Friday, December 1, 2017

What's That Smell?

Kebabs, a.k.a. shashlyk / Image courtesy of Давай сходим!

For a few years now, the Russian contingent of the American Literary Translators Association has organized a workshop for translators working in either direction with our two languages: Russian and English. The discussions at these workshops are completely fascinating and have become – for me – one of the highlights of the ALTA conference. In a sense, those discussions amount to a kind of crowdsourcing, with seasoned and novice translators alike all pitching in their ideas to solve problems. Anyone can bring a handout with translation conundrums, and all who attend are welcome to take part in the conversation.

This year, the theme of the workshop – organized by Shelley Fairweather-Vega and Annie Fisher – was “Only in Russia,” in which our aim was to “discuss translating concepts, objects, or practices that are specific to Russophone culture (or that have no easily identifiable equivalent in Anglophone culture).” My own approach was to highlight a handful of completely mundane but ubiquitous words and phrases that I took from poems by Boris Slutsky, Irina Yevsa, and Linor Goralik. Each of my examples involved objects or concepts, especially from the Soviet period, that any native speaker of Russian would instantly understand but that translators might find tricky to capture in English.

For instance, nearly every Soviet kid strove to become an «октябрёнок», but how does one import into English the whole context of Young Pioneers and their age gradations? (My solution: the kid became a “Pioneer Cub,” on the model of the Boy Scouts and their younger comrades, the Cub Scouts.)

And what to do with a poem that has its characters playing «в города»? Should the word game even be mentioned? Won’t it distract from the action of the poem? (My solution: they played “I Spy” instead.)

But my prime example – which, in the event, we didn’t have time to discuss – was something I brought in to demonstrate what I deemed untranslatable: the opening lines of a book by Timur Kibirov in which he catalogs the characteristic odors of his Soviet life. How can you translate scent, that most immediately specific, memory-bound, and place-based of the senses? I thought it couldn't be done. I didn’t even want to bother trying.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

A Nativity Poem by Valentin Berestov

Valentin Berestov (undated photograph) / Image courtesy of Pskov's Centralized Library System

[NOTE: As I have done in previous years, I'm posting a nativity poem for the Christmas season. Enjoy!]

*     *     *

by Valentin Berestov

Every year, when Christ is born,
beauty comes into the world.        

January icicles
flood with light.      
January ice-crust  
holds your weight.

January snow grants you speed.
It glitters and blushes at noon,  
it gleams in the half-light of the moon.
And every January day
outstretches its own yesterday.
And each night feels just the time  
for feasting, revelry, and wine.


Translated from the Russian by Jamie Olson


Translator’s note: Russian Orthodox Christians, who follow the Julian calendar for all church holidays, celebrate Christmas on January 7, not December 25.

*     *     *

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Slutsky's Gaze

Boris Slutsky (1963) / Image courtesy of Radio Svoboda

Holding a Gaze
   by Boris Slutsky

An honest man
should look others straight in the eye.
We don’t know why.
What if the honest man
has watery, bloodshot eyes?
What if the dishonest one
has terrific eyesight? 
Somehow, those who served as safe-keepers
in every time and place
learned to judge truthfulness
by firmness of gaze.
Did the spies who protected,
say, Sulla really have the right
to sort dishonest from honest?
And was Tamerlane’s secret service,
for instance, really
made up of moralists?
Everyone who sees has the right
to run their eyes madly up and down
and be judged not by their gaze,
not by scent or sound,
but by word and deed.    

Translated by Jamie Olson

Friday, January 1, 2016

Pineapples in champagne!

First edition of Severyanin's Pineapples (1915) / Image courtesy of

Igor Severyanin

Pineapples in champagne! Pineapples in champagne!
Spectacularly sparkling—tasty and zesty!
I dive into Norway, I’m swimming in Spain!
With a mind-bolt of vision, I jump for my pencil!

The whirr of airplanes! The buzz of racecars!
Wing-beats from iceboats! Wind-claps from train cars!
Hey, someone got beat up! Whoa, someone got kissed!
Pineapples in champagne—the nighttime’s own pulse!

With nervous girls, in a crowd of tough dames,
I’ll change life’s tragedy to dreamlike farce…
Pineapples in champagne! Pineapples in champagne!
From Moscow to Nagasaki! From New York to Mars!

