“Translations of Achmatova’s Requiem” Unit 7

Painting of Anna Achmatova
Anna Achmatova by Nathan Isaevich Altman

We had a very fruitful conversation with Alec, Grace, Luna and Prescott, and agreed on the fact that although the two “Requiem” translations by Anderson and Thomas share some similarities, they are vastly different. To begin with, Anderson’s translation uses more simple language and the message is presented in a more straightforward manner, creating a more personal tone. On the other hand, in his translation Thomas makes use of more advanced and metaphorical language, which set the tone as more distant, but also more professional, poetic and lyrical.

Moreover, from my experience with original Greek and German poetry, I agreed when it was brought up that Thomas’ translation, having a more cryptic and mysterious tone, felt more like non-English literature, whereas the translation by Anderson seemed more like it was written by a native English speaker, based on the word choice and structure. This is the reason that we were amazed when we were informed about the simplicity of the original poem, which in fact deems Anderson’s translation much closer in tone to Achmatova’s work in her native language, in contrast to our initial assessment.     

Overall, I would say that the simplicity characterizing Anderson’s translation makes it more understandable and suitable for a person that is not familiar at all with Stalin’s Terror. However, Thomas’ translation is aesthetically more appealing to me and is more intriguing, provoking questions and causing the reader to get involved and think.

Cover of a copy of Anna Achmatova's Requiem
Requiem by Anna Achmatova

Ultimately, the question of which translation is more suitable comes up to the message that the translator communicates through their work. The poem gets disconnected from time and place, and becomes a symbolic exploration of ideas, feelings and emotions. It becomes a source of knowledge that by analyzing certain aspects of a past occurrence, teaches the reader valuable lessons about the human nature.

In this respect, the messages delivered by the two texts, based on their tone and overall content are also drastically different. The more emotional translation by Anderson evokes the powerful feelings of agony experienced by the woman whose son is imprisoned. Therefore, if one is interested in exploring the pain and desperation caused to a woman when she sees her family falling apart because of tragedy and injustice, then Anderson’s translation would be more suitable. The more sophisticated translation by Thomas carries out this deeper feeling of hopelessness that the Terror created to the people of the Soviet Union. For someone that wants to discover how it felt to live in a society characterized by an atmosphere of constant fear of falling a victim of extrajudicial violence at any time despite their innocence, then Thomas’ translation is more appropriate and insightful.

Soviet woman grieving
Mother,Gely Korzhev

In every instance of oppression, the individual and the collective experience mingle, complementing and reinforcing each other. Oppression in circumstances like these is a phenomenon that spreads through the whole society and no one seems to escape it. Agonizing as that may seem, it is often much easier for a viewer to truly grasp its true effect on another person and empathize with their fear and pain when this other person possesses a name and an identity; when they are a somebody instead of an anybody. Because this is exactly what makes someone realize that the person whose suffering they are witnessing is just like them. Their life conditions may be vastly different, but when it comes down to the elements their life breaks down into, their emotions, their hopes and their dreams, then the similarities become vivid and a strong connection is established. A connection enabling you to see your life as it would be, in case it was you instead of this other person getting through all these hardship and suffering.