Archive for April 11th, 2021

The odd couple: Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky and the man who brought him into English, George Kline

Sunday, April 11th, 2021
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The introduction to my new book, The Man Who Brought Brodsky Into English: Conversations with George L. Kline, is online over at The Literary Hub, known to most of us as LitHub or simply “The Hub.”

You can read it here. Or you can start below:

George L. Kline translated more of Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky’s poems than any other single person, with the exception of Brodsky himself. He described himself to me as “Brodsky’s first serious translator.” Bryn Mawr’s Milton C. Nahm Professor of Philosophy was a modest and retiring man, but on occasion he could be as forthright and adamant as Brodsky himself. In a 1994 letter, the Slavic scholar wrote: “Akhmatova discovered Brodsky for Russia, but I discovered him for the West.” And in 1987, “I was the first in the West to recognize him as a major poet, and the first to translate his work in extenso.” It was all true. He was, moreover, one of the few translators who was a fluent Russian speaker.

Brodsky’s first book in America, 1973’s Joseph Brodsky: Selected Poems, changed my life as well as the poet’s—and all the translations were Kline’s. The meditative poems of time, consciousness, suffering, alienation, even redemption sounded a note that was octaves above the free-form narcissism, the weary story of the self that typified American poetry at the time. This book established a Western audience for Brodsky, and blew open a window to the East. I studied with him at the University of Michigan, and that was a formative experience, too, as it was for so many of his protégées who became writers in his wake.

This is the story of how that book was born, and what happened in the years following. The three-decade collaboration of Kline and Brodsky is a tale that has not been told in its entirety until now.

The first translation one reads of a foreign poet makes an indelible impression, and so I confess a bias, since Kline’s translations were the first that I read. But my preference wasn’t wholly subjective; and I wasn’t alone—they made an impression on the entire Anglophone world. They also launched a stunning, unconventional literary career in the West for Brodsky.

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He was obviously not a superstar poet—such as Richard Wilbur, or Seamus Heaney, or Anthony Hecht, who also translated Brodsky’s poetry although they didn’t know Russian—but rather a Slavic scholar with a serious interest in poetry. This book shows how deep this philosopher’s commitment was, and that these poems were not the whimsy of a dilettante. His translations were important not only because they were the first, but because they tried to preserve, as Brodsky wished, the metrical and rhyme schemes of the original, often with surprising sensitivity and success.

As I pored over the book with the stylized green-and-purple portrait on the cover as a university student, I knew nothing of the translator, George L. Kline. Yet the book, the man, and the poet would be one of the more remarkable adventures of my life. The three of us formed an unlikely troika of temperaments and training, friendship and estrangements.

George was meticulous, reserved, and deeply principled; Brodsky was an evident genius, a Catherine wheel of a man, who fraternized with the leading cultural figures of his time. The two were lucky to have found each other; yet their personalities were worlds apart. I entered the scene writing about both men decades later, undoubtedly one of the girls described in Brodsky’s 1972 poem “In the Lake District,” the place where he had been appointed “to wear out the patience of the ingenuous local youth.”

Read the rest here.