Helga Olshvang: Blue is White
With her Scandinavian name and elegant, cosmopolitan sensibility, Helga Olshvang can be hard to place – and ‘Russian poet’ is indeed only one of her many callings, which include filmmaker, mother and
screenwriter (she also works under the name Helga Landauer). The first poem I translated for her involved a complicated metaphor combining fish scales and montage, and the cinematic orientation is evident throughout the poems of her most recent collection (from which this selection was made): an exquisite shot, the right light, the long take during which the speaker cannot look away, no matter how much she ducks and deflects. But Olshvang is simultaneously a full-blown Russian poet in the refined Russian Modernist tradition, evoking Boris Pasternak in her attention to everyday objects infused with emotional intensity, and Anna Akhmatova – incidentally the subject of one of her films – in her subtle but profound evocation of the experience of being a woman.
Translating Olshvang is no simple task – the poems here were selected in part for their greater translatability, but there is no escaping the intricate interlingual play that runs through Olshvang’s work. My sense as a translator was that years of living in English have sharpened this poet’s attention to the grammatical and morphological peculiarities (read poetic possibilities) of her native tongue. The
proximity to English also inspires poetic experimentation. The title of this latest collection, taken from one of the poems, is a fine example of this: Blue is White [Goluboe eto beloe]. These three words convey a great deal of Olshvang’s poetic approach: the observation that the English ‘blue’ sounds closer to the Russian word ‘white’ (beloe) turns into a statement that only makes concrete sense in the space between these languages (the Russian title, in a vacuum, is just as mysterious at first glance as is the English). In the poem (‘with its consonants andnon-consenters…’) I translated it as ‘blue is beloe’, a decision that doesn’t really solve the problem but at least reveals its interlingual nature. I should also give credit here to Olshvang herself, who worked with me on these translations.