Memories of Chukovsky, as an Extraordinary Man and as a Poetic Translator
Back in the late 1950s, at Harvard University, I was working on a project which culminated in a book on A.M. Gorky. In the process, I discovered several early twentieth century books, the pages so brittle they could hardly be touched, written by a man previously unknown to me; his name was Kornei Ivanovich Chukovsky. Unlike most materials about "the great proletarian writer," these books were empty of all ideological cant, and they quite accurately pegged the qualities of the immensely popular Gorky, as well as correctly predicting the future course of his writing. It is not often that a critic can make accurate predictions about the literary future, and the situation really piqued my curiosity.
Consequently, when I first went to the U.S.S.R., in 1960, I inquired at the Soviet Writers' Union: who was this man? The reply amazed me: they corrected the tense of my verb: not "was" but "is"—he was still alive! I was skeptical at first, thinking maybe it was a son or grandson, or perhaps an accident of names. No, they agreed to help me meet him, in the flesh, at the Moscow writers' colony, in a lovely rural settlement outside Moscow, called "Peredelkino." I soon beheld a charming man in his early seventies, articulately curious about my origins and present work, and fully ready to test me on my knowledge of both the English and Russian Languages. He wanted to be sure I was a genuine American, not someone sent by what Soviet people called "the organs" (a nice Russian pun meaning secret police). At the same time he wanted to find out if I knew what the hell I was talking about when I touched the subject of Russian literature in general and the ambiguous career of Gorky in particular.
In order to do so, he promptly marched me off into the woods, where curious ears could not overhear, and he put me through the most pleasant third degree I have ever experienced. Within a short time, my Cincinnati accent in English and my relatively (for an American) voluble Russian convinced him on both counts. Within twenty or thirty minutes he was giving me information about Russian literature in Soviet times, the kind of information that one doesn't (or didn't at that time) find in literary history books. In short, for the next nine years, until his death in 1969, he became a kind of second father to me in the Soviet Union. But what he opened up for my eyes and my heart was the genuine Russia that lay behind, and sometimes under, the Soviet Union.
For months at a stretch, when I was in the country, I would visit him every Sunday, and we had long conversations together, as well as countless meetings with writers and critics who would visit him in droves. I also came to know his family, including a future granddaughter-in-law, the offspring of Dmitry Shostakovich. Not the least important of the people there were the children who came to the special library he had ordered constructed and stocked for them. He often said that he wanted them to see a real American, not the caricatures in the Soviet Press. During these years, I often saw him with people who were working on artistic translations into the Russian language. This was a topic very close to his heart and to his work. I already knew at that time some of the great translations done through the nineteenth century, continued and made even better by the so-called Silver Age at the turn of the early twentieth century. Kornei Ivanovich (as I always called him in the Russian fashion) had a particular interest in Edgar Allan Poe, as did many Russian intellectuals, and he was fascinated by the translating ability of Valery Briusov:
The tintinnabulation of the Bells, bells, bells,
the tintinnabulation of the bells . . .
I clearly remember several times when he brought together a group of people who were eager to publish some of the wonderful stories of the Old Testament. One must remember that at such a time, in 1963, this was a very dangerous project, in view of the overall Soviet prohibition of religious materials and ideas. That heavy and oppressing word "bezbozhniki" (the godless ones) lay stretched across the land like a leaden blanket, promulgated by a remarkably named society (soiuz voinstvuiushchikh bezbozhnikov—the league of the militant godless)—a real non-poetic mouthful.
The group came together, determined to tell the story of the Garden of Eden and Adam's rather unfortunate collision with God. Chukovsky took full advantage of Adam's equivocation: when God asked about the apple (or fruit mentioned in the text), Adam replied that he had seen neither hide nor hair of the object. God, of course, was not to be put off by such shenanigans. "Like an old gardener (kak staryi sadovnik) he counted the ones left on the bough, repeating the count several times. No, no, no—came the divine words: yesterday there were seven, today only six—you took them!" Of course the group picked up the tone of the narration, which was in a style that might just get past the Soviet censors, in a manuscript called "Stories of Ancient Classical Times," with no mention of the Old Testament.