January 1915

Translated from the Russian by Jamie Olson

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas at the "Dacha"

Moscow Clinical Psychiatric Hospital No. 1 (undated photo) / Image courtesy of

This Christmas, in place of my usual translation of a nativity poem by a Russian poet, I’m posting an excerpt from an article by Yelena Aizenshtein (Neva, #1, 2012). In this passage, she comments on a lesser-known Christmas poem by Joseph Brodsky, written on the eve of his famous trial and internal exile to the village of Norenskaya for “social parasitism” (тунеядство). I considered simply translating the poem that Aizenshtein describes, but I think her commentary sheds necessary light on parts of the text that could otherwise remain murky. Here is what she has to say:

In 1964, Brodsky spent the New Year holiday in a psychiatric hospital in Moscow: there had been a “war council” at the Ardovs on December 27, 1963, with the participation of Akhmatova. It was decided that he could avoid arrest if he got treatment with the help of some psychiatrists they knew at the Kashchenko Mental Hospital and then received a certificate of his “mental instability.” On January 8, 1964, the day after Orthodox Christmas, the newspaper Evening Leningrad published a selection of indignant “readers’ letters” demanding harsh punishment for the “social parasite Brodsky.” That January, Brodsky wrote the poem “New Year’s at the Kanatchikovo Dacha.”* He paints his lines in gloomy tones. The poet sees the absence of traditional Christmas images as omens of an unlucky year and its coming calamities:

No magi, no donkey,
no star, no blizzard
to save the child from death—
they disperse like circles
at the strike of an oar.

The poem is structured on the model of a lullaby for oneself, sung from the sixth ward—this is the Chekhovian “Ward No. 6,” and it is a terrible billet, “a land where insulin is king,” where Brodsky ended up “in clouds of bed sheets,” instead of in the sky of free thought. The poet sees himself as a Christmas goose devoured by the power of the state. The lullaby helps the speaker of the poem not to fear his fate: “Sleep, Christmas goose. / Fall quickly asleep.” Another image that stands in for the speaker is a cricket singing from behind the baseboard (was Brodsky thinking of Pushkin’s nickname?), whose song corresponds to the song of a large violin bow, somehow contrary to the violence of the institute:

The song sung by a cricket
here in the red baseboard
is like the song of a great bow,
since sounds always grow,
like the glint of your pupil
through the great institute.

The Christmas motif is made invisible in the USSR, like a “double winter” that has lasted two thousand years: only the blizzard and the winter landscape remind us of Christmas. The author cunningly structures the text as not quite “normal,” as unwell: the theme of fear is made urgently relevant, with white as an analogue for the hospital, lifelessness, death, unfreedom. But the poem contains the author’s ruefully ironic view on what is happening: “the night turns white with a key / split fifty-fifty with the head doctor.” It concludes with a tercet in which the rhyme words are ‘hospitals’, ‘eye-sockets’, and ‘birds’ [bol'nitsy, glaznitsy, ptitsy], images of the author’s existence in the psychiatric hospital, and his sense of dread at the endured moment:

bodies’ terror – of hospitals,
clouds’ terror – of eye-sockets,
insects’ terror – of birds.

[Translation mine]

*     *     *

I’m sure some will find the content of this post a tad gloomy for the holiday season, but if Brodsky’s experience is any indicator, Christmas is not always sugarplums dancing in our heads. Anyway, I find some solace in the mere fact of his turning that experience into art—and going on to write his nativity poems for decades to come.

Merry Christmas?


* “Kanatchikovo Dacha” is a well-known nickname for the Kashchenko Mental Hospital, whose official name is actually Moscow Clinical Psychiatric Hospital No. 1. Until 1994, the hospital was named for Pyotr Kashchenko (1858-1920), a noted Russian psychiatrist, and since then has been named for Nikolai Alekseyev (1852-1893), the Moscow city leader who founded the hospital in 1894. The hospital is located in the Kanatchikovo district of Moscow.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Chudakov, Word-Plyer

Photo of Sergei Chudakov by Roman Prygunov (1988) / Image courtesy of galchi

This month, Znamia published a recently rediscovered cycle of poems by Sergei Chudakov (1937-1997), the Moscow underground poet who was famously—if prematurely—elegized by Joseph Brodsky in “To a Friend: In Memoriam” («На смерть друга», 1973). In his own poem, Brodsky called Chudakov “a word-plyer, a liar … a white-fanged little snake in the tarpaulin-boot colonnade of gendarmes,” and something of that blend of poetic inventiveness and misfit presence comes through loud and clear in these newly published poems. They function like a time capsule into a place where you can finally hear the voices you weren’t supposed to hear.

Chudakov wrote his cycle of 30 poems in the summer of 1965, and editor Vladimir Orlov tells us that they were inspired by Lev Eidlin’s translations of classical Chinese poet Bai Juyi. Appropriately enough, Chudakov’s poems appear in Znamia under the title “Stuck in Moscow for the Summer, I Imitate a Chinese Author.” (Funny, I can think of a few American writers who were doing the same thing at the same time… Snyder, anyone? I guess cultural cooptation was all the rage on both sides of the curtain back then.)

Bai Juyi, who lived during the Tang Dynasty, wrote his poems in four-line regulated verse, which translator Eidlin then modified by breaking each line into two, with a caesura after the second beat, thus creating a new and exotic form: the Russified eight-line pseudo-Chinese poemlet. And Chudakov, it seems, loved it. (You can read an example of Eidlin’s work, in Russian, on Wikilivres.)

