I decided today to go a little further off the beaten poetry path. Translating poems is difficult and requires more than simply knowledge of the original language. Many factors must be taken into account including vocabulary, mood, rhythm, and idioms. I do not speak another language with any amount of fluency which really gives me an appreciation for the task.

Anna Akhmatov is widley considered to be one of Russia’s greatest modern poets. Before her death in 1966, she was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature but never received it. Having lived through the Stalinist Era, her work was banned and yet she stayed in the Soviet Union. The resulting poems are a mix of beautiful language and often heartbreaking themes.

One poem of hers that always sticks with me is titled “Lot’s Wife”. Akhmatov’s work often has religious or biblical themes, and I like the philosophical observations that she makes regarding them. Who would not be tempted to gaze one more time on your home as you left it? We are attached to places and memories, to deny such attachments is to deny what makes us human. This translation is deftly handled by former United States Poet Laurette Stanley Kunitz, another great talent.


Lot’s Wife

(Tr. by Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward)

And the just man trailed God’s shining agent,
over a black mountain, in his giant track,
while a restless voice kept harrying his woman:
“It’s not too late, you can still look back

at the red towers of your native Sodom,
the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed,
at the empty windows set in the tall house
where sons and daughters blessed your marriage-bed.”

A single glance: a sudden dart of pain
stitching her eyes before she made a sound . . .
Her body flaked into transparent salt,
and her swift legs rooted to the ground.

Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.


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