A Curse on All Dissidents? An Interview with editor and translator Anatoly Kudryavitsky

By Ainsley Morse

The collection Accursed Poets: Dissident Poetry from Soviet Russia (Smokestack Books, 2020) presents a bilingual selection of late-Soviet-era work from eighteen Russian-language poets. The poets’ work is featured in alphabetical order: Gennady Aigi, Yuri Aikhenvald, Yuli Daniel, Vladimir Earl(e), Yuri Galanskov, Natalia Gorbanevskaya, Igor Kholin, Viktor Krivulin, Evgeny Kropivnitsky, Viktor Nekipelov, Vsevolod Nekrasov, Rea Nikonova, Grigory Podyapolsky, Genrikh Sapgir, Yan Satunovsky, Mikhail Sokovnin, Sergei Stratanovsky, and Kari Unksova. Some of these poets appear in English translation for the first time. The book is prefaced with a brief introduction and concludes with biographical blurbs about each author. All translations are by Anatoly Kudryavitsky.

Most of my scholarly research has been focused on unofficial poetry of the late Soviet period, and I’ve written about and translated quite a few of these very characters (Earl, Kholin, Krivulin, Nekrasov, Sapgir, Satunovsky, Sokovnin), who are not always known even to Russian-literature specialists. So I was intrigued to see them gathered together in this collection, and in the company of political dissidents as well. Kudryavitsky, who divides his time between Ireland and Italy, graciously agreed to answer some of my questions via email.

Ainsley Morse

AM: To me the title sounds a bit strange: “poètes maudits” on the one hand, but also dissidents. I get that these two categories were often mixed up in the Cold War, but most of the non-political-dissident poets you include (more than half) insistently rejected the association with dissidents and also the Romantic model of “accursed poets.” Does your choice of title have to do with your intended audience?

AK: Firstly, I have to reveal that the title isn’t exactly mine. The publisher somehow came to love it and strongly suggested that we use it. Publishers can be very persuasive, you know… Actually, this title isn’t as irrelevant as one might think. Being an “unofficial,” a samizdat poet in Soviet Russia, made you feel like your life was cursed. But then writing – in any circumstances –  was rewarding. To quote a short poem by the contemporary Russian poet Ivan Akhmetiev that I once translated:

some people

would write in jail

in a labour camp

in an asylum

where have they not written!

the main thing is

to go unnoticed

You may be right: half of the poets included in this book didn’t chose the fate of a dissident. This anthology deliberately showcases both dissident and samizdat poets, in an equal proportion, and this was reflected in the original title of the book. However, one has to bear in mind that between 1960 and 1980 all the non-members of the Soviet Writers’ Union, especially experimental poets, ran the risk of being treated with suspicion by each and every literary vigilante, and many of them were denounced and imprisoned. Even if they tried to avoid the doom, it often caught up with them anyway.

AM: Who is your intended audience? As a translator, I can say that my big projects have almost always been undertaken with a fairly specific audience in mind—usually non-Russian-speaking friends. Since I too translate a lot of poetry, I am also often thinking about English-language poets and what they might get out of a glimpse into a new/different poetics.

AK: I seldom think of a prospective audience, I think of poetic works that deserve to find one. But now that you ask this question, I reckon that this book provides an opportunity for poetry lovers from the English-speaking countries to peep inside a period in Russian literary history that they might not know very well. Also, it may serve as a useful resource for quite a number of Russian readers of poetry, including scholars. These poets – well, many of them – are underappreciated and not properly researched.

AM: What else have you translated, and from what languages? Did previous projects lead you to this one? Also, I am curious as to why you decided to translate everything yourself. This is a general question and not necessarily a criticism—was it just expedient (easier than finding other translators), or you prefer to work alone, or was there some other reason?

AK: In the 1990s, I translated a lot of poetry and some classic novels and short stories into Russian. But these days, I almost exclusively translate into English. Talking about my more or less recent translated books, this is my third anthology of Russian poetry. The first, entitled A Night in the Nabokov Hotel: 20 Contemporary Russian Poets, was published by Dedalus Press in Ireland in 2006; the second was Mirror Sand, an anthology of short-form Russian poetry (Glagoslav Publications, 2018). I have also published anthologies of contemporary German and Ukrainian poetry (respectively, Coloured Handprints, Dedalus Press, 2015, and The Frontier, Glagoslav, 2017). The other languages, from which I translated a considerable amount of contemporary poetry, are Italian and Swedish. As you can see, in Accursed Poets I plunged deeper into the past, simply because I thought that there were interesting but overlooked and underestimated Russian poets whose work deserves to be brought back into circulation.

Yes, I mostly do solo projects, as I find it difficult to marry my approach to translation to somebody else’s. There are exceptions, though. For the book by the Russian experimental poet Sergey Biryukov entitled Transformations (SurVision Books, 2018)I only contributed 50 per cent of the material, whereas the other half came from a very talented young Irish/American translator Erina Megowan. The German anthology that I edited, Coloured Handprints, comprises translations that I made together with my daughter Yulia, a native speaker of German and an accomplished translator of poetry into that language.

AM: How did you choose the poets themselves, and the texts for each poet? What guided your choices? I am aware you are yourself a poet—is this a “poet’s choice” selection?

AK: Well, I am not a through-and-through translator, I am a poet occasionally translating poetry. So it was a ‘poet’s choice’ selection. For me, translating means understanding the soul of a people, their secret language. The possibility of getting to know many poets “from the inside.” A good translator of poetry has to be a curious person. Of course, there is always a desire to translate different types of poetry, but the bottom line is, I choose what I love. And I love many things in poetry! Translation does not hinder my creativity; on the contrary, it enriches it, often showing me the world in a different light.

AM: What do you consider the most successful aspects (texts?) of the anthology? Why?

AK: This is a difficult one. I love all the works I have selected for this book. If I didn’t like them, they wouldn’t be in the book. I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to estimate the impact of these poems on a reader. Besides, tastes are different, and the readers will certainly come up with their own choice of favourites.

AM:  Please feel free to add anything relevant I haven’t asked about.

AK: I’ve often been asked how far from the original a proper translation can be. It is obvious that the translator’s freedom of expression is limited by the original. When you translate poetry, you can’t simplify or correct the author, nor can you ‘enrich’ the resulting text with your own ideas and images. A translator has to analyze the poet’s style, imagine the person he or she is/was, study their life. Such intimate acquaintance is difficult to make, especially if the author is no longer among the living. As the Ukrainian poet Andrij Bondar once put it, “translation is the most thorough examination of a poetic text.” It’s like decoding an encrypted message: you first decrypt the original, then you transcribe it into the target language, and finally encode it again. The outcome is, or can be, a proper translation. 

Accursed Poets: Dissident Poetry from Soviet Russia 1960-1980. Edited and translated by Anatoly Kudryavitsky. Grewelthorpe, UK: Smokestack Books, 2020.

Ainsley Morse translates from Russian and Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian and teaches Russian language & literature at Dartmouth College. With Bela Shayevich, she co-translated Vsevolod Nekrasov’s I Live I See (UDP, 2013) and Igor Kholin’s Kholin 66: Poems and Diaries (UDP, 2017). Her book Word Play: Experimental Poetry and Soviet Children’s Literature is forthcoming with Northwestern UP.

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