Если у вас в мегаполисе ещё помнят обо мне, ссыльном,
Знай, кто спросит: я умер, едва приговор огласили.
Мёртвый живу, хожу, тело донашиваю,
Оно послушное – ссыхается на костях.
Я здесь чужак, варвар, языка не носитель,
Неба коптитель, волосы стали белые,
Мёртвыми губами учу гетскую грамоту,
Мёртвыми ногами топчу твёрдую воду.
Что тебе рассказать, чтоб не скучала? Скачут
Кони по гладкой реке, и стрелы летают,
Рыбы торчат изо льда с открытыми ртами,
Некому их вынимать. Некому меня понимать.
Вино замёрзло, стоит само без кувшина,
Кусок вина отломлю и сосу, как сиську.
Яблок не достать. Ты бы меня не узнала.
Местные замотаны в шкуры, на тогу косятся,
Только лица и видно, да и те в бороде.
Даже звёзды здесь не как у людей.
If anyone in your global city still holds me, exile, in memory,
Know that I died as soon as they read out the sentence.
I live dead, walk around dead, wear out the remains of my body,
My agreeable body, flesh cracking on dry bones.
Here I am an alien, barbarian, non-native speaker,
Idler with time on his hands but white in his hair,
I don’t get their speech, I forget the words that I study,
Just consonant clusters, no vowels for poetry.
What can I talk about so as not to bore you? Horses
Slip on hard rivers, arrows hit targets, philosophy is stupid.
Fish stick out of the ice with mouths agape,
Too much air for them, too little ear for me.
Wine frozen overnight, it stands by itself, the vessel in shards,
I chop a piece off and suck on it like an infant.
The apples at the market are tawny and wrinkly like shrunken heads.
The locals, fir-tall, fur-clad, point at my toga, make shivering
Gestures. No human faces – just beards and hair over fur.
Even the stars look down on me.
In 8 CE, the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso was exiled on the direct orders of Augustus to Tomis, a distant imperial outpost on the Black Sea in what is now Romania. He died there a decade later, never receiving permission to come home despite his constant entreaties. The exact cause of Ovid’s punishment is unknown; the poems he composed in Tomis appeared in two collections under the titles of Tristia, or ‘Laments’, and Epistulae ex Ponto, or ‘Letters from the Black Sea’, in Rome, the city in which the poet himself was not allowed to appear.
Ovid’s poetry of exile is a much more important presence in the Russian poetic tradition than in the English-language one. This is because Russian-language poets get exiled much more often. They also have far more experience with the Black-Sea coast, where Russia has swallowed lands that once belonged to the ancient Greco-Roman world. Ovid’s exile became a crucial point of reference for Alexander Pushkin, Osip Mandelstam and Joseph Brodsky as they endured political dislocation and persecution by the state.
The translations/adaptations/paraphrases of Ovid’s Tristia published here were begun in Russian by Maria Stepanova in early March 2021. She had retreated to her snowed-in country house near Moscow for the winter because of the pandemic; among the books she had with her was a volume of Russian translations of Ovid’s late work. The exiled poet’s description of ‘northern’ winter, the theme and loneliness of exile and, last but not least, the political aspects of his predicament, all resonated with what, despite the seclusion, was going on around her. The protests against Alexander Lukashenka in Belarus had been taking place since August, but the dictator relied on a brutal repression apparatus to hold on to power. In mid-January, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny returned to Moscow from Berlin, where he had been treated following his poisoning by the Russian secret services, but he was arrested at the airport and jailed. Mass protests erupted all over the country. Police video-recorded protestors and arrested them at home in the following days. A viral video showed Dr Anastasia Vasilyeva, a Navalny ally, playing Beethoven on a piano as her apartment was being searched, her performance symptomatic of the antithesis, normative for Russian intelligentsia, between high culture and the police state. Hence, when Stepanova posted her first paraphrase of lines from Tristia on her private Facebook page, friends immediately recognised not only Ovid, but also the parallels with the current political situation. ‘It suggests Navalny’s cold [prison] colony and the masking of faces in these Covidian times’, commented the poet Anna Glazova, writing from Hamburg.
Indeed, the pandemic brought another new way of relating to Ovid’s poetry of exile. Sent into the no-place of Tomis, taken out of his social network and the world of habitual actions, the poet lost almost all of the things that structured his life and gave it meaning. But his exile also had a temporal dimension: every one of his days was like every other, and the lack of future prospects took away the motivation to do anything. Only composing poetry, which was read in Rome, gave him hope for a different future, a future of return, but that hope failed. In his poetry, the estrangement, the deformation of time, the sense of precariousness and fear find symbolic expression in the cold, in the slowing down of nature under snow and ice, in the ever-present danger of barbarian raids over 101 the frozen Danube. The whole world’s experience of pandemic isolation wasn’t accompanied by climatic effects that resembled those of Tristia, but Stepanova’s was. Winter weather helped her to read the psychological effects of Ovid’s exile through the prism of the pandemic. Above all, she thought, Ovid described the temporality of being in lockdown.
Eugene Ostashevsky, who had recently come out of travel quarantine in Shanghai, posted his English-language paraphrase of Stepanova’s Russian-language paraphrase the following day. Having translated Stepanova before, he knew that what she, like many Russian poets, valued in translation was not literalism but a response that was poetically creative and intonationally adequate. So he treated her in largely the same way as she treated Ovid – sometimes coming very close to the text, sometimes veering away in language, but always trying to stay ‘on message’ with respect to both the poems and, crucially, the history of their reception in Russian culture. His paraphrases sometimes included lines from popular music (Stepanova’s earlier work, which he has translated, made references to Stalin-era popular songs), and also gestured at the English-language tradition of paraphrasing Latin poetry.
Stepanova posted new paraphrases of Ovid throughout March and April, with Ostashevsky paraphrasing all of her versions. Their community of mutual Facebook friends, many of them Russian-English bilinguals, followed, encouraged and discussed the game. Her impersonating the epistolary poetry of a male Roman author inverted the gender play of Ovid’s first collection, the Heroides, which consisted of letters putatively composed by mythological heroines. While her paraphraser was arguably inverting the more traditional poet-translator gender distribution, he occasionally became anxious over his flights of fancy and would rush back to the Russian text to reproduce its phrasing with greater literalness. The current agreement between Stepanova and Ostashevsky is to switch roles in the future, with him paraphrasing Ovid directly, and her paraphrasing his paraphrase.
and Eugene Ostashevsky
P.S. This essay was written and went to press long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has already produced hundreds of thousands of refugees. May they have what Ovid did not — a return.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
EUGENE OSTASHEVSKY is the author of, most recently, The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi (New York Review of Books, 2017), a poetry book about pirate-parrot communication.