The Interview — Matvei Yankelevich
by Anthony Watkins
AW: I know 100 or so words in Spanish and a dozen each in French and Latin, so my understanding of translation is extremely limited. Do you still think in Russian and translate in your brain, or have you been here so long, you have to remember the Russian after you think in English, or is it possible to think in each language?
MY: I’m bilingual, or at least grew up bilingually, from the age of four, but thinking and language are only partially entwined, in my experience. I might have words in Russian and in English in my mind at the same time or dream in some combination. It’s hard to say what language I dream in, only that sometimes I wake up remembering a line in one or the other language — but that might just be my conscious mind putting words to notions. I think language is more like a cognitive action. I’m looking at this meadow and I’m thinking something, and only at some point do I begin to put words to the thoughts or name what I’m seeing. Of course, the go-to is more often English if I’ve been speaking English — which is usually the case, except when with family or visiting Russian friends, or in Russia, of course, but I haven’t been there since 2019 for reasons you can readily imagine.
AW: You have collaborated on a translation (with Eugene Ostashevsky) of An Invitation for Me to Think by Alexander Vvedensky. I watched a video of the two of you at Kelly Writers House. It’s hard to imagine two poets more different, which probably could have either been very difficult or very useful for collaboration. Did you “workshop” each other’s translations or was it, “Eugene, you do this verse and I’ll do the next”?
MY: Eugene and I rarely collaborate directly on a single text. For the Vvedensky book, we had both been translating this and that poem or prose text and then we put our work together. There was no overlap. We gave each other feedback, and he was the editor of that book so he may have queried me on my translation choices more than I queried him. I love what he does, both in his poems and in his translations, but he’s a very different translator (and poet, as you know). We don’t work the same way, though we respect each other’s ways. In the Vvedensky book, you could likely tell which were Eugene’s and which were my translations even if they weren’t marked with our initials. (You can read more about my approach to translating Vvedensky in a reflection I wrote for Poetry Daily.) For the last 15 years I’ve been working with John High on Osip Mandelstam’s late poetry, and in that case, it’s really a collaborative translation: for the most part we draft and edit and finalize each poem together, sitting across from each other at a kitchen table, or in John’s backyard, or — for the last few years — over Zoom or the phone, with our cursors moving through the same google doc. We read each poem aloud many times, talk about it, look up allusions and references and dig through dictionaries, talking our way toward a translation. One of us takes over the typing, then hands it off. We read our translations aloud many times alongside the original and get into the rhythm and the feeling as well as the meanings and intentions we’re interpreting. It’s a great process, even if it’s slow. I’ve done a handful of Mandelstam’s earlier poems on my own, but I’d never have taken on the task of Mandelstam’s Voronezh Notebooks without this partnership. We keep each other going — alone, I might have given up because of the difficulty of late Mandelstam — and we keep coming back and honing things till we both feel it’s right.
AW: I have read the Quran in several English translations, and found it lacked the poetry of the King James Version of the Christian Bible. Speaking to some of my Muslim friends, they say if I could read it in Arabic, I would find a similar beauty. I am sure they are right, so my question is, how much of the beauty of the language of Russian poetry is lost, even when folks like you and Eugene translate it? And how do you compensate for that?
MY: Well, translation is firstly a cultural mediation. It’s not about finding linguistic equivalents — there are none — between languages. For what’s an equivalent sound if all the words are different, the grammar’s different, etc? Even between French and Italian, the one-syllable place has a different ring from piazza. And in English, it’s probably a public square, maybe a plaza, which sounds a tinge more exotic, but still doesn’t really match the sound of either. I think a lot about sound when I translate — but more along the lines of contrasts, effects, dissonance, assonance, and mainly I try to bear in mind the overall poetic intentions. I translated a famous Mayakovsky poem once — it’s usually known as “Cloud in Trousers,” but the Russian word shtany didn’t mean a presentable pair of slacks back in 1914; it was of a coarser register, and could even mean long johns or undergarments in some speech contexts. Furthermore, the English title “Cloud in Trousers” has two of the same vowel sounds (ou), whereas Mayakovsky — and this is a typical dissonance of his provocative poetic approach — has a significant contrast in the vowels. Here’s a phonetic transcription of the title in Russian: ˈobɫəkə v štanáx. Notice the o and the shwas in the word for cloud, and the much more open-mouthed a-sounds of the word for what the cloud is wearing. So I translated the title as “Cloud in Pants” (causing some consternation among certain editors) to keep the vowel contrast and to sound a bit vulgar, or at least brusque. (Of course the syllable count is different from the Russian, but you’re not going to get around that sort of thing.) Pants are commoner’s clothes — and Mayakovsky’s cloud is no suit. He’s letting it all hang out in the poem. Most translations smooth out his tone, and that begins with the title, which, they say, “sounds good” because of the smoothness, poetic because of the repetition — but that’s not Mayakovsky’s idea of poetic. So, for me, it’s about interpreting the poet’s intentions, getting behind the writer’s choices.
