You’ve translated three Akhmatova poems,
all of which are dedicated to Olga Glebova-Sudeikina. Why did you
choose to focus on these particular poems?
Livshin & Janco:
The Russian government is seeking to silence LGBTQA voices and actively
rewriting its country’s history. At this time, we feel it’s crucial to
recall that some of Russia’s most gifted authors wrote about their own
same-sex relationships. These poems by Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) are
dedicated to her lover, the actress, dancer and puppet-maker Olga
Glebova-Sudeikina (1885-1945). Akhmatova spent a year living with both
Glebova-Sudeikina and the Futurist composer Arthur Luriť, in what many
biographers believe to be a romantic relationship with both. Most
readers do not know about this relationship or its importance for
Akhmatova’s work. Focusing on Akhmatova’s poetry dedicated to
Glebova-Sudeikina makes it possible to appreciate its significance.
It’s important to note that in her work, Akhmatova does not identify as
a lesbian or make any specific claims about her sexual identity. In
keeping with her esthetics, she hints, rather than describe. However,
looking at these three poems as a set, it is not hard to notice that
Akhmatova openly dedicates them to her female lover, who was a
well-known figure in the Russian avant-garde. Akhmatova also continued
to write about her love for decades, after Glebova-Sudeikina had
emigrated from Russia and they lost contact.
How does the unnamed male figure haunting the borders of these poems fit into the biographical framework you’ve erected here?
Livshin & Janco:
Context is needed to understand the personalities and complicated web
of relationships that appear in these works. For Akhmatova, the suicide
of one of Glebova-Sudeikina’s partners, Vsevolod Knyazev, was
especially important. Many people blamed Glebova-Sudeikina for the
death, and the suicide greatly affected both her and her husband at the
time, Sergey Sudeikin, who was also involved with Knyazev. Knyazev’s
death and Glebova-Sudeikina’ reaction reappear in each of the poems
How did you come to terms with bringing formal Russian poems,
such as these, into English as free verse poems? Did you conceive of
that decision as a sacrifice, as an opportunity, or something else?
Livshin & Janco:
Yes, Akhmatova’s work is
strongly musical: The first of the three poems we translated consists
of end-stressed couplets (AA, BB, CC, etc.), while the second one
comprises two sonorous cinquains, each of which sports three
end-stressed lines in a row. In these poems about Glebova-Sudeikina,
musicality works synergetically with the gravity of the statements
Akhmatova makes. Prosody sculpts the themes of loss and longing into
hard, elegant forms, suggestive of St. Petersburg’s austere
sophistication, its black, ornate cast-iron metal grills, the gradual
rhythm of its imperial buildings. St. Petersburg is the city where
Akhmatova became a serious writer. And if you listen to how
Akhmatova reads her work (recordings are available online here
), her seriousness and the rhythmic yet unhurried quality of her voice are really quite amazing.
re-shaping Akhmatova’s poetry into the English patterns of rhyme and
rhythm is a deceptively straightforward task. It would require matching
her with an Anglo-American, modernist strain of richly metrical poetry,
poetry that does not smack of limericks or Dr. Seuss’ work. Verse that
wouldn’t sound excessively rhymey, archaic, hurdy-gurdy. Of course, in
Anglo-American modernism, we do have long reverberations of rhymed
lines, but they tend to sound ironic or tragicomic because of that
legacy of limericks and nursery rhymes. Think of how T.S. Eliot uses
such prosody in “The Waste Land”: “O the moon shone bright on Mrs.
Porter / And on her daughter / They wash their feet in soda water.”
Akhmatova writes about some very serious and tragic matters in her
work. So contemporary American readers would perceive lots and lots of
rhymed lines together with her topic as a funny disconnect between form
We chose free verse, but with a number of slant
rhymes, and some alliterations and consonances. Our hope is that free
verse lets one immerse oneself in the statements Akhmatova makes and
the gravity of her emotions, while the echoes of her poetic music
suggest something of the original’s rhythmic yearning and darkness.
In Judith Hemschemeyer’s translation of “Memory’s Voice” (which she
entitles “The Voice of Memory”), the poem takes place “In the hour when
the sunset lingers in the sky,” but your translation happens “in the
light of late dawn.” Is the timing clear in the original Russian, and
do you think of the timing as a significant aspect of this poem?
