Posts Tagged ‘George Kline’

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

Sunday, April 11th, 2021

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.


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.

“The Man Who Brought Brodsky into English”: a Q&A

Saturday, March 27th, 2021

Boston College”s Prof. Maxim D. Shrayer, author of Waiting for America and Leaving Russia, interviewed me about my new book just out this month: I’m happy to say The Man Who Brought Brodsky into English: George L. Kline in Conversation is now available wherever you buy books. The interview:

Cynthia, let me begin by asking you to describe your path to the book—a double path that led you to Joseph Brodsky and to George L. Kline.


I studied with Joseph Brodsky at the University of Michigan—his first port of call in the U.S. It was psychological and aesthetic jolt, like sticking your finger into a light socket. And yes, we memorized hundreds of lines of poetry in his classes.

For many of us, Brodsky’s Selected Poems in 1973 was a radical reorganization of what poetry can be and mean in our times. However, I didn’t connect with the book’s translator, George Kline, until after I published Joseph Brodsky: Conversations in 2002. George and I stayed connected with Christmas cards and occasional phone calls. But we’d never actually met face to face—so I had no real sense of his age, until in late 2012, when he mentioned that he was almost 92.

George was a champion for Joseph Brodsky and his poetry—many people know that, but many don’t know that he was also a wise and kindly supporter of poets, Slavic scholars, and translators everywhere. He had never given a full account of his collaboration with the Russian-born Nobel poet, however, and I realized time was running out. So we began recording conversations.

His health was failing, and our talks became shorter and more infrequent. Towards the end, he urged me to augment our interviews with his articles, correspondence, and papers, reconstructing a portrait of his collaboration with Brodsky. George died in 2014.

His death was a huge loss for the field of Russian studies. But for you and your work, unimaginable… What was it like continuing without him?

The effort was more than a jigsaw puzzle. I felt like I was carefully gluing together a model airplane to take us to another world – a world that began with Soviet Leningrad in the 1960s where George met the young red-headed poet and ended with the poet’s death at his home in Brooklyn in 1996. More than that, it was the world that Brodsky created with his poems, which they both inhabited.

What role did Kline play in Brodsky’s life and literary career, and what did Brodsky mean to Kline?

George translated more of Brodsky’s poetry into English than anyone else, with the exception of Brodsky himself. Poetry was an avocation for George, but my goodness—look at how George evolved as a translator from his early “Elegy for John Donne” to his stunning translation of “The Butterfly” a decade later!

Incidentally, many people also do not know that Kline was a highly regarded Slavic scholar, writing about Russian religion and philosophy. His obituaries in journals focused on that work, not his work with Joseph Brodsky!

Joseph Brodsky was the adventure of George Kline’s life, I think. He found himself lunching with world poets and attending the Nobel awards ceremonies in Stockholm. But it wasn’t his world or natural habitat, and George knew that.

How would you describe Kline’s approach to translating Brodsky? Why do you think Brodsky—who at times wasn’t easy to please—appreciated Kline’s translations?

It was an unlikely partnership, in temperament and training, but one trait they shared was a commitment to maintaining the formal scheme—rhyme, meter, and so on—of the original poem.

George was also insistent that nothing be added to or subtracted from the poem. Of course, Joseph changed his poems freely, but that was the poet’s prerogative—not the translator’s.

I said that George evolved as a translator—well, Brodsky changed, too. He was extremely lucky to have found Kline early in his poetic career. But as he became an internationally recognized writer, he had a greater range of translators to choose from, some of them outstanding poets in their own right: Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur, Derek Walcott among them. George sometimes felt sidelined, inevitably. But George had a full, rich life of his own.

A riveting teacher at the University of Michigan
(Photo: Terrence McCarthy)

Where do you think Brodsky’s poetry, often described as “metaphysical,” found common ground with Kline’s own philosophical interests and pursuits?

They both had a sacred vision of the world—and of the word. Both defy easy categorization. Kline was loosely “Unitarian,” Brodsky caught or suspended between Judaism and Christianity. At one point he described himself as a Calvinist, at other times his vision seemed almost Catholic—given his love of Italy, how could it be otherwise?

