: The Long-Islander
: May 29, 1969

Chukovsky on Translating Walt Whitman

[Kornei Chukovsky is not only the best known of all the Russian translators of Whitman, he is also internationally famous for his translations of English authors, including Shakespeare, Defoe, Mark Twain, G.K. Chesterton, and Kipling. His translations of Whitman's poems have gone through many editions. In Russia, he is famous as an author of books for children. Two years ago he sent me a copy of his "My Whitman', with a flattering inscription, and I invited his to write an essay especially for this number of "The Long-Islander" on Whitman 150th anniversity. - Gay Wilson Allen.]

I have been translating Walt Whitman for a very long time-more than sixty years. My first booklet of translations was published in 1907 by the student Circle of Youth at St. Petersburg University. The translations were poor, but there was some justification for them, for they aroused considerable interest in the work of the American poet. Many admiring reviews appeared in Russian newspapers and magazines.

Two or three years went by, and I grew that much older. I came to hate my wretched book, feeling that every line was a slander on the poet. The trouble was that in my first attempt at translation I had tried to touch up Whitman, to make his poetry more elegant, more striking and resplendent, forgetting the wise saying of the Roman: "Facilius est plus facere quam idem".

Realizing my guilt, I was anxious to atone to Whitman for my sins, and, in 1914, the opportunity came my way. I set about my earlier effort in a frenzy, rooting out all its errors of commission and omission.

Between 1918 and 1966 there were more than ten further editions, and in each case I revised the translations anew.

Whitman's verse had a great influence on Soviet poetry in the 20s, 30s, and this was most strikingly seen in the work of two Russian poets Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov. About 20 years ago Boris Pasternak sent me a greeting in verse which ended thus:

. . . For Whitman A bear-hug of a compliment.

At the time it was a scarcely deserved compliment. It was evoked not so much by my translation as by Boris Pasternak's generous heart.

In Spring 1969, in honour of Walt Whitman's 150th birth anniversary, the fifteenth edition of my translations, will be published. For this edition, I have made at least 200 corrections, major and minor.

It is a Herculean task to put Walt Whitman into Russian. The overwhelming majority of his lines are extremely long, and since Russian words are twice or even three times as long as English ones, the result of a word-for-word translation would be an inordinately drawn-out text, sluggish and anemic, without the dynamism of the original. Here our vigorous Russian syntax comes to the rescue, making it possible to infuse into the translsation the energy a literal translation would lack. In my attempts to convey the rhythms of "Leaves of Grass" I often had recourse to the Bible, of which we have a magnificent translation into Old Slavonic in our country.

In each edition, 1 have included a substantial article on Whitman and his work. Each time I had to rely on the American literature available on Walt Whitman at the moment, and I must confess that I did not have much confidence in it, as it always abounded in myths which tried to present Whitman as something virtually super-human. John Borrough, R.M. Buck, O'Connor were myth-makers. Horace Traubel's three-volume work was the only one I could really rely upon, and it was not until the publication of Roger Asselineau's penetrating work of research in France and "The Solitary Singer", by Gay Wilson Allen in the USA that the Whitman chronicle was finally purged of the myths and legends with which it had been cluttered. It goes without saying, of course, that I have received great help from "The Correspondence" of the poet, published in a strictly scholarly edition by the New York University, Press. A study of all this new material, and also recently published works by such authorities as Emory Holloway and Floyd Stowal have helped me to a new understanding of the life and work of the poet.

To all these fellow-lovers of Walt Whitman I extend an aged hand across the ocean with a sense of admiration and the deepest gratitude.

K. Chukovsky

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