Translating Identity

A black and white photo of a woman in a dark sweatshirt and black jean looking at the camera
Aleksandra Tsibulia. 

A PROFESSOR ONCE COMPLAINED to me that American students struggle to learn Russian because English, as a language, is too selfish. “You’re obsessed with the I,” she said. She was referring to a key difference in the grammatical structures of our two native languages: in Russian, a subject is not always required. This happens in English, too, but mostly in colloquial contexts. In American elementary schools, children are taught that a sentence is not a sentence without at least a subject and a predicate. But in Russian, thanks to the language’s more elaborate grammatical inflections, speakers are granted considerably more latitude.

This syntactical flexibility allows for an ambiguity, perhaps even an anonymity, that cannot be achieved in English-language poetry, or at least not in the same way. When Aleksandra Tsibulia opens her poem with the discovery of “a corpse in the cabbage,” she doesn’t have to tell us who “found” it. We know from the verb’s conjugation that the missing subject is feminine, but it could refer to the speaker, or a third party, or even to you.

With my own writing, I am most likely to find myself when I’m looking for someone else, and I suspect this is true for many poets. We tend to distance ourselves from speaker and subject as much as possible, using syntax as subterfuge, hoping to say something but not to be seen. In English, we may call on persona or enjambment or slippery pronouns to puzzle out who the real subjects of our poems might be, but the capacity to do this on such a basic syntactical level is a gift.

My deep appreciation for this linguistic ambiguity notwithstanding, it presents a significant challenge for the translator. Tsibulia’s poem goes on to detail several more discoveries, both grim and wonderful, and each time, the subject is not revealed. I wanted to preserve as much of that obscurity as possible, but I knew I couldn’t leave each sentence as it was. English demands its subjects. 

My initial impression was that the finder must be the speaker herself—dare I say even the poet herself? For another poet, a single narrative involving so much luridness might seem unlikely to be autobiographical; for Tsibulia, however, anything seems possible. Her work is lush and brutal, visceral and cerebral, lonesome and teeming. When she tells you a story, you’re inclined to believe her.

Finally, I asked her directly: Who is the subject of this poem? I was surprised to learn that all four of the finders are in fact different people, the last of which being Tsibulia herself. Armed with this information, I kept the last subject as “I” and changed the first three to “she,” hoping to save at least a little bit of the mystery intrinsic to the Russian.

Why is it, in English, that we can’t tolerate this ambiguity of subject? Why do we need to know? Perhaps my Russian professor was right, and we’re just too selfish for this kind of grammatical structure. Perhaps an identity crisis would be good for us every now and then.

Editorial note: Read Lobaugh’s translations from this same issue.

Jennifer Lobaugh is an American poet and translator. Her work has appeared in such journals as The Southampton Review and New Poetry in Translation.