AW: Listening to you, and reading your poetry, I am reminded that we all write poetry for different reasons and in different ways. It has taken me nearly 60 years to sort out why I write poetry. I used to think I wrote for the reader, then I thought I wrote for me, but have finally (or at least for now) realized I write in service of the poem. So I would be interested in why you write? Why you translate? Why and for whom?
MY: Big question! I am compelled to translate in part by the desire to share lesser-known and under-translated (or mistranslated) literary works I’m excited by. (Which is also why I’ve been involved in editing and publishing translations of others for some 20 years, curating the Eastern European Poets Series for Ugly Duckling Presse, and soon re-starting that series at World Poetry Books.) Of course, one can say, vaguely, that translation is important, because it’s important to open ourselves up to other places, languages, traditions. But what’s happening in translation is really a mediation that — if it goes well — brings out some new possibilities that are latent in our own language and tradition. Pound’s translations — or productive mistranslations — of Li Po and other Chinese poets in Cathay, and what it did for jump-starting modern English-language poetry, is a great example. In fact, I would argue, Cathay was a paradigm shift that still governs what English-language poetry thinks it ought to be and do. In this sense, translation is like the Silk Road or other trade routes — like pasta is Italian, but it’s a borrowing from China, etc. — it’s the primary mover of literature. National literatures stagnate without the influx of foreign works. (What would Celan have become without Dickinson and Mandelstam, both of whom he translated, for example?)
Too often, however, translation (especially in English) attempts to inscribe the foreign into something we already know, something familiar. (In my research, I’m finding that the “deep image” and “plain style” translators of the Cold War period did a lot of that.) And the publishing industry has mostly upheld that sort of thing, tacitly relying on the notion that a translation should be “a good poem in English” — whatever that means. That’s the notion that proposes something like “Cloud in Trousers” sounds good in English, so why be more precise (read: academic), etc. It’s a problem with fiction in a different way — more on the level of familiar, or domesticated, content. (See Gayatri Spivak’s essay “Politics of Translation” or Emily Apter’s critiques of “World Literature”). But this is perhaps too big a topic and gets away from your question — I see I’m avoiding the “why.”
So why do I write? Perhaps, because I translate — and vice versa. That’s a coy answer, but there’s something to it, no? “In service of the poem,” is a good way to put it, but there’s also the issue that I have things to say about this and that, whether it be personal or political, or, even more importantly, aesthetic (which, for me, encompasses the latter). A long time ago I was struck by a formulation I read in Daniil Kharms’s diary, where he says that he likes writing poems to find things out. (I can’t find the passage just now, but it’s something like that.) Also, in a letter, which is also a work of fiction, Kharms writes that the poem “isn’t just words or thoughts printed on paper, it is a thing as real as a crystal inkwell standing in front of me on the table.” I want to make a real thing, not a reflection or a description of the world. Kharms goes on to say about the poem, when it is a poem, that “it seems that these verses have become a thing, and one can take them off the page and throw them at a window, and the window would break. That’s what words can do!” Perhaps that’s more magic than I can muster . . .
But then, to answer the question of “why” from a different angle, I find myself having a feeling, a kind of rage against the world — which is a kind of passion, so it is also love — or to use a phrase from a Mandelstam poem, a “quarrel with the world,” and I want to do something (or make something?) with it. This feeling is in part a consequence of doing this thing (poetry) that, as Mallarme said, “society does not want, in exchange for which it does not give me anything to live on.” And that, paradoxically, is what keeps me interested in writing poems.
Photo by Claire Donato
AW: Your recent chapbook, Dead Winter, makes me think of the Wallace Stevens poem “The Snow Man.” Am I projecting, or did you take any inspiration from that poem? I see in various descriptions of the book that it is part of an ongoing series. Do you have plans to release a full Winter collection? Or a series of chapbooks, or both?
