On a Certain Epigram by Anna Akhmatova


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Detail of a portrait of Anna Akhmatova by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, 1922.

In my village it’s a famous epigram, but I wonder how many of you are familiar with it. Here it is, complete and unexpurgated, in Anna Akhmatova’s original Russian, from 1958:

Могла ли Биче словно Дант творить, 
Или Лаура жар любви восславить? 
Я научила женщин говорить… 
Но, Боже, как их замолчать заставить!

And now here is a transliteration, with metrical stress represented by bold type, so that the Russianless—or persons like myself with only a year of Russian, the might-as-well-be-Russianless—can have at least some chance of appreciating the sounds. (Note: iambic pentameter, with an inversion in the first foot of line 2.) 


Here is a word-for-word crib:

could | either | Beatrice | like | Dante | create
or | Laura | fire | of love | glorify?
I | taught | women | to speak
but | God | how | them | force/make | shut up!

And now, finally, here is the whole thing, smoothed out:

Could Beatrice create like Dante?
Or Laura glorify love’s fire?
I taught women to speak …
But, God! how to make them shut up!

A great deal could be said about these four lines. I am writing this for the Russianless, but not for the literatureless, so I’ll skip the explanations regarding the names Dante, Beatrice, et cetera. I want to say something about translation.

It’s not true that all rhyming epigrams lose their feathers if translated without rhyme. But a lot of them do. The present specimen seems to me a middle case. The last two lines, where all the action is, have exactly the same offensive or exhilarating impact in English that they have in Russian. The words are ordinary and blunt and crystal clear in the original, and ordinary/blunt/crystal clear in translation. When the poem is quoted in chitchat, the piece tends to shed its first two lines. 

Those first lines are interesting, though. For a number of reasons, they are not memorable in either language. They are stilted, allusive, not too clear. That’s intentional: the first couplet allows the second to burst like a bird out of the rattling bushes. There are many examples of this effect in poetry—turgid, turgid, turgid, then CLEAR. (Think of the tangled lines in Auden’s “Lullaby” that precede and culminate in “mortal, guilty, but to me the entirely beautiful.”)

It’s not that it’s hard to translate the effect. What’s hard for translators is to understand that it’s not necessary to respect the particularities of those first two lines. Akhmatova would have happily changed the order of operations—mentioned Petrarch by name, left Laura implicit—provided she could arrive at those last two lines just as they are. For the first two lines, a translator can do just what Akhmatova did and write more or less whatever. For the second two, though, you pretty much have to respect the poet’s every move.

Here is my own attempt at delivering the thing in all its roguish wit or egomaniacal misogyny:

Could Beatrice master the technique?
Or Laura write a sonnet—? Ach, enough.
I taught these Russian women how to speak.
God! if only I could make ’em all shut up.

One piece of serendipity that keeps nagging at me, which I shall not withhold here: it’s quite possible to make a new, macaronic epigram out of this material, wherein the second half translates the first. You’ll have to read it aloud to see how it strangely rhymes:

Ya nauchila zhenshchin govorit’…
No, Bozhe, kak ikh zamalchat’ zastavit’!
I taught these Russian women how to speak.
Now somebody show me how to make ’em stoppit!

It’s not necessary to read Akhmatova’s first two lines as if she is straightforwardly speaking from her own position, by the way. She may have thought—I’m convinced she did think—that it was obviously possible for a woman to “glorify love’s fire,” “create like Dante,” and so on; she had done it herself. So, when the greatest female poet of all time (in her own eyes and those of others) asks, “Can women write great stuff?” she’s channeling a voice not quite her own. The stiltedness of the lines signals this, too. One would expect her to come back with a wisecrack against anyone who would doubt that a woman is capable of, et cetera, but instead she finds herself in surprising agreement with the misogynist’s basic intuition. “Anyhow, all these little idiots trying to imitate me certainly serve as grist for the chauvinist’s mill … ”

Nabokov’s novel Pnin was published right around the same time that Akhmatova wrote the poem. In the novel, one of the important characters—Pnin’s ex-wife—is an absurd female poet. I have heard that Akhmatova recognized herself in this character and was insulted when she either read the book or had somebody tell her about it. I have puzzled over this. (Perhaps someone reading this post knows more?) The novel explicitly says that the character was one of a generation of female Akhmatova imitators—exactly the people Akhmatova was spitting on in her epigram. So, why did Akhmatova think Nabokov was satirizing her and not the “rhyming rabbits” she despised?

But enough on this theme for now.

Anthony Madrid lives in Chicago. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His first book is called I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say (Canarium Books, 2012). He is a correspondent for the Daily.