This is only the second book I’ve read from Poets & Traitors Press, but I have to say that it’s a risky undertaking. The better Nina Kossman’s versions of Marina Tsvetaeva’s poems, the harder it is on her own poems in comparison. Still, interspersing a poet’s own verse with their poetic translations offers them a chance to respond to the poems they are translating, or to show how that work has penetrated their own writing, or simply to demonstrate how poet and translator have responded to the same kind of question or event or expressed an analogous feeling. The translations of Tsvetaeva’s poems are always given first, so that Kossman’s own poems can work as commentaries or what have you; each poem is labeled with the author’s initials, MT (hmmm, should be MTs) and NK.
Nina Kossman is an established translator of Tsvetaeva; her first book of translations came out in 1989, on the eve of a boom in both scholarly study and translations of this poet. Tsvetaeva’s history of emigration and her closed archive meant she could never be adequately addressed in the USSR until the tail end of the glasnost years. Kossman provides a very personal introduction to this edition, and part of her authority is that she too is an émigrée from Russia (the USSR). In her interpretation, this means she has black-sheep origins (tied to the poem from which the title springs), and of course her identity as a poet is another kind of alliance with Tsvetaeva.
Interestingly, some of the translations aim to be formally closer to the originals (maintaining rhyme, at least slant rhyme, and meter), though most of them are in free verse, as are Kossman’s own poems. The free verse translations might be compared to those of Elaine Feinstein, Tsvetaeva’s first important translator into English and an interesting poet herself. Feinstein’s versions of Tsvetaeva, often reprinted in various configurations, convey her emotional intensity well, though I’ve sometimes had to intervene when students try to launch interpretive projects based on translation effects. The strong push away from formal equivalence among Anglophone translators (and the implicit or explicit insistence on forming the translation the way the translator writes their own poems) has largely ended now, perhaps reflecting the increased presence of native and heritage speakers among translators and readers of translated Russian poetry today. Kossman notes that she preserves “the rhythm and rhyme pattern of the original” in few translations, but her occasional metrical translations could be compared with the outstanding Anglophone translators who have aimed for closer formal “congruence,” such as Diana Burgin, Alyssa D. Gillespie, and Angela Livingstone, all Ph.D.s with distinct poetic gifts and deep reading and academic knowledge of Tsvetaeva’s life and work. I find I am more impressed by Kossman’s more metrical and rhyming translations than by the freer ones—as if the work required to balance form and meaning double-distills and purifies the results. When Kossman does the extra work to get a few poems with especially important formal elements into rhyme and meter, the results are spare and moving.
If you know Tsvetaeva well, it’s hard not to reconstruct the original mentally while reading the translation. The woe of translating a well-known Great Poet whose work is that well known to her readers, almost memorized by repeated reading. I have to comment that Kossman’s lovely and well-chosen title “Other Shepherds,” in the plural, in Tsvetaeva’s original is singular (“To you, who bid farewell to love,” 38). “Other Shepherds” suggests all manner of possibilities, besides perhaps making us think of poets and translators. But the original, “Another shepherd” or “The other shepherd,” suggests not just a single alternative to the poem’s addressee (a man who seems to make almost religious demands for certain kinds of behavior), but also the best-known shepherd in Western culture, Jesus Christ as the God who created the speaker as a black sheep. That implication might not be what Kossman wants, but it is certainly there in the original (Tsvetaeva’s grandfather was a Russian Orthodox priest, and any gestures toward religion in her writing are there consciously).
As mentioned above, Kossman has been “with” Tsvetaeva a long time: In the Inmost Hour of the Soul in 1989 offered 108 poems (some of them reproduced here unchanged; “My veins slashed open,” for instance, is identical to the version in Other Shepherds except for one word no longer italicized). The difference, and a significant one, is the presence of the interspersed poems by NK herself, and the sparks they strike against the translations. More of Kossman’s translations were published in 1998 in Poem of the End by Ardis (a well-known publisher of work in, from and about Russian); this collaborative collection has six of Tsvetaeva’s long poèmy and a number of lyric poems. Here too some of the same poems are identically translated, such as “My Light Tread” (1918).
So the new edition is also bringing earlier translations back into print. I wonder why Other Shepherds only gives the years of Tsvetaeva’s poems while in Poem of the End they are all dated with day and month as well, as Tsvetaeva usually did—perhaps a habit picked up from Aleksandr Blok?—and I wondered about the dates of Kossman’s own poems, because of the juxtaposition in the Poets & Traitors edition. Some of the blurbs from deceased poets or readers on the back of the Other Shepherds edition must have sprung from these earlier editions. Most of Tsvetaeva’s poems here are from 1918-19, with only a few dating from her years in Prague and Paris.
Kossman’s own poems tend to be longer and looser than Tsvetaeva’s. Tsvetaeva (like Pasternak) is one of those poets whose ideas and word choices (logical chains of association) are so striking that the trot alone can make for good reading. That spareness stands out against the poems of her own that Kossman includes. There are clear relationships among the poems (for instance with the swallow and Psyche, 25)—suggesting the ways reading someone and living in their works, as a translator does, can seed our own poetry.
The book has a beautiful cover, with vibrant colors and the impression of textured watercolor paper on the smooth printing. It’s Kossman’s own painting, dating from her childhood and described in her introduction.
In some of NK’s poems it’s precisely the formal artistry that appeals to me, as with the ere/ore sounds in “Psyche” (25):
I evoke you but you’re asleep.
I awaken you but you don’t hear.
Your sleeping breath reaches from here to there
In a majestic arc thrown from shore to shore.
Compare the effective slant rhymes and other phonetic orchestration in her translation of Tsvetaeva’s 1920 “Earthly Name” (36):
When parched with thirst, give me water,
One glass, or else I’ll die.
I pledge my feverish cry.
Repeated at length—yet still more fiercely,
Tossing all night for sleep,
Aware all sleep is spent.
As if the fields were not abounding
In herbs that grant relief.
An infant’s babble repeats…
Thus each utterance more final:
Noose—at the neck joint…
And if it’s but an earthly name I’m moaning—
That’s not the point.
Tsvetaeva seems to inspire long-term fidelity in her translators (и не только: I defended my dissertation on her 30 years ago and am still not tired of her or of the insights she inspires in scholars). Other Shepherds is an enjoyable collection that brings back some translations of Tsvetaeva’s work along with some new ones, intertwining all with Kossman’s own poems and introducing both authors to new readers.
Kossman, Nina. Other Shepherds: Poems with Translations from Marina Tsvetaeva. Poets & Traitors Press, 2020.
Sibelan Forrester teaches Russian language and literature at Swarthmore College and has translated fiction, poetry and scholarly prose from Croatian, Russian and Serbian.
 Tsvetaeva’s heir and only surviving daughter, Ariadna Efron, specified in her will that the archive was not to be opened until 25 years after her death, which took place in 1975. Thus, the archive was closed until 2000, though a number of texts sneaked out before that.
 Russian has no articles, so the translator has to decide whether the singular shepherd is definite or indefinite, which might indeed inspire a move to plural to avoid the issue.