The writers began to bandy possible words back and forth, playing with the text and with the ideas Kornei Ivanovich tossed out. The manuscript began to take shape, although not without serious criticisms and revisions. Translation was not something to be taken lightly, or simply brushed off like so much busy work. Kornei Ivanovich was highly critical of what he saw as overly hasty attempts by Western translators, often done simply to make money which would then support them in their own creative work. No, for him translation was a high and noble work, to be undertaken slowly and carefully, just the way good writers go about their own work.
Furthermore, there had to be an almost childlike spontaneity, a freshness which would give a special life and charm to the work. When he wrote about translation, he called it a noble, high art, vysokoe iskusstvo. Furthermore, he emphasized the childlike immediacy of artistic language in his famous book, Ot dvukh do piati (From Two to Five), where he described, in charming detail, the freshness and linguistic penetration of small children's language. Many a language teaching course could take a lesson from how he described the child's grasp of linguistic structure. Many a Western linguist took lessons from this book.
But the work that perhaps gave Kornei Ivanovich the greatest satisfaction, about which he often talked, consisted of his renditions into Russian of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, which he worked and reworked many times. When he talked about his own work, he repeatedly quoted many sections of these verses. Much earlier, in his introduction to the first Soviet published version of Leaves of Grass, Kornei Ivanovich—in his usual playful way—reports how commentators accused him of having made up the existence of the American poet. They evidently knew very little about Whitman's reputation. Chukovsky even admits to having resorted to crimes ("mne prikhodilos' pribegat' k prestupleniiam"): he "improved" the verses by giving them a more conventional form and creating rhymes. He even calls them "criminal rhymes." He then goes ahead to bolster his reputation among the new Soviet rulers by remembering how he and his book were brought to a Tsarist court in 1905, and the book was even seized and destroyed. He also mentions the publisher, I. D. Sytin, for whom Kornei Ivanovich many years later often expressed great admiration. This was a man who recognized and valued real artistic literature, and who did not hesitate to criticize and edit the works even of well-established and popular writers. Many a time, he sat over Gorky's shoulder and forced the passionate man to shorten and intensify his sometimes prolix prose.
It is interesting to see how Kornei Ivanovich served as his own editor and critic over the many years that he continued to rework his own creation. Take a very simple poem, where Whitman characteristically talks about his own life and his own fame. This was clearly an issue that the poet worried about to the point of obsession.
When I read the book, the biography famous,
Is this, then (said I) what the author calls a man's life?
In 1923, the translator starts out with a direct rendering of the initial clause, Kogda ia chitaju, followed by a participle, opisana, to represent Whitman's noun, "biography." The adjective "famous" stays adjectival in Russian, znamenitaia. Forty-six years later, the translator starts with a participle, chitaia ("while reading"), and the adjective is also a participle, proslavlennuiu (literally, "having been made famous"). The two contrasting lines look like this:
Kogda ia chitaiu knigu, gde opisana znamenitaia zizn'
(Literally: "When I read the book where was described a well known life")
Chitaia knigu, biografiiu proslavlennuiu
(Literally: "While reading a book, a biography which has been made famous")
Chukovsky decided that the compression, produced by the two participles in a row, was more effective than the direct translation of the English syntax.
When he gets to the latter part of the poem, where Walt Whitman questions whether anyone, even he himself, can know something real about his life, he expresses it this way:
As if any man really knew aught of my life,
Why even I myself I often think I know little or nothing of my real life,
In the earlier version, Chukovsky leaves out "I often think" and makes the poet simply state that he knows nothing.
Net, ia i sam nichego ne znaiu o moei podlinnoi zhizni
(Literally: "And I myself know nothing about my genuine life")
Forty-six years later, he puts the doubt of "I myself I often think I know little or nothing" back into the line:
Net, zachastuiu ia dumaiu, ia i sam nichego ne znaiu o moei podlinnoi zhizni
(Literally, "Frequently I think I myself know nothing about my genuine life.")
Clearly, Kornei Ivanovich is constantly working and reworking his approach to the American poet whom, in the introduction to his later version, he calls "the idol of my youth." He was never content to stay with one version, however dearly created and fondly remembered. Something inside of him constantly goaded the translating artist—and he insisted that the translator was and is an artist—into change and improvement.
