Notre Dame Associate Professor Alyssa Gillespie has won first prize in the 2012 Compass Translation Competition for her adroit translation of Marina Tsvetaeva’s “The Poem of the End.” She also received a fourth place prize for translating a brief selection from Tsvetaeva’s poem “Magdalene.”
“Tsvetaeva is a brilliant, compelling, exhilarating poet whose voice has not yet been heard enough in the Anglophone world,” Gillespie says. “I’m so glad that this competition was dedicated to her . . . and I’m honored and humbled that my translation was chosen to receive first place.”
Sponsored by the Cardinal Points Literary Journal, the Compass Award spotlights English translations of Russian poetry. This year’s contest focused on Tsvetaeva, an early 20th century Russian poet whose work is considered among the greatest in the Russian literary canon.
These latest honors are the third and fourth poetry translation awards Gillespie, co-director of the Notre Dame’s program in Russian and East European studies, has received in just over a year. She took second prize in last year’s Compass Competition and a joint third-place prize in the 2011 Joseph Brodsky–Stephen Spender Prize competition.
Her first-place piece this year, “The Poem of the End,” is a long-form narrative poem Tsvetaeva wrote in 1924 that describes the waning hours of a fiery affair.
Tsvetaeva captures the emotional intensity of the affair’s end with incredible virtuosity, Gillespie says, but this exceptional artistry made the poem difficult to translate.
“Its varied rhythms, dense sound structures, and play with words are essential to the poem’s aesthetic effect and meanings,” she says.
“I had to find ways to retain these features of the poem while also conveying its semantic meanings accurately.”
By the time she began translating the piece, Gillespie was already quite familiar with the poet, who was the subject of her first book, A Russian Psyche: The Poetic Mind of Marina Tsvetaeva (University of Wisconsin Press). This made it easier for her to connect to the poet’s inner voice.
“She is the poet to whom I feel closest of all, both creatively and temperamentally,” Gillespie says. “With this award, it’s as though the private kinship I’ve felt with Tsvetaeva ever since I first discovered her work over 20 years ago has now been somehow publicly affirmed. I simply couldn’t be more thrilled.”
Gillespie has already begun her next work on Tsvetaeva, an article on tree symbolism in her poetics. Gillespie is also currently working on a new preface for a Russian-language edition of A Russian Psyche, which will be published by the Pushkin House at the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg.