Anna Akhmatova

      "Музе" – Анна Ахматова  

Когда я ночыо жду ее прнхода,
Жнзнь, кажется, висит волоске.
Что почести, что юность, что свобода
Пред милой гостьей с дудочкой в руке.

И вот вошла. Откинув покрывало,
Внимательно взглянула на меня
Ей говорю "Ты ль Данте диктовала
Страницы Ада?" Отвечает. "Я."

      "The Muse" – Anna Akhmatova

When at night I await her coming,
life, it seems, hangs by a thread.
That honours, that youth, that freedom fade
before my dear guest with flute in hand.

And here she comes. Throwing back her veil,
intently she looks at me.
I ask: "Did you dictate to Dante
the pages of his Inferno?" She answers: "I did."

Euterpe, "Giver of delight", is the muse of lyric and elegiac poetry and also of music and song and is usually seen carrying a flute. She will have read and heard some of Anna's poetry and wonder whether she might be good enough to be one of her inner circle of poets. She has made an appointment to visit Anna to check her out.

Anna is on tenterhooks – honours, youth, freedom, in fact, anything and everything are meaningless and as of nothing. All depends on this meeting with the muse!

Euterpe arrives and looks intently at Anna, studying her, preparatory to putting some questions to her. By assessing Anna's answers, Euterpe will decide whether to bring Anna into her fold or dismiss her as of no consequence. But before Euterpe can put her first question, Anna asks Euterpe a question.

Anna: "Did you dictate to Dante the pages of his Inferno?

What a question! It would have surprised Euterpe. Where did it come from? What triggered it? What does it signify? For we mere mortals, Dante wrote the Inferno but Anna is of the belief it was not written by a poet, not by Dante, though he was a poet genius, but that it is poetry of a goddess. The question she asks could be answered either affirmatively or negatively but she pretty well knows the answer before she asks the question, which is a bit like a good lawyer in court who already knows the answers to the questions he puts to the witness.

Instantly, Euterpe would realise that Anna's question could only have arisen because of the depth of Anna's insight into the poetry of the Inferno. Anna's question tells Euterpe all she needs to know about Anna. There is now no need for Euterpe to ask her questions for she knows the answers Anna would give.

One might argue that the muse could have answered "No, I did not!" in which case the author of the Inferno would instantly be seen as Dante and Dante alone.

Here is the Stanley Kunitz and Mark Hayward translation of "The Muse."
All that I am hangs by a thread tonight
as I wait for her whom no one can command.
Whatever I cherish most — youth, freedom, glory —
fades before her who bears the flute in her hand.

And look! she comes ... she tosses back her veil,
staring me down, serene and pitiless.
"Are you the one," I ask, "whom Dante heard dictate
the lines of his Inferno?" She answers: "Yes."
From Poems of Akhmatova by Stanley Kunitz with Mark Hayward here is a perceptive insight extracted from Kunitz's A Note on the Translations:

The poet as translator lives with a paradox. His work must not read like a translation; conversely, it is not an exercise of the free imagination. One voice enjoins him: "Respect the text!" The other simultaneously pleads with him: "Make it new!" He resembles the citizen in Kafka's aphorism who is fettered to two chains, one attached to the earth, the other to heaven. If he heads for earth, his heavenly chain throttles him; if he heads for heaven, his earthly chain pulls him back. And yet, as Kafka says, "all the possibilities are his, and he feels it; more, he actually refuses to account for the deadlock by an error in the original fettering." While academicians insist that poetry is untranslatable, poets continue to produce their translations — never in greater proliferation or diversity than now.

The easiest poets to translate are the old and flashy ones, particularly those who revel in linguistic display. The translator of Akhmatova, like the translator of Pushkin, is presented with no idiosyncrasy of surface or of syntax to simplify his task. Her poems exist in the purity and exactness of their diction, the authority of their tone, the subtlety of their rhythmic modulations the integrity of their form. These are inherent elements of the poetry itself, not to be confused with readily imitable "effects." The only way to translate Akhmatova is by writing well. A hard practice!

Some wonderful points have been made here, the first paragraph to translations in general and the second to Akhmatova in particular. The arguments for "Respect the text!" and "Make it new!" make sense, but in making it new it is imperative that the storyline of the original be respected. I think their "The Muse" translation fails to do so.

One would think the muse, 'whom no one can command', would be benign and friendly given that she has made the appointment to especially meet with Anna to talk about her poetry. But she is almost aggressive "... she tosses back her veil, staring me down, serene and pitiless." Where did their muse come from? The KGB?

Another thing that I believe is a blunder is "Are you the one," I ask, "whom Dante heard dictate the lines of his Inferno?" She answers: "Yes."

What would have happened if the muse had answered in the negative? A new question would arise "Well, who was it then that Dante heard dictate the lines of his Inferno? The original, in my opinion, only allows for the author to be the muse or Dante, but the present translation fails to exclude a third party. Though some might argue against my viewpoint, I maintain the translation wording ought not be even remotely ambiguous.