Just listen, even if you don’t understand the language

Recently, I had some email correspondence with a reader in France, a mathematician and someone who knows a lot about Russian poetry.

Though I grew up reading classics of Russian literature, it was mostly novels, “Doctor Zhivago” being a favorite. I also loved (still love) Chekhov’s short stories and Turgenev’s writings. As for poems, I read some by Pushkin, Yesenin, and Anna Akhmatova, but didn’t know anything about Osip Mandelstam and Joseph Brodsky, whom the reader in France highly recommended. (I mentioned Doctor Zhivago in “FEBRUARY FLOWERS” and quoted Yesenin in the new novel I just completed.

“Very few translations in another language are able to convey the miraculous harmony and strength of many of their poems,” this reader wrote, and suggested that I listen on the web to Mandelstam and Brodsky’s poems read in Russian.

So I did, after reading the English translation of their poems. This reader was right. Though I didn’t understand a word of Russian, I felt the power of the language. A violent gust of wind, an exploding volcano…and sometimes, a deep meandering river.

It made me almost want to learn Russian if only to understand these poems better.

Language is a mindset, as I mentioned in a previous post. So much is lost in translation. As someone who has translated several books of her own, I surely appreciate the complexity and profundity of a language.

Featured image: Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang), one of the most popular and influential Chinese writers in the 20th century. I was a big fan of hers when I was at college, and I often skipped classes and meals to read her books. 

Author: Fan Wu

Fan Wu grew up on a state-run farm in southern China. After college, she received a scholarship from Stanford University to come to the United States. Her two novels are February Flowers, translated into eight languages, and Beautiful as Yesterday, praised by Amy Tan as “a story with intelligence, insight, and heart.” For more, please visit www.fanwuwrites.com