Counting Down to Silence

Stolen Air
Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam
Selected and translated by Christian Wiman
Ecco, $15.99, 128 pp.

Reviewing poetry in translation is a tricky business. Should the reviewer focus on the translation’s loyalty to the original text, or on its success as a work of art in its own right? Are we concerned primarily with fidelity, or with aesthetic power? If, as the Israeli poet Chaim Nachman Bialik once said, “reading poetry in translation is like kissing through a veil,” then reviewing poetry in translation is something even stranger: determining whether a different veil would have made for a better kiss.

For several reasons, I will ignore these difficult issues in reviewing Stolen Air, Christian Wiman’s new translation of the selected verse of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. First of all, I don’t speak Russian and can’t read a word of it, so I have no way of judging how closely Wiman, the editor of Poetry and an accomplished poet and essayist in his own right, hews to the original. Second, as he freely admits, Wiman doesn’t speak Russian either: in order to translate Mandelstam’s poems, Wiman relied on basic “word-by-word versions and transliterations” of the Russian by his friend, the poet Ilya Kaminsky. Wiman then read these versions aloud again and again and tried, in his words, “to make poems that sing in English with something of Mandelstam’s way of singing.” Wiman wanted to call his poems “versions” rather than “translations”—unsurprisingly, the marketing department nixed this idea—and that...

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About the Author

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY.