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Tonight, reading Anna Akhmatova, proudly both in the original (though with trouble) and in translation by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward. I come to the following from "Gost'" ("The Guest"):

Ya sprosila: <<Chego ty xochesh'?>>
On skazal: <<Byt' s toboi v ady>>.
Ya smeyalas': <<Ax, naprorochish'
Nam oboim, poshalyi, bedy>>.

No podnyavshi ruku suxuyu,
On slegka potrogal tsvety:
<<Rasskazhi, kak tebya tseluyut,
Rasskazhi, kak tseluesh' ty>>.

which Kunitz/Hayward translate as:

"What do you want?" I asked.
"To be with you in hell," he said.
I laughed, "It's plain you mean
to have us both destroyed."

He lifted his thin hand
and lightly stroked the flowers:
"Tell me how men kiss you,
tell me how you kiss."

Because Russian has a much richer system of verb conjugation the imperatives are very clearly marked out as separate from other forms of verbs: "Rasskazhi" is the imperative of "rasskazat'". But in English "tell" (imperative) looks the same as "tell" (lots of forms, pick one). They're different grammatically, contextually, but they sound and look exactly the same. So I read the Russian with more force behind it - commands feel more like demands. This makes me feel very confident, like I'm clued into something that English-only readers wouldn't be. Except, of course, that this is normal Russian speech, so I'm probably reading far too much into it. It's just a hint, though. Really.

But the grammar for the "kiss" verbs is better, too, because it's less blatant. In the first such line "kak tebya tseluyut" means literally (without changing word order) "how you (they) kiss", where the "they" is left out and understood because of the third person plural conjugation of "to kiss". "You" is marked as a direct object by its declension, giving the phrase even more power within the same space as the limper English version. As for the introduction of "men" - I'm just not sure. It seems too much. With the opportunity to compress things in Russian by leaving out subjects and such, leaving things to be implied by the verb conjugations, it seems there's an extra shade of meaning allowed. I know about who's doing the kissing, but it feels different from a sentence like "Muzhchiny tseluyut tebya" where "men" is included.

(Also, there may be just a hint that in the Russian, she's more complicit in their kissing her, whereas in the English, most of that is obliterated.)

But then I go back a few pages and read "Three Things Enchanted him...", the entirety of which is:

On lyubil tri veschi na svete:
Za vechernei pen'e, belyx pavlinov
I stertye karty Ameriki,
Ne lyubil, kogda plachut deti,
Ne lyubil chaya s malinoi
I zhenskoi isteriki.
. . . A ya byla ego zhenoi.


Three things enchanted him:
white peacocks, evensong,
and faded maps of America.
He couldn't stand bawling brats,
or raspberry jam with his tea,
or womanish hysteria.
. . . And he was tied to me.

Reading this suddenly fills me with doubt. What am I reading? What do I know? Obviously the Russian I've learned so far has been pretty literal, aside from some idioms we're taught here and there - that's the way it works when you're learning a language. I would've said "(He) didn't like (it), when children cry," to be literal - but I would also have thought that literal would have come pretty close for that line. So where in the hell did they get "bawling brats" from? And the last line - "And I was his wife" - what the hell? I have a sneaking suspicion that Kunitz and Hayward are doing a bit more of the interpreting than I would like them to. It seems to me that "And I was his wife" would have been eminently acceptable as a last line, because it stays close to the Russian and it retains the meaning that Kunitz and Hayward (apparently) try to bring out; it retains it as a secondary thing, though, one that takes at least a tiny bit of reading to see. The way it's translated, though, feels vulgar - they are hitting me over the head with it. YOU SEE? IT WAS A BAD MARRIAGE!

Maybe Tatiana was right. The translations are just all bad.