Roughly contemporary with the earlier years of Chukovsky was a very talented poet who belonged to the Symbolist Movement, which had such powerfully creative years in the decades before the Revolutions of 1917. The poet in question is Konstantin Bal'mont, whose rich and stirring poetry managed to shock many Russian readers and critics with its wealth of heavy laden images and complex language—one could almost feel the weight and smell a kind of perfume in the languorousness of his poetic rhythms and sounds. Many critics looked at Bal'mont as a kind of over-pampered, perhaps even effete personality, yet he managed to produce some of the most beautiful, flower-like colors of Russian Symbolist poetry. In later years, Chukovsky was to speak caustically, with considerable satiric parody, about the Symbolist approach to poetry and literature in general; yet, in the remarkable Symbolist journal, "Vesy" ("The Scales"), in the first decade of the twentieth century, one can find the young Chukovsky's articles about his impressions of England side by side with the critical articles and poetry of the Symbolist poets and avant-garde painters.
Given Bal'mont's reputation as a coddled member of an elite group of poets, one might read with some surprise his reactions to the work of Walt Whitman. In a 1904 issue of "Vesy," only three years after the young Chukovsky's discovery of the American poet, Bal'mont characterized Whitman as one of the very few poets in the world who do not have to "turn to the region of sadness as the one mood appropriate . . . for achieving artistic victory, for creating hypnotic enchantment." Instead, in the work of Walt Whitman, Bal'mont feels the necessity of praising "the great singer of life . . . and the powerful Bard of free America—who stands as a crude tree with many tangled branches, like an old elm." Bal'mont recognizes that Whitman ignores the poetic forms so familiar to European readers and expresses himself with a freedom appropriate to the still young trans-Atlantic republic. To the Russian poet, this represents a quality highly desirable in the poetic artistry of the early twentieth century.
Bal'mont takes on the task of translating a poet who works so differently from almost all the poets known to the European reader. Paradoxically, he then turns to a Whitman poem which relies on the Bible, hardly a source unknown to European readers. But Bal'mont sees in this reference something entirely new, "Biblical in the best sense of the word," since it "refers to days of the future," rather than to the past. It is a short poem:
As Adam Early in the Morning
As Adam early in the morning,
Walking forth from the bower refreshed with sleep,
Behold me where I pass, hear my voice approach
Touch me, touch the palm of your hand to my body as I pass,
Be not afraid of my body.
It is interesting to compare and contrast Chukovsky's and Bal'mont's translations of this poem. Chukovsky starts out in the very first line with Whitman's ego, the "I" so beloved by America's poet:
Kogda ia kak Adam ("When I, like Adam")
Whereas Bal'mont sticks to the Biblical character and the time:
Kak Adam, rannim utrom ("When Adam in the early morning")
Both of the Russian poets have no trouble with the refreshment of the previous night's sleep, but they stumble over the word "bower." Chukovsky, who at that time was quite sticky over the literal accuracies of the English language, which he had acquired with such loving care, uses the word "shalash," having to do with a hut made of natural materials in the woods. Bal'mont uses the word "besedka," which is a kind of gazebo, made out of manufactured light wood, not closely connected with the word bower, at least in its modern sense that Whitman surely used: "a leafy enclosure in the woods." The Russian translators undoubtedly used a dictionary which gave a more antiquated poetic sense of a "rough wooden structure." The translators later came to the line that was calculated to shock the American readers: this involved the fearless touching of the American poet's body, an idea that Whitman repeatedly approaches in many poems, involving his receiving the touch of both female and male hands on his body. Chukovsky writes: "Tron' menja, tron' moe telo rukoiu,/Ne boisia tela moego" ("Touch me, touch my body with your hand,/Don't be afraid of my body"). He starts the line with a dactyl repetition, which is rudely stopped in the next line. The imperative of the verb "tronut'" is monosyllabic, and gives a notion of very simple, direct action. Bal'mont writes: "Prikosnites' ko mne, prikosnites' ladon'ju ruki . . ." ("Approach toward me and touch lightly, touch lightly with the palm of your hand . . .")/"Ne boites', ne strashno,/Telo moe!" ("Don't be afraid, it is not fearful/my body!"). Bal'mont uses an anapest, which slides the reader into the action, and which does not stop so soon and carries over into the next line. Furthermore, he uses a three-syllable word for the verb, as opposed to Chukovsky's simpler one-syllable verb, which gives a more nuanced approach on the part of the person who would do the touching. It's as if Bal'mont is already imagining the light touch of one who would appreciate the beauty of Adam's (or perhaps Whitman's) body. And there is a two-syllable word, "strashno" (totally avoided by Chukovsky), to extend the lightness and extent of the approach. In short, Bal'mont brings Whitman, whom he praises for representing a new and different poetic approach, into his own universe of complex poetic colors and lines, while Chukovsky strikes directly to what he considers the meaning of Whitman's thought. Both translations have the merits of their own makers—and both show different aspects of Whitman's poetic presence. Artistic translation is a complex and difficult task, involving many different angles of linguistic skill and interpretive insight and intelligence. It's not hard to see why Chukovsky called it a "high art," worthy of our best aspirations.
