LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 26, No. 3 - Fall 1980
Editor of this issue: Birutė Cipliauskaitė
Copyright © 1980 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
ed. and trans. Tomas Venclova. Voices from World Poetry (Balsai iš pasaulinės poezijos). Ateitis, 1979. 200 p.
Tomas Venclova is familiar to Lituanus readers as a dissident Lithuanian poet and member of the Lithuanian Helsinki Group, who came to the US in 1977 to teach and subsequently was stripped of his Soviet citizenship. In Lithuania he was equally known as a translator, and many of the translations of 27 poets from 7 languages in this collection were published in various periodicals there. Preceding the translations is a pungent and heretical "Translator's Word"; two of its points bear explication. First, Venclova states that his translations have consumed more time and been more important to him than his own original poetry. This is a view that goes against the grain of Western notions of translation as a very minor art, at all times much inferior to original creation. Rather than assuming that Venclova here is modest or disingenuous about his own work (which, by the way, is held in the highest regard both in the Lithuanian and Russian émigré communities), it is more accurate, no doubt, to see this stance as evidence of Venclova the objective semiotician who regards the supply of world poetry as a fund of cultural information which needs to be transmitted to the enrichment of Lithuanian literature; i.e. from the point of view of Lithuanian culture, the value of 27 of the 20th century's greatest poets exceeds the value of one poet (Venclova), no matter how brilliant an individual poet he might be. The second point which needs to be noted and elaborated is that this collection is not a literary anthology based on one principle or another, but instead it is a "personal anthology" or what might be called a spiritual autobiography through the medium of translation: the poems included are all relevant to Venclova's development as a human being and a poet. Again, this is an unconventional attitude, perhaps even a new use of genre, that sheds additional light on Venclova's recent writings as a dissident, as an "archaeologist" of cultures, as a semiotician.
Venclova's translations have always elicited superlative praise. In discussing his translation of "The Waste Land", Delija Valiukėnas was even moved to assert that in some respects Venclova's version surpasses Eliot's original. Venclova is a translator's translator, utilizing the whole arsenal of methods and possibilities of the modern translator. While remaining formally exact, he often adapts his translations to the cultural exigencies of the target language, as in his rendition of Chesterton's "The Hunting of the Dragon", where he incorporates some of the stylistic constructions peculiar to Lithuanian folksong. In essence, then, he breaks away from the slavery of literal accuracy in favor of recreating the effect of the original for the reader of the translation by whatever means the target language and its literary tradition offer. He especially exploits the resources of the Lithuanian language which allow for great condensation, always a virtue in poetry; e.g. the absence of articles in Lithuanian aids economy of expression, as does the language's concise way of indicating aspect through prefixes and its ability to pile on numerous participles. As a translator, Venclova seems to thrive on constraints and limitations. Rhyme, which by and large American translators have given up on as too restricting and demanding, Venclova finds a challenge, an inspiration. For him, rhyme flows naturally and he is even able to match the complexity of the original's rhyme (e.g. rhyming nouns with verbs or other parts of speech as the occasion demands, or often using pleasing near rhyme). Though all the translations are successful, it appears that perhaps Dylan Thomas is congenitally unsuited to the Lithuanian (the language is too gentle and euphonious?) because he seems too tame and weak in Venclova's versions. In general, the lyric poetry translations (Baudelaire, O. Milosz, Rilke, R. Wilbur, the Russians) are the most demanding, impressive and revealing of Venclova's virtuosic abilities; nevertheless, he is equally at ease in rendering the longer contributions of an Eliot, Pound, St. John Perse, Francis Ponge. If they must be viewed as being in competition at all, Venclova the translator gives Venclova the poet a run for his money.