Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Gandelsman, Pasternak, Poesy


Portrait of Boris Pasternak by his father, Leonid Pasternak (1910) / Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The latest issue of the New York literary magazine Новый журнал (The New Review) includes a small selection of poems by Vladimir Gandelsman, a Russian-American poet I have written about on this blog before. What particularly caught my eye in this recent batch was Gandelsman’s first poem, “Pasternak” («Пастернак»), where he muses on the great modern poet, novelist, and Nobel laureate – whose birthday, it just so happens, was yesterday. When one poet writes about another, of course, we readers get a chance to eavesdrop on a conversation about poetics, one that often reveals more about the writer than about his ostensible subject. In this case, the poet’s observations concern Pasternak’s codependence with an anthropomorphized poetry, or as I like to think of her, Poesy. (In Russian, поэзия is grammatically feminine and thus necessarily more human than a mere “it.”) 

Here is my rough-and-ready, free-verse translation of the poem:

by Vladimir Gandelsman

With her, he is lonelier
than when alone, yet with her
the path to the pleasures
of art is half as long.
Stranger than a stranger,
she stands nevertheless
equal to him, familiar
as words suffered through. 
Only with her can he see
that certain slant of light
where his life outweighs
love. Which hardly exists.
Love remains on the verge
of breakdown, since it allows  
no rest for the mind at all
from its mindless madness.
But his wide open spaces
contain memory, stillness,    
words that hurt, and depths
we all should seek to plumb.
So, language of his suffering,
with your line ever sturdy, 
describe for us the stranger’s
familiar distant shores.

Translated from the Russian by Jamie Olson

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

In Memoriam N.G. & R.D.

 Portrait of Regina Derieva by Dennis Creffield / Image courtesy of The Regina Derieva Web Site

In the past month, we lost two important Russian poets, both of them expatriates: Natalya Gorbanevskaya in Paris on November 29, and Regina Derieva in Stockholm on December 11. To honor their memory, I am posting a favorite poem by each from anthologies on my shelf. Those keen to read more from these two women would do well to turn to Derieva’s Corinthian Copper, translated by Jim Kates, and Gorbanevskaya’s Selected Poems, translated by Daniel Weissbortwho died just twelve days before she did.

*     *     *

[…where rivers flow purer than silver]
by Natalya Gorbanevskaya

…where rivers flow purer than silver,
not polluted by heavy oil and grease,
where God has not abandoned us and bright
is the Admiralty spire, where on straw
lies the Infant and the bull makes utterances
wiser than the wise man, having eaten its fill of celandine,
where the Russian has long ago had enough of victories
and war, staying within his native bound,
where beneath the cover of a starry cloak
the state’s robbers do not creep up on us,
where, rinsing the syllables for a long time in their throat,
but not contemplating whether it’s to the point or not,
like a fairy tale, retelling something that really happened,
the real events of the past, past pain, past love,
you are transformed into dusty feathergrass,
and I show white in the wind, like a dandelion.

Translated by Gerald S. Smith

*     *     *

Beyond Siberia again Siberia
by Regina Derieva

Beyond Siberia again Siberia,
beyond impenetrable forest again forest.
And beyond it waste ground,
where a blizzard of snow breaks loose.

The blizzard has handcuffs, and the snow-
storm has a knife which kills at once…
I will die, pay a debt
for others who lives somewhere,

out of spite, out of fear and terror,
out of pain, out of a nameless grave…
Beyond the wall another wall,
on the wall stopped dead one sentinel.

Translated by Kevin Carey

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Nativity Poem by Timur Kibirov

Timur Kibirov (2011) / Image courtesy of Богослов.ru

NOTE: As I have done every Christmas Eve since starting this blog, I am posting a nativity poem to mark the holiday. This year’s selection, by the Moscow poet Timur Kibirov, appears in Greek and Roman Catholic Songs and Nursery Rhymes (Греко- и римско-кафолические песенки и потешки), a book that I am in the midst of translating. See the poems from previous years here

*     *     *

From After Dorothy Sayers

In the night, the lop-eared donkey cried out:
“Look at all the angels up there, brother ox,
who have lit up the midnight darkness!
For this one and only time, this joyful time,
the Heavenly Powers have come together
in the sky to sing His praises.
But before them all, I — a stubborn old ass —
have already praised Our Child!

“Glory to God in the highest! Ee-yaw, ee-yaw!
Glory, glory to the Child in the manger!”

Translated from the Russian by Jamie Olson

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Who You Callin’ Ignoramus?

Illustration by G. O. Valk / Image courtesy of Либрусек

A Russian-speaking colleague of mine once told me that she had to toss aside an English translation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita because the character Ivan Bezdomny was presented on the page as “Ivan Homeless,” which drove her crazy. Bezdomny is his name, after all, and translating it seemed ridiculous. I agreed with her.

And yet, at precisely the same time, I was translating a poem by Timur Kibirov that included character names for which I felt compelled to find English equivalents. Hypocrisy! So how did I justify my choice? Well, for one thing, there was not just one information-packed name, but many of them, and for another, they had all been imported from an intertext beloved by Russian readers: Nikolai Nosov’s Neznaika books.

The popular children’s series dates to the 1950s, and two Moscow-based publishers put out English translations of it back in the early 1980s by Margaret Wettlin, an American expatriate who lived for five decades in the Soviet Union. (Surely, those editions are relics of the Cold War’s cultural battlefront.) In Wettlin’s translations, the main character Neznaika, whose name derives from the negated verb “to know” (не знает / не знаю), quite reasonably becomes “Dunno,” although Wikipedia also offers “Know-Nothing” as an alternative. He and his diminutive comrades live peaceably in a town sheltered by daisies, dandelions, and honeysuckle; hence, the first of Nosov’s stories is called—in Wettlin’s translation—“The Mites of Flower Town” («Коротышки из цветочного города»), but in my own translation the “mites” become variously “shorties” and “midgets,” depending on what I needed for the sake of rhyme or alliteration.

Kibirov’s poem approaches Nosov’s flower town at a slant. It is called “Fairy Tale” («Сказка»), and it concerns the missionary travels of Sir Reepicheep, a stout-hearted mouse that the poet has expropriated from C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Reepicheep sets about to visit every land in his jumbled yet familiar (to us) fairytale realm—from Tove Jansson’s Moominvalley to Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland—in order to spread the good news of Narnia’s Christ-like leader, the lion Aslan:

A small ship soars atop the swells,
the Narnian rodent at the helm.

The mouse must visit each and every
magic land to tell of Aslan’s glory.

Rejoice, Moomins! Looking-Glass, gleam!
O Emerald City, sparkle and shine!

(По синему морю кораблик летит, / Нарнийский грызун у кормила стоит. // Он должен объехать волшебные страны, / Чтоб всем рассказать о победе Аслана! // Ликуй, Мумми-долл! Зазеркалье, сияй! / О Град Изумрудный, лучись и сверкай!)

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

“The last songs are gathering…”: Reflections on Maria Stepanova

Maria Stepanova (2012) / Image courtesy of Valerij Ledenev

One of the books that I am most excited to get my hands on this year is Relocations: Three Contemporary Women Poets, which comes out with Zephyr Press in August. The collection includes Russian poems by Polina Barