Imagery in any language

 

Birdsong on the Seabed By Elena Shvarts, translated by Sasha Dugdale Bloodaxe, 171pp. £9.95IN THE EXCELLENT introduction to her translation of a selection of Elena Shvarts's recent poetry, Sasha Dugdale writes that she has "attempted to stay as close as possible to the Russian form", and she hopes that although the visionary poems "throw up difficulties for the translator, because trust in the poet's vision must be sustained and a comparable visionary quality must be found in English", the reader will still be "startled and excited by the eccentricity and novelty of the imagery".

The reader of translated poetry, it seems, has an acute version of the responsibility that falls on every reader of imaginative writing: to recreate for oneself a (necessarily different) version of what the original writer meant to say. The title poem of this book presents the poet's need to be heard, even though thus remotely, as a gap between species, imagining herself as a bird that "slides under the waves", that sings "perched on the bony arm/ of a drowned man" to the "cold-blooded beasts" that do not believe her "tales of heat".

To believe across a language gap is even harder but, paradoxically, the reader of Sasha Dugdale's translation is helped by the impossibility of forgetting the difference between it and the original. The Cyrillic is there across the page, so that one with even my elementary grasp can make out, for example, that the same word is translated once as "corner" and then again as "angle". A reader is forced to think about the choices the translator has had to make, and thus not only to be grateful to her for her struggle, one as nearly successful as one can hope to be, but to acknowledge the intractability of languages and the need for scholarly annotation - as when we are told that what might have been rendered as "red angle" is translated as "corner shrine" because the angle in a room where the icons are kept is known as the "red corner", and that is because "red" connotes the beautiful and the sacred. The focus on the original meaning arouses the reader to recreate, to help in the strenuous work of reconstructing. Some of the translation decisions I would disagree with, for example the use of adjectives that appear only in translated poetry, such as "fleet". But even those have their uses, like a traffic cone signalling that there's a bump, when we encounter the rhyming facility of the Russian.

THE READER HAS to be persuaded that the work is worth it, and here it is, not just the Sasha Dugdale skills and scruples that come into play. The images of the original, like that idea of the bird and the sea creatures, are powerful and signal a philosophical depth in some poems, and in others a religious intensity, very unusual in English-language poetry. Irish readers may well recognise the four beasts that preside over the difficult poem Grand Elegy on the Fifth Corner of the Earth though many may be puzzled by Our Lady of the Three Hands in Nikolovsky Cathedral. The presence of Orthodox spirituality, with its angels, its icons, and its place - as in Dostoyevsky - for the Holy Fool, is palpable throughout. It may be the reason why Shvarts, born in 1948, circulated her work in samizdat until 1989.

This is not to say that either philosophy or religion pervades all the poetry. Shvarts is an impressive poet of place, especially St Petersburg (or Leningrad as it was then), where she was born, conjuring up the august emptinesses of a winter city and the grand Neva, but also the suburbs and the "slimy" Fontanka. In Rome, she evokes that other Russian traveller, Gogol, as well as Giordano Bruno. There are stunning grotesque animals, rat or cat, who appear or have their say. Moments of piercing clarity shine out, in Solo on a White-Hot Trumpet: "Why do the earth, these ancient veins Toil and sweat? That a flock of light moths Might burn to dust and salt . . . "

This is where the translator's work is rewarded, when the depths are illuminated by the brilliance of the poet's own light

• Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is an associate professor of English at Trinity College Dublin, and has just had her Selected Poems published by Gallery. She is working on a new collection of translations of Ileana Malancioiu from the Romanian