Hell Set to Music, Osip Mandelstam

lingua fennica

Belomorkanal

Mandelstam wrote this in 1937, a year before his death in the Gulag. It is not – to say the least – an easy poem, either to understand or translate. The key – perhaps – is to understand that when oppressive authority would seek to do away with all hope, the only hope to be found lies in the ambivalent spirit of the oppressed and the defiance of black humour. James Fenton’s review here is headlined “Hell set to music”, and I have taken the liberty of using this as the title of my translation. It would be an apt description of the sweat of translation – but that hell by comparison is as nothing, and the resulting music is much less exquisite…

Irretrievably lost, at sky blinking –
God, if really you’re there I beseech!
With your nine athletes’ discuses clinking
You, O Dante, more easily speak.

Strip my vital force…

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