would the horse deign to be harnessed in the stiff halter of English grammar and braced with the stirrups of the rigid English syntax. How much pressure will the poem bear before jumping the fence and leaving the bruised translator on the ground in the white dust of her notebook corral?

—Svitlana Lavochkina

From “Hoffman’s Night,” translated by Svetlana Lavochkina and Pavel Gitin

Disgrace, repulsion, madness, fever:
I order the word-ghosts
To creep out from the deepest manholes of the mind,
Like quiet spiders of the hidden soul!

The downy slimy spiders, carrying
A tiny bleb of venom in their paunch,
Crawl out of cracks of broken thought,
So that I, poet, bigot, heretic,
Pile up your corpses on the terror-stricken page,
May my skull crack, and from its pitch-black caverns
Disgusting dreams would stick out their tentacles.

The quill will squiggle, holler in my fingers
Onto the pampered tear-stained page …
So, squeaking manuscript, do bury
The singeing ashes from the Satan’s sandals!
Pour me more wine, my brethren!
May the scalding cauldrons boil again!

In my translations, I have privileged Bazhan’s imagery above all else. Given the importance of form to Bazhan’s portraits of memory, I have also sought, wherever possible, equivalent alliterative sound in English, and have offered end rhymes (usually imperfect rhymes) and internal rhymes where possible to give a sense of Bazhan’s form, while avoiding a suspiciously dominant rhyme in the English. I have preserved a sense of Bazhan’s iambic meter wherever possible.

—Amelia Glaser

From “Autumn Path,” translated by Amelia Glaser

To whom can I offer my little morning pain,
My miserable, useless exhaustion?
I want days, where morning rises
Like a horse with a broken spine
And the flag of unconquered machine gun carts
Are again lit up against the hills,
For you can’t erase the eternal trace
Of those cruel, inspired years.

I know you can’t erase the trace,
Made by years, bygone years, at war;
Great years of battle, years of death,
You can’t clear your heart of these tracks,
Now, joyfully, piously, I recognize
Your trace on people’s faces,
For this trace is either a wound or a scar,
Or else a convulsive mask.

Poetry is what is lost in translation; poetry is what survives translation: opposing views that can never, as matters of taste, be resolved. As a translator and one who loves poetry and reads it in translation, I can easily understand and sympathize with both views. As a translator, I recognize the elements of an original work that cannot be borne across the chasm between two languages. As a poet, however—as paradoxical as this may sound—I fully embrace the view that poetry is what survives translation. I acknowledge the impossible standards implied by the former view even as I begin my task with the hope, passion, excitement, and apparently inextinguishable naivety of one who gives credence to the latter one.

—Seán Monagle

From “Hops of Green Legs,” translated by Seán Monagle and Anzhelika Khyzhnya

The hops of green legs lull me,
of bodies, tulle.

O, one who eyes in the evening
the shimmering shingles of waves.

Magus of the gamuts and languor,
Bow your branches.
Lie on the kilim,
lad of longing,
groves of the lagoons.

O, circle, locks of sorrows,
There you are on bare legs,
on bare mosses.
It’s not the goblet that summer tilts
but the skirt.
It’s not the moans in the hemps—
there’s horror of yearnings—
shade of yearnings.

A ground coiling around
a circle of pools.
There—a skirt.

Translation is a challenging task not only due to the asymmetries between languages and cultures, but also because it is inherently and simultaneously a decontextualizing and recontextualizing act. In other words, translators not only bring texts from one language and culture to another but must also deal with the changes and differences in time and space, purpose and audience, and, importantly, sensibilities and ideologies.

—Roman Ivashkiv

From “Meeting at the Crossroad Station: A Conversation Between the Three”

This piece of prose from 1927 is an imagined informal discussion between Mykhail Semenko, Geo Shkurupiy, and Mykola Bazhan about the future direction of Ukrainian national literature. Bazhan appears in this discussion under the nickname “the third man.”

“Why do the critics bug you all so much? Look at my example,” said the first man, at last. “From the very get-go you need to spit into the critic’s face so you won’t have to expect from him anything that by nature he cannot offer. And then expect what’s to be expected. Otherwise you always expect the unexpected, like an actor does from a reviewer. Doing so will spare you from false expectations of help from people who must be smarter than you. And where would you find them, these smarter-than-us people? Expect help and corrective reform from industrialization.”

“Meaning the pulse of modernity?” the second man mumbled with a wise air. “The pulse? Is that what we need to be looking for?” asked the third man. “I don’t want to stop searching, even though that last option sounds comfortable, carefree, and even pleasant. Hopefully, I won’t attempt to keep my snug seat on the warm pillows of hackneyed poetry, and my pieces will stop resembling an old crumpled samovar in which the watery self-made rhyme soup is boiled.”

“The samovar or the sonnet?” sneered the second man.

“I’m not dogmatic about the sonnet,” responded the third man. “It’s just that I appreciate a good poem. And it’s sometimes surprising how people don’t see a poem behind the rhyme. I appreciate a good poem, and that’s why I’m tolerant. I leaf through the pages of good, warm poems passionately.”

Mykola Bazhan (1904–1983), one of the most important representatives of Ukrainian literary renaissance of the 1920s, was born into an educated family of Polish-Lithuanian roots in Kamyanets’-Podil’s’kyi in Ukraine. Bazhan emerged as a futurist; however, in the 1920s and early 1930s he embraced romantic Expressionism, with frequent references to the turbulence of Ukrainian history. During his extensive career spanning some six decades, Bazhan was prolific as a poet, literary critic, translator, editor, art collector, and a political and cultural figure. Despite the fact that Bazhan not only survived the purges but eventually became an influential political figure, his early works continued to be repressed until the early 1990s.

Oksana Rosenblum is an art historian and translator residing in New York City. Her projects have included visual research for the newly created museums of Jewish History in Warsaw and Moscow. Oksana’s poetry translations from Ukrainian and book reviews appeared in Kalyna Review, National Translation Month, and Versopolis.

Lev Fridman is a Speech-Language Pathologist based in New York City. He has facilitated translation projects and publications, and his own writings and translations have appeared in Ugly Duckling Press, Odessa Review, and The Café Review. His most recent research has focused on the literary legacy of Mykola Bazhan.

“Quiet Spiders of the Hidden Soul” is available wherever you buy books.