George remembers seeing a volume of Nikolay Berdyaev on Brodsky’s desk when he first visited the poet’s his Leningrad room—The Philosophy of the Free Spirit. That may indicate his turn of mind as well. Another point of connection with the philosophy professor.

One poem Kline loved, and that he unfailingly presented at readings, was Brodsky’s “Nunc Dimittis.” It’s Jewish and Christian, illustrating the transition between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, both powerfully represented. The dying Simeon and the infant Christ, who grows in cosmic and historical dimensions. That poem alone shows the fusion of those two sides of himself.

The years since his early days have seen many more translations. How do you feel about more recent English retranslations of Brodsky’s poems? 

The more the merrier. Kline himself wanted to see more translations of Brodsky’s work, he was a translation “liberal.” There are always trade-offs in translation. He wanted to see what others would do. Brodsky is said to be untranslatable. If so, the best we can do is have multiple translations and triangulate meaning. As English speakers living in 21st century America, we also need to have a better understanding of the art of translation—and its necessary choices, sacrifices, limits. That’s what this book is for.

Finally, Cynthia, if one were to play devil’s advocate or dismiss totalizing explanations by suggesting that Kline wasn’t the only person who “brought Brodsky into English”—there were after all W.H. Auden and Carl Proffer—what might your response be?

Oh heavens! I would never wish to diminish the legacy of either of those remarkable men. Both are pivotal in Brodsky’s story. I’m delighted that mine is the second book—after Ellendea Proffer Teasley’s Brodsky Among Us—to appear in the book series you curate for Academic Studies Press. Both the Proffers had vital roles in Joseph’s life and work. There should be a statue to them in Russia. I’ve said that before.

Carl Proffer brought Brodsky to America, meeting him in Vienna, changing the poet’s plans and planes, diverting him to the U.S., and finagling a University of Michigan appointment for the young man who had dropped out of school at 15. Joseph himself said that Carl Proffer “was simply an incarnation of all the best things that humanity and being American represent.”

W.H. Auden’s foreword in Selected Poems was critical. It launched Brodsky’s first important book in the West. It also began a personal friendship that was foundational for Brodsky as a poet and a human being. But Auden didn’t bring the poems into English.

George made a home for Joseph in the English language, beginning in the first days of his exile, as they revised poems together at Goose Pond in the Berkshires. George Kline is behind the Selected—not only in his translations, but in getting it published at a high level where it would get the world attention it merited.

Don’t forget that when Kline heard about the Nobel prize on the radio, he called London to offer his congratulations to Brodsky. The poet replied, “And congratulations to you, too, George.”

Cynthia, congratulations to you on the book, and may it have a long life.

Joseph Brodsky teaching at the University of Michigan, Spring 1973 (Photo: Terrence McCarthy)

For Joseph Brodsky, on the 23rd anniversary of his death

Monday, January 28th, 2019

From “Elegy for John Donne” (1963)

Like some great bird, he too will wake at dawn;
but now he lies beneath a veil of white,
while snow and sleep stitch up the throbbing void
between his soul and his own dreaming flesh. …

Man’s garment gapes with holes. It can be torn,
by him who will, at this edge or at that.
It falls to shreds and is made whole again.
Once more it’s rent. And only the far sky,
in darkness, brings the healing needle home.

… Sleep soundly, do not fret
your soul. As for your coat, it’s torn; all limp
it hangs. But see, there from the clouds will shine
that Star which made your world endure till now.

(trans. George L. Kline)


Slavic scholar and translator George Kline (1921-2014): memorial reading in NYC on Saturday

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

In 1974...

In 1974…

His death was as quiet and unassuming as his life. I learned within a few days that preeminent Slavic scholar George Kline of Bryn Mawr died on October 21 in Anderson, South Carolina, but was hesitant to say anything, not wanting to be the one to break the news to common friends and colleagues, and wishing to defer to the family to make the first announcement. Perhaps everyone else felt the same, for the news seemed to spread very slowly. I sensed, perhaps mistakenly, that he wouldn’t have wanted to make a fuss.

I had known of George for many years – his translation of Joseph Brodsky‘s Selected Poems, with its distinctively artsy purple-and-green portrait on Penguin’s “Modern European Poets” cover, was the book that made the Russian poet’s reputation in English. George was among those early champions who had smuggled his poems out of the U.S.S.R., and helped bring the future Nobel prizewinner to the West after the Soviet Union booted the poet out in 1972.

