CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In the course of research and writing, Dr. Sonia I. Ketchian of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University occasionally comes upon a topic that melds her expertise in Russian language, literature, and culture with Armenian language and literature. Such was her contribution, “Our Song — Bella Akhmadulina as Translator of Hovanes Tumanian’s My Song” to the festschrift celebrating an outstanding brilliant American scholar: “A Convenient Territory”: Russian Literature at the Edge of Modernity. Essays in Honor of Barry Scherr. John M. Kopper and Michael Wachtel, eds. Bloomington, In: Slavica Publishers, 2015.
Her essay treats famed Russian poet Bella Akhmadulina’s (1937-2010) translation of the Armenian national genius Hovhannes Tumanian’s (1869-1923) four-quatrain poem “Im erge” (My song), dated January 5, 1918. It is one among 16 of Tumanian’s poems offered to her through perfect interlinear translations and reading of the original poems by a native Armenian speaker. Two earlier verse translations into Russian had preceded Akhmadulina’s, namely, first, Riurik Ivnev, 1906–81; second, Maria Petrovykh, 1908–79, who translated much through interlinear translations from the Armenian, although in her lifetime her own poems were published only in Armenia).
For Ketchian, work on the poetry of Akhmadulina is always especially meaningful and rewarding, because it began in earnest with her initial meeting with the Russian poet and her family at their dacha in the famous writers town of Peredelkino when the latter happily presented the poet, then out of favor, with the typescript of her article on Akhmadulina’s poetry that had been accepted for publication in the United States. Through sheer coincidence, Akhmadulina bested Ketchian’s “gift” in presenting her with an advance copy of her newest book of poetry Secret (Taina), not yet released. That gift resulted in Ketchian writing and publishing the first book in any language on Akhmadulina, and it benefited through their several later meetings in Boston. Among many topics of mutual interest, at their first meeting the poet described her private audience with the Catholicos in Echmiadzin when, overcome with emotion, she dropped to her knees in tears to kiss his hand.
Tumanian’s poem amazes for its joy of life and positive faith in improvement at a time when his people had been decimated and the very survival of their land was at stake. Dating his poem on Armenian Christmas, January 5, 1918, speaks to his firm unarticulated belief in the power of God and the sacrifices of the Armenian soldiers, including of his friend General Antranig. Tumanian’s poem parallels in personal and metaphysical largess and dedication to life not only Akhmadulina’s own personal and artistic philosophy of generosity, but even the concept of universal personal guilt assumed by her speaker. This emotion finds injection into her translation through the fear of being deprived of losses.
In her lucid translation with an eye toward ringing true to her Russian readers as she presents her version, Akhmadulina embroiders somewhat freely on Tumanian’s original. Nonetheless, the overall tone is not that of Akhmadulina in her original verse, instead her version of Tumanian’s male speaker fears losing his staunch absence of the fear of losses (in other words, his embrace of losses as a means of maintaining humility and proving his fortitude toward positive results). Importantly, she follows his lead in the essential details: she matches his use of colloquialisms, leaves out nature in a seemingly joyous poem, refrains from articulating colors, and maintains his overarching notion of life’s cyclicity. So goodness and justice will ultimately prevail.
Through Akhmadulina’s meticulous balance between closeness to the original versus authenticity in the Russian translation, her beautiful rendition seems as if she is singing a duet, harmonizing her poetic self and her translated poem with Tumanian’s magnificent original. The Russian version thus becomes “our song.”