Livshin & Janco:
Akhmatova’s diction often seems simple, but it’s richly suggestive. She
knew and appreciated French poetry. She inherits Verlaine’s idea of
poetry as symphony, in which different instruments play very distinct
notes, and each instrument presents a slightly different interpretation
of the same theme as it comes forward to dominate the orchestra.
(A different version of this idea that was quite popular is the poetic
phrase as a chord, composed of multiple notes, complicated).
to the timing in “Memory’s Voice”: In the first couplet, the Russian
word for the time of day, “заря,” is used with rich ambiguity. This
word usually means “sunrise.” If you add the modifier “evening”
(“вечерняя”), it can mean “sunset,” which is presumably why
Hemschemeyer chose to translate it as such. And yet Akhmatova
doesn’t use the word “evening,” she uses its variant, “late,” making
the phrase non-idiomatic, poetically bent to serve a purpose. A
symphony of two words. What is going on? The speaker is speaking to a
woman who is staring dully, perhaps morosely, at the wall, asking her
what she sees. That woman is someone the speaker cares about deeply and
wants to be well. The time can, in fact, be a late sunrise – if
this is winter, in the northerly city of St. Petersburg, where the day
is short in December or January. The sunrise might be dull and
vague, not unlike the look in the woman’s eyes; a cold sunrise with
little light, yet it is still a slight bit of light for a new
beginning, perhaps hope for a start of a love relationship with the
speaker. In the Russian poetic tradition, “заря” also often connotes a
powerful emotional release symbolized by the rising of the sun. One
famous example of how this word is used is its positioning as the last
word of the poem, repeated twice and capped off by an exclamation mark,
in a poem by Afanasy Fet, where suggests the culmination of an erotic
And if the two women are together at sunrise, there is also
the probability of an all-night vigil. Emotional or sensual intimacy.
They stayed up and find themselves together at sunbreak. In the last
couplet, though, the possibility of hope is killed, the image becomes
sunset-like – and the end of sunset, end of hope. The
interlocutor tells the speaker that she only sees the fading of the
light. The man that she is probably mourning is gone. Her
personality, her memories, are flattened by his death, the sun has
One could argue that the solution Hemschemeyer comes up
with (“sunset”) is more or less literal, and it is underscored –
verified? – by the last couplet. But poets do not necessarily
work with a linear sense of time. A poetic image unfolds its
layers of meaning as a theme develops. This is especially the case
here, as the notion of sunrise-hope / sunset-finality bounces between
several different speakers, with two distinct perspectives.
We learned recently that the color yellow represents jealousy in
Russian culture, much like in English one can be “green” with envy.
Should we read the daffodil at the end of the Second Dedication to “A
Poem Without a Hero” as suggesting not just mourning, but also jealousy?
Livshin & Janco:
With apologies to Akhmatova and to you, we confess there is no daffodil
in the original. So no yellow either. The original flower, “snowdrop,”
of the Galanthus
genus, is not particularly familiar to an American reader. And the
“snow” in it seems to suggest remainders of winter. On the other hand,
in Russia it is known as the first flower to jut up happily as the snow
melts; its etymology just shouts that spring is already there while
snow is still melting: “подснежник” – “under
This is certainly the flower for the beginning of spring. We feel that
“daffodil” connotes the beginning of spring – these are some of the
first flowers to appear in March in our country.
Yet yellow does also have very sad symbolic meanings in Russian
culture. Jealousy is one of several. Parting is a well-known meaning
(you can see how jealousy would fit into this puzzle); so are madness
and illness. You can imagine, then, why giving yellow flowers is a
Russian cultural taboo. (One of the famous flower-giving gaucheries
is Bulgakov’s Margarita’s gift of yellow flowers to Master when they
meet her for the first time; Margarita is married and unhappy then, and
women do not typically give flowers to men, anyway).
But why not give a daffodil to a woman whom one loved and who died
A woman whom one still hopes to find on the other side after one passes
away? To us, such a flower might help one feel deep amity and loss
both, a spring-like delicate beginning and the knowledge of that
parting might, nonetheless, be final: The daffodil is planted in a
fresh grave. We hope that this flower might suggest an Akhmatovian
symphony of meanings.