Russian Scholar Alyssa Gillespie Wins Translation Award

Author: Chris Milazzo

Alyssa Gillespie

Notre Dame Associate Professor Alyssa Gillespie’s elegant translation of “Two Trees Desire to Come Together…” by Marina Tsvetaeva was recently awarded joint third place in the 2011 Joseph Brodsky–Stephen Spender Prize competition.

This recognition comes just a few months after Gillespie, co-director of the University’s program in Russian and East European studies, won second prize in the 2011 Compass Awards, another international poetry translation contest.

The Brodsky–Spender Prize was selected by a panel of three accomplished translators and is supported by the Stephen Spender Trust. The prize was named in honor of Spender, a well-known 20th century poet, translator, and advocate for artistic freedom, and Joseph Brodsky, a Jewish-Russian émigré poet and former U.S. poet laureate who won the 1987 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Gillespie, who teaches in the College of Arts and Letters’ Department of German and Russian Languages and Literatures, is quite familiar with Tsvetaeva’s work. In fact, it was the subject of her first book, A Russian Psyche: The Poetic Mind of Marina Tsvetaeva.

The book, she says, shows how Tsvetaeva mythologizes her role as a female poet, reversing the typical gender roles in which a male poet draws inspiration from a female muse.

“She seems to cast male poets—her contemporaries—in the role of muse for her own poetry, and she responds to their inspiration,” she says. “But because she needs them to fulfill that muse role for her, she needs to stay at arm’s length from them. The way I talk about it in the book is by drawing on the Greek myth of Psyche. Psyche is loved by Eros, but he is immortal, and she is not allowed to look at him or else she loses him.”

Gillespie says “Two Trees” neatly encapsulates this, Tsvetaeva’s central myth.

“It’s about two trees that are outside her window … and she figures one of them as a female and the other as a male. She pictures them being in a love relationship, but because they’re trees, they’re rooted to the ground. They’re endlessly reaching for each other but never quite getting there.”

The poem is atypical for Tsvetaeva, whose language, Gillespie says, can be intensely difficult—almost abrasive in its use of sounds and rhythms.

“This one is reserved and understated,” she says. “I think it is so moving because of that. It’s quiet in its voice; it’s very lyrical.”

Replicating this tone was a challenge, but ultimately Gillespie says she was pleased with the translation.

“Every once in a while, I come across a poem that kind of translates itself, and this is one of those.”

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