Are you happy? I know you won’t
It’s for the best—leave it.
and kissed so many:
All the tragic heroines of Shakespeare
in you. You, the young and tragic lady
No one has saved.
You’re so sick of all this talk about love,
all these lines!
that cast-iron band around your bloodless hand.
I love you. — Like a thundercloud
I love you like a sin—
because you bite, you burn
and you’re best, the best of all.
Because of us, because our life—is different—
because of these dark roads,
for your seduction, asunder,
for your doom, dark.
Because I say to you, to my demon, to your steep brow—
I say to you, forgive me,
because even if I rip myself
over your coffin, I cannot
Because of this trembling. Is it
Because of this biting delight
Marina Tsvetaeva was a Soviet poet who lived from 1892 until 1941, when she hanged herself in exile. There are a lot things known about Tsvetaeva: she was great friends with Boris Pasternak, the Nobel laureate who wrote Doctor Zhivago; she lived in Paris for a long time; she loved her husband, Seryozha Efron, madly; she had a series of passionate affairs, including perhaps the most famous with fellow poet Sofia Parnok. The poem above is a very short excerpt from her cycle of poems about their affair called Podruga—”female friend.”
My excerpt which I have translated here is an extremely loose translation. I will end with the title, which I’ve rendered here as “My Friend,” but first turn to form. For me, it has become very important that the passion of the original poem hold sway over everything else. Russian has the benefit and beauty of being able to contain much feeling and depth in as little as a single word; this is not so possible in English, and it is my opinion that attempting to keep the Russian form dashes the feeling and the content. Russian has a beautiful rhyming form; English has a beautiful free form. Why not use it? For me, this becomes a speaking poem: the passion in Tsvetaeva’s words for Parnok beg to be read aloud. For me, this begs a freer form than the stilted verse I would surely have given it.
It is surprisingly difficult to find information, however, about Tsvetaeva and Parnok’s affair. It is known that it was intense; it lasted about two years; and it challenged and molded the poets in their writing. Parnok was 29 and Tsvetaeva 22 when they began their relationship; in discussions of their relations, Parnok is often cast in a traditionally masculine role, casting her as the predator setting on young quarry. In Tsvetaeva’s poem, however, she casts herself as a predator, as a pageboy, as a victim, a rock in a tempest; for Tsvetaeva herself, this relationship pushed the bounds of gender roles and metaphor, though, as she states, the foundation of the poem is the ironicheskaya prelest’ (literally: “ironic charm” which I have freely rendered here as “biting delight”) of Parnok’s being insistently female. This biting defiance of the binary: this is delicious to Tsvetaeva. She, after all, said, “Loving only women or only men, deliberately excluding the familiar inversion—what horror! Just women, or just men, deliberately excluding the uncanny familiar—what a bore!”
This is interesting when compared to Tsvetaeva’s relationship with Anna Akhmatova, yet another groundbreaking Soviet poet. Tsvetaeva wrote a poem to Akhmatova; the admiration in the verse is clear, with the ultimate line being “I loved you.” However, their relationship is wholly different than Tsvetaeva and Parnok’s: there are endless forums discussing the potential for Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva’s sordid affair—they are perhaps the most shipped same-sex couple in Russian literary history, or at least I seem to have found so in reading these forums—but one Akhmatova biographer, on being asked about Akhmatova’s sexuality, rolled her eyes and said, “Why does it always have to be lesbians? Could they not merely have admired each other?”
Alicia Eler has already written about navigating queer female friendships, so I’m not going to try and top that where she’s already rocked it. But it is important here: While fascinating, need Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva have had a sexual element to their relationship, or are we content to leave it at admiration? In these discussions online there almost seems to be a feeling that women must have a sexual element to their relationships to legitimize them: does that cheapen their relationship and reduce them to the heteronormative male gaze? As a queer lady myself, I ship them—but I am also asking whether their platonic love is simply more important. Can this be cast in another, non-sexual, layer of queerness?
In discussing this queerness—what does “queer” even mean?—I am interested in discussing non-binary and intersectionality. As queer people, we traverse a world divided: male/female, predator/prey, black/white, whore/Madonna, etc. As queer people, we tend to defy these neat divisions, and even intersections. Too often, translation is itself used as a metaphor for control and submission, and control and submission used as a metaphor for translation. I hear talk of penetration, topping and bottomming, giving and taking in regards to the translation process—which language is the one that gets ravaged in translation?—when these questions are not, ultimately, helpful. Translation is fetishized and over-fetishized: If we’re going to do it, why not own it? If translation is to be sexual, why not defy binary norms of sex—I mean, translation? Need we shame ourselves? Non-traditional forms of sexuality confuse and scare people, like translation. And, like translation, everyone seems to have a stark opinion about it. Who gives? Who takes? How do you know when it’s finished? There is no missionary-style translation.
More helpful, then, is perhaps to do away with these metaphors and embrace the non-binary-ness of translation and queerness. There is a spectrum, which we need also not fetishize. This, then, is why I have decided not to render the title of the poem as “Girlfriend,” but as “My Friend.” There is an ownership in art, and a spectrum in Tsvetaeva’s writing. Podruga, in Russian, does not mean a romantic girlfriend, but a close-as-sisters female friend. This is subverted in the Russian as it comes clear that they share a romantic, beyond-friendship relationship; this cannot be rendered in English in this way. Instead, I have chosen “My Friend”; not only does it do away with any gendering, leaving the ending a surprise, but also subverts the nature of their relationship, as in Russian. The poem, after all, was sometimes called Oshibka, ‘The Mistake”: there are mistaken friendships; there is mistaken sex; but there cannot be mistaken verse. There is no binary here; everything must be defied.
Rachael Daum is the Publicity Manager for the American Literary Translators Association and Publicity Editor for Drunken Boat Journal. She received her Bachelor's in Creative Writing from the University of Rochester, where she also earned a Certificate in Literary Translation Studies. In May she completed her Master's in Russian language and literature from Indiana University, where she also earned a Graduate Certificate in Literary Translation. She writes creatively in addition to translating odd works from German, Russian, and Serbian. She lives in New York City. You can find her @Oopsadaisical.
Original Artwork by Sarah Mazzetti at sarahmazzetti.com