David Wells reviews 'The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry' edited by Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk, and Irina Mashinski

David Wells reviews 'The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry' edited by Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk, and Irina Mashinski

The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry

edited by Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk, and Irina Mashinski

Penguin Books, $22.99 pb, 591 pp, 9780141198309

Translation is all about choice: which authors will be attractive to the target audience? Which texts by those authors will be of interest? Which aspects of those texts should be emphasised? How can ambiguities in the original be preserved or resolved? What relative weight should be given to formal and semantic elements? Historically, the translation of Russian literature into English has often focused not only on its literariness, but at least as much on its potential contribution to the anthropological, social, or political understanding of Russia and the Russians. Stylistic experimentation and complexity have sometimes been obscured in the interests of a clear message. The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry skilfully avoids these pitfalls. It is an eminently readable book which opens a real window on to Russian verse for the reader of English. While due acknowledgment is made of the impact of censorship, persecution, and the burden of everyday life on Russian poetry and the lives of Russian poets, the collection's clear focus is on celebrating Russian poetry as a literary form.

Yet what the three editors have set out to give us is not literary history, but the experience of Russian poetry as a living organism in English. Like poetry itself, the book is not neat. Poets are not included or excluded simply on the grounds of their historical significance; some are left out because there are no good translations. Mostly the poems are translated into standard English, but some are given in Hugh MacDiarmid's lively Scots. Some poems are rendered more than once. A few are not translations at all, but original English works on Russian themes. The individual poets are each given informative, engaging, and slightly quirky introductions.

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Published in November 2015, no. 376
David Wells

David Wells

David Wells is a Slavist and librarian based in Perth. He has published on many aspects of Russian literature with a particular focus on poetry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Current research interests include eighteenth-century contacts between Russia and Japan, the emergence of the Russian symbolist movement, and the literature of the Crimean War.

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