I met George sometime during my work on Joseph Brodsky: Conversations. George was ruthlessly meticulous and ceaselessly patient and helpful. And when my book came out, I received congratulations, praise, and a precise list of minor errors and typos in the final volume, for correction in a second edition. I learned that anyone who wrote about Joseph Brodsky anywhere in the world could expect a such a letter. It was George’s trademark, and I don’t recall a time when he wasn’t right.

brodskybookI spoke with him a few weeks before his death, and suspected he hadn’t long to live – his beloved wife Ginny had died in April, and he seemed unenthusiastic about the task of living without her. We had some work to finish together, but both of us had other pressing deadlines – after his death, I learned how extensive his commitments, at 93, were. I knew him primarily in his work as translator, but he is, perhaps, better known as the patriarch of Russian philosophy scholarship in the U.S., and widely published on Spinoza and Hegel as well. He continued his encyclopedia entries, his revisions, his collaborations, his articles, his mentoring. Many speak of his generosity, kindness, and fundamental decency – I had a chance to experience all firsthand.

He had frequently mentioned Irina Mashinski as a colleague and friend. After his death I was pleased to find her on Facebook, and she told me of the welter of projects they were working on together that, like mine, would be interrupted by his passing. Everyone seems to have a similar story – he was working tirelessly until the last few weeks. What will we do without him?

brodsky7Anyway, here’s one show that will go on, thanks to Irina and others: at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 17, the fourth annual Compass Award Ceremony, as well as the launch of the Volume 4 of the Cardinal Points Journal, will take place at the the Elizabeth Kray Hall of Poets’ House in New York City (10 River Terrace in New York City – fond memories of the Zbigniew Herbert evening there four years ago).  The evening will be dedicated to to the memory of George and also poet Nina Cassian (1924-2014), both “esteemed Cardinal Points friends and authors.” George is still listed on the panel of judges for the Compass Translation Award website here.

StoSvet Literary Project, MadHat Press and Russian-American Cultural Center are sponsoring the evening, which will be hosted by Irina, as well as Alexander Veytsman and Alex Cigale. The readings will include Polina Barskova, Alexander Cigale, Sibelan Forrester, Andrey Gritsman, Betsy Hulick, Slava Polishchuk, Larissa Shmailo, Alla Steinber, Alexei Tsvetkov, and Alexander Veytsman.

cardinalThe winners of the 4th Competition – the last competition in which George was a judge – include Laurence Bogoslaw (Minnesota, 1st Prize); Igor Mazin (Virginia, 3rd Prize); and Eugene Serebryany (Cambridge, Massachusetts) and Misha Semenov (Princeton, New Jersey), sharing honorable mention.

Before the degrees from Columbia, the years at Bryn Mawr, before the hundreds of articles and reviews, George served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II as a navigator and bombardier in B-24s, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross. Below is the photo of the young couple, looking forward to their lives together after the war – George sent it to me a few weeks after Ginny’s death. The wartime hero was one aspect of George’s otherwise scholarly life that fascinated Joseph Brodsky, who had been an infant during the terrible Siege of Leningrad. So he asked George about his wartime experiences and liked to wear his air corps hat, for fun. …

Even now I wonder, what would George think of what I am writing right here, at this moment? Part of me will wait for the letter that will never come, the prompt correspondence in the tight, cramped handwriting, offering thanks, praise, and errata.



New Year’s Day and the “gift outright”

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014


More nights than candles in the bitter Arkhangelsk region.

Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky made a habit of writing a Christmas poem every year, and “1 January 1965” was among the earliest, penned while he while he was serving time in internal exile in Norenskaya, in the Arkhangelsk region of northern Russia.  In the old Soviet Union, gifts were exchanged on New Year’s Day, and in the Russian Orthodox calendar, Christmas falls on January 6 – hence the date of the poem.

This translation was found among his papers after his death, and later published in the marvelous collection, Nativity Poems:

nativityThe kings will lose your old address.
No star will flare up to impress.
The ear may yield, under duress,
to blizzards’ nagging roar.
The shadows falling off your back,
you’d snuff the candle, hit the sack,
for calendars more nights can pack
than there are candles for.

