The poetics and politics of Joseph Brodsky as a Russian poet-translator

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Ideological censorship, which held the reins of literary activity in the Soviet Union, forced many disgraced poets into translation, a relatively “safe art.” While trying to make their way into print and earn a living, author-translators fertilized Russian poetry with hitherto unknown masterpieces of world literature, even though accomplishing this mission would require them also to translate enormous quantities of ideologically-friendly production, as well. In the history of Russian literary translation, the process of reconciling one’s own aesthetic predispositions to the ideological demands of the state-owned publishing industry became an important landmark, which not only instituted translation as a major branch of literary activity but also endowed it with a genuinely poetic, and even moral, dimension. In a sense, the popular term “poet-translator” is nearly as emblematic of the Soviet era as censorship itself: while ennobling the craft of translation and putting it on a par with the art of poetry, on the one hand, it also reflected the state-driven tendency to reduce the original art of “unreliable” poets to, at best, the mere transmission of foreign literatures into his or her native tongue, on the other. Russian poet-translators, however, would come across an impressive number of poets whose influence on their own poetics is hard to underestimate. Such was the case of Russian poet and Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky. This chapter explores how translation broadened Brodsky’s linguistic horizons and provided him with an additional spectrum of creative opportunities, which would have remained utterly inaccessible within the confines of just one (native) language and culture.Civilization is the sum total of different cultures animated by a common spiritual numerator, and its main vehicle – speaking both metaphorically and literary – is translation.Joseph Brodsky, “The Child of Civilization”


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