Prieto, Mandelstam, Allen, and Correspondences in the Air

By Susan Harris

The June 10 issue of the New York Review of Books includes Jose Manuel Prieto's fascinating "Reading Mandelstam on Stalin," translated by the impeccable Esther Allen. Prieto describes struggling to translate Mandelstam's defiant "Epigram on Stalin"—that famous "death sentence in sixteen lines." Mandelstam, knowing that the poem could not be published, recited it aloud to as many people as possible; the poem survived, but its political and linguistic complexity make translation challenging. Toward maintaining that "halo of meaning," Prieto presents his version (Allen provides her translation) and a line-by-line exegesis of both original and translation, producing not only a valuable explication but a fine demonstration of the translator's craft . (Our Ecco Anthology of International Poetry includes this poem in the Clarence Brown/W.S. Merwin translation, which differs in any number of ways from Allen's version of Prieto's; a comparison of the two offers another layer of interest.) Prieto's piece is a marvelous example of Anna Akhmatova's "correspondences in the air": the poetic conversation, here conducted between eras and languages, and to which, thanks to Allen's ingenious English, we can all listen.


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