Remarkably, the English hews very closely to the original rhyme scheme in Russian.  The poet famously favored translations that preserved the original metrical and rhyme scheme. Given his genius for inventive rhymes and complex metrical patterns, it was a maddening task for his translators. He did compromise, however: he was usually willing to change the meaning of a line to preserve the metrics.  You can see how much he’s played with meaning with this earlier, more literal translation by George Kline:

The Wise Men will unlearn your name.
Above your head no star will flame.
One weary sound will be the same –
the hoarse roar of the gale.
The shadows fall from your tired eyes
as your lone bedside candle dies,
for here the calendar breeds nights
till stores of candles fail.

Read the whole poem here – with it’s tip-of-the-hat homage to Robert Frost‘s “The Gift Outright” at the end. Think of it as a New Year’s present to yourself.

Joseph Brodsky and the point of vertical takeoff: “there is a murderer in every one of us”

Saturday, June 8th, 2013

Kline in 1974...

Kline in 1974…

My friend George Kline sent me a clip of the 1972 New York Times article that Joseph Brodsky wrote when he was only a few months out of the U.S.S.R.  The article, translated from the Russian by Carl Proffer, is surprisingly long – my guess is that the New York Times gave at least 5,000 words to this newcomer (I’m estimating from the pdf I have).  At first, it’s not apparent why.  His thoughts appear tangled and verbose and aimless – he sounds, in fact, like a zillion other disoriented dissidents and exiles and defectors of the era.  Then, suddenly, he achieves liftoff.  I excerpt the turning-point below, because it kept me awake the other night after I read it, and lingered into the following day.  Seamus Heaney said of his fellow Nobel poet: “Conversation attained immediate vertical takeoff and no deceleration was possible. Which is to say that he exemplified in life the very thing that he most cherished in poetry – the capacity of language to go farther and faster than expected and thereby provide an escape from the limitations and preoccupations of the self.”  See if you agree:

Brodsky4“… if we are to recall, for example, all those who perished in Stalin‘s camps and jails – not only the artists, but the ordinary, simple people – if we recall these millions of dead souls, where can we find commensurate feelings?  Can one’s own personal anger or grief or shock be commensurate with that mind-boggling figure? Even if one extends those feelings over a period of time, even if one starts to cultivate them consciously. The possibilities for compassion are extremely limited, far inferior to the possibilities for evil. I do not believe in the saviors of humanity, or in congresses, or in resolutions which condemn butchery. None of this is more than flailing away at the air, nothing more than a way to avoid personal responsibility and the feeling that you are alive and they dead. It is all just the reverse side of oblivion, the most comfortable form of the same disease – amnesia.  Why, then, not set up congresses in memory of the victims of the Inquisition, the Hundred Years’ War, the Crusades? Or are they somehow dead in some other way?

If one is to call conventions and make resolutions, the first resolution we should make is that we are all good-for-nothings, that there is a murderer in every one of us, that only chance circumstances save us, sitting in this hypothetical chamber, from being divided into murderers and their victims. What ought to be done first of all is to rewrite all of the history textbooks, throwing out all the heroes, generals, leaders and so forth. The first thing that should be written in the textbook is that man is radically bad. Instead of this, schoolboys all over the world memorize the dates and places of historical battles and remember the names of generals. The smoke of gunpowder is transformed into the mist of history and conceals those nameless and numberless corpses from us. We find philosophy and logic in history. So, it is quite logical that our bodies will disappear too, concealed by one kind of cloud or another, most likely a thermonuclear one.

brodsky2I do not believe in political movements, I believe in personal movement, that movement of the soul when a man who looks at himself is so ashamed that he tries to make some sort of change – within himself, not on the outside. In place of this we are offered a cheap and extremely dangerous surrogate for the internal human disposition toward change: political movements of one sort or another. Dangerous psychologically more than physically. Because every political movement is a way to avoid personal responsibility for what is happening.  Because man fighting on the exterior with Evil automatically identifies himself with Good and begins to consider himself a bearer of Good. This is no more than a kind of rationalization and self-congratulation; and it is no less widespread in Russia than anywhere else, although it perhaps has a somewhat different coloration there – because there are more physical reasons for it, it is more determined in the literal meaning of the word.  As a rule, communality in the sphere of ideas has not led to anything particularly good.