There is more than a little bit of Walt Whitman in this attitude. The Russian translator would never fall into the sprawling, prolix quality of Whitman's writing, yet there was an expansiveness and ranging dynamic inside Chukovsky which reflected its parallel in Whitman. Kornei Ivanovich did not hesitate to satirize and criticize many things about the U.S.A. and its culture. When I knew him, it was a time of crude, government-supported, anti-American propaganda. Like many members of the Soviet intelligentsia, he took it with a sense of humor, and he loved to satirize the propaganda. When he saw that his grandson, Mitya, an excellent sportsman, beat the devil out of me in a game of badminton, he shouted mockingly, "Ei, Mitya, bei amerikanskikh imperialistov, bei, bei!" ("Hey, Mitya, beat the American imperialists, beat them!") He knew very well that I understood the statement's irony and wouldn't take the literal words seriously. And one must remember this had a special effect in the days of official Soviet badgering and bad mouthing the U.S.A. All of this was fodder for the self-satirical and popular anecdotes of that time. On the other hand, he could be genuinely critical of American poetry and parts of its intellectual life, which he followed quite closely, in spite of official Soviet attempts to keep such knowledge out of the country. He admired greatly the popularity and art of Dr. Seuss, the American writer of poetry for children. Yet he was not loath to criticize the author of The Cat In the Hat" when he stuck too long to the same rhythm, at least for the taste of Kornei Ivanovich. Chukovsky was always proud of the fact that his own popular children's poetry (hardly a person grew up in the U.S.S.R. who could not quote his poetry by heart) deliberately used different rhythms and he made a point of their variety within a single poem. And his criticism of American life did not stop at poetic rhythm. Through reading Nabokov's novels and articles, smuggled in to him by friends, he got a sense of some of the ins and outs of US academic and literary critical politics. Especially with his shrewd and extensive experience of Soviet politics, he looked at all of this with a jaundiced eye. In this context, it's interesting how he saw the position of his beloved Whitman in the context of American politics and general social life in the U.S.A. He appreciated the parts of Whitman's poetry that were critical of American society, or could at least be understood in that direction. At the same time, he also had a sense of the very eccentric part of Whitman's stance, the constant necessity for self praise, the prolix going on about the ideas that Whitman took seriously. I think it is a mark of Chukovsky's genuine sensitivity to human aspirations and poetic talent that he saw what could be admired in Whitman's work and his stance—the talented rebel who was unmoved by the criticism of philistines at that time. Of course, this could be put to good advantage for Kornei Ivanovich in Soviet times, as long as it was applied solely to the American context. And Kornei Ivanovich knew quite well that he could pitch it in such a way that it would not be applied to the Soviet context, where such criticism of the philistines could be applied quite easily. Such folk were by no means absent in the Soviet Union, despite the official socialist ideology. Kornei Ivanovich knew that his intelligent Soviet readers would understand this, even though the translator could not dot the i's and cross the t's. It had to be understood in that sub-rosa way that almost all Soviet people instinctively understood. It was no less powerful for being unstated explicitly. In short, Kornei Ivanovich Chukovsky used his versions of Walt Whitman's poetry to show what could be done with the high and noble art of translation, to develop that art in many different variants and attempts at improvement, and to express his own attitude toward American culture and society with elements of admiration, mixed with a certain amount of critical and analytical observations. As a poet and translator, he was a highly admirable figure. As a human individual, he was a warm and fascinating man.
"Memories of Chukovsky, as an Extraordinary Man and as a Poetic Translator," by Irwin Weil, was written for the Whitman Archive and is copyrighted by the author.
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