MY: Somewhere halfway into the project of the winter poems (what might become a book someday, with the working title “From a Winter Notebook”), I tried to read all of Wallace Stevens, whom I’d only read superficially. I can’t say I know them well, but for a moment they pushed me to expand the possibilities of cadence and convolution in the work. I stole some turns of phrase, too. This winter cycle is full of little thefts . . . from Ovid and Mandelstam, from Sappho, the Troubadours, Louise Labé, as well as modern and contemporary poets from Williams to Rodefer, and even some from my friends. After eight years of working on these winter poems, I don’t know what the book will look like (I’d likely cut a lot from it), or if it will be a book, or when I’ll stop. For now, there are two chapbooks that are quite different — the first from Alder & Frankia, the second from Fonograf — and I am trying to publish a third chapbook with a different feel but connected to the others. I hope I’ll find someone to take it on and make a selection that makes sense on its own.
AW: Who are some of the poets, Russian and/or American who influence you?
MY: I mentioned a few above, but there are so many. I’d be remiss not to mention Laura Riding, Kharms & Vvedensky, David Schubert, Henri Michaux (more for his prose and his thinking than the poems), the spirit of Marianne Moore’s early work. But so many have had a profound effect, even if it was only for a month or a moment. This summer, I’ve been reading and inspired by Edwin Denby, Uche Nduka, Joseph Donahue. And, just recently, I got a hit of Antonio Gamoneda through editing a book translated by Kate Hedeen and Víctor Rodríguez Núñez. (I recommend it!) Of course, Mandelstam has been getting under my skin because I've been working on these translations for so long, and, in the past two years, quite intensely. On the whole, I’m finding that I’m most drawn to the periphery, poets who aren’t squarely placed at the center of US literary culture, poetry that’s a bit fugitive, or really foreign.
AW: I notice you approach poetry as a thing to do with literature. Do you ever write a poem to simply describe a moment, or is every poem a “poem with purpose”? As someone who has never developed any sense of purpose with my own writing, I find the idea of creating literary art for the purpose of “doing something” very interesting. Do you teach your students how to write with meaning or purpose? If so, can you describe how that works?
MY: I don’t know — isn’t a poem that attempts to “simply describe a moment” also a poem of purpose? I guess I don’t understand purposeless writing, or maybe it’s that when I get a whiff of it, I find it hard not to close a book. But meandering can be just as purposeful as walking the line. As far as teaching — I mostly teach translation, and even there “purpose” is a complicated issue — there are so many. When we’re reading translations in my class — whether students’ work, examples from the past, or far-out experimental translations — I try to get the conversation going in a way that might reveal the purpose of the work’s choices. What matters, I think, is agency (which may include the agency to give up on agency) and acknowledging it. Then writing or translating can happen with care, because you have this knowledge that there’s a choice you’re making, and its ramifications are pretty serious. Reading Denby or O’Hara, they seem sometimes to be playing an off-handed ditty, just for fun, but then, suddenly, everything’s at stake. I hear that Wittgenstein played Schubert on Sundays “as a divertissement,” and I’m glad he did, but that isn’t what turns my brain inside out when I read him.
Anyhow, writing’s so hard, I don’t get why I’d do it unless I had to, in order to investigate the crucial thing, whatever it may be at that moment. Any time I try a kind of divertissement — I lose steam, give up on it, or forget it, or treat it as fodder for later, like found language — clay to mold into something else.
AW: You have said this chapbook is literally from your notebook, almost an aside from your “real work.” I believe it has been several years since your last regular poetry book, Some Worlds For Dr. Vogt. When can we expect the next that is not part of this chapbook series? And for that matter, as you just published Dead Winter in January, when can we expect the next in the series?
MY: I recently read a bit from that older “regular” book from Black Square Editions — Some Worlds — which had taken me about five years to complete, though it might not look like it. I recognized its serial qualities, and other elements which resonated with some of what I’m doing now. I even thought I should continue that cycle, maybe write “More Worlds for Dr. Vogt” some day. I hope for this “winter” series to come out in groups, as chapbooks, with different publishers, so that I can reap the benefits of having different editorial experiences — I learn something new from each collaboration — and so that the poems can try on a variety of social scenes and networks, as well as formats and designs. That is more interesting to me at the moment than the big book that these winter poems might become someday, which I think would be quite different from the chapbooks, making a different kind of statement or action — a droning winter tome to dip into on long, dark nights. No news, though, as of yet, about a third chapbook. There are, however, a bunch coming out in journals — recently in Caesura, Iterant, and A Perfect Vacuum, and soon in Lana Turner, VOLT, and Harp & Altar.
AW: Thank you, Matvei.
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