The key thing to notice about Chudakov’s poems, especially in this cycle—really, the thing you can’t help but notice—is the casual, gritty style. Unlikely as it may seem to anyone who knows midcentury Russian poetry, Chudakov writes in the colloquial, banal, autobiographical vein familiar to those who have read the poets of the New York School. These are Lunch Poems for Moscow. Not much happens in them, but the voice is irresistible. My favorite of the bunch is the third one, “On How I Nearly Became Amphibian-Man,” which seems to me to present the very image of the “unofficial” poet of the period: apart from the crowd, amid the detritus of Soviet life, powerless:
The water is 18ºC. I swim.
                                    I watch the riverbank.
I keep a close eye on my pants.
                                    I don’t have another pair.
If someone makes off with them,
                                    I’ll have to swim forever
in the middle of the river
                                    among cigarette butts and oil slicks.

[All translations mine]

Friday, September 25, 2015

Into Primordial Emptiness

First U.S. edition of Ilf & Petrov's travelogue (Farrar & Rinehart, 1937) / Image courtesy of Amazon

In a recent postscript to his weekly American Hour (Американский час) on Radio Svoboda, Alexander Genis articulated a conclusion he’d come to that struck me as remarkable in its insightfulness. The theme of the segment was “America through the Eyes of Russian Writers,” and special emphasis was placed on Ilf and Petrov’s 1935 travelogue One-Story America (Одноэтажная Америка), named for the predominance of houses with just one floor here. Previous episodes had focused on Maxim Gorky, Sergei Yesenin, and Vladimir Mayakovsky, each of whom had also visited and written about the United States in the early part of the twentieth century. 

Genis, a brilliant essayist, concluded the series by throwing in his own two cents on the subject, extrapolating outward from the commentary by correspondent Vladimir Abarinov and his guest Nikolai Rudensky. That’s when my interest was piqued.

First, a quick tangent: note that Ilf and Petrov’s book was published in English the first time, cleverly, as Little Golden America (trans. Charles Malamuth, 1937) and more recently as Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip (edited by Erika Wolf & translated by Anne O. Fisher, 2007), in an edition that includes the photographs Ilya Ilf took for the Soviet magazine Ogonyok. I recommend the newer book; it’s great fun to flip through!

Now, back to Genis and his insight on Russians in America. I’ll let him speak for himself:

…Vladimir Abarinov has to admit that our fellow Russian writers who visited this country didn’t like it—not Gorky, not Yesenin, not Mayakovsky, and not Ilf or Petrov (to these names, one might add Pilnyak, Ehrenburg, and many others).

Why? Perhaps because they had all come to the New World for new impressions. From dilapidated Europe, the traveler arrived in the land of the machine, where, as Yesenin put it, “every cigarette butt grew into a smokestack.” Not noticing the machine in America was as hard as not finding the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Ilf and Petrovs true heroes are highways, gas pumps, assembly lines, automobiles, dams, electricity, and of course, a bridge (this time in San Francisco). They wanted to wrap it all up and haul it home so they could get to the bright future more quickly.

As for “one-story” America, the two authors, like many other Russian travelers, came to an unpleasant conclusion: this great country is populated by a small people—mercantile, greedy, narrow-minded, and not worthy of America’s technological might.

And now it’s time to pose a question: why is the machine, which was inevitably found in America by Russian writers, absent from the work of American writers? Without technology, all of them managed to get by: Hemingway, Faulkner, Salinger, Steinbeck, Henry Miller, and—stepping further into the past—Jack London, Mark Twain, Melville, Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. Why weren’t Americans themselves captivated by their technological civilization? Why didn’t the industrial novel spring up here? Why, as Ilf and Petrov asked, didn’t the engineer become a national hero?

Because America is not principally an urban nation. And that’s what the outsiders from the Old World didn’t notice. They looked for America somewhere other than where it prefers to live. Cities in America are the exception that proves the rule…

Setting skyscrapers aside for offices and visitors, Americans themselves have always preferred to live on the first floor of their own home, a little further away from the excesses of technology. Having traded civilization for geography, nature for culture, and artificial landscapes for a natural one, America came out ahead. But you can only evaluate this deal when you learn to travel like an American.

The secret of that art lies right on the surface: it’s in the road, which is an end in itself. Greedily covering mile after mile, the wayfarer dissolves himself into primordial emptiness, vast reserves of which the New World still contains within its shores. Beneath the wheels of the automobile, space takes on an almost physical palpability. The map comes to life, tears away from the page, and moves from two-dimensional abstraction into real life.

America can only be understood on the move.
[Translation mine]
Fascinating! And to my mind, mostly on the mark. It’s nothing new to say that wilderness and the open road loom large in the American imagination, but it does seem to be true that many visitors from Russia have somehow missed that key point. 

Not surprisingly, though, two Russian writers who don’t fit the city-centric New World pattern are Nabokov and Brodsky: the former wrote one of the classic American road novels, and the latter set some of his finest poems in the woods of New England and small towns of the Midwest. They got the lay of the land better than their machine-head compatriots did.

Leave it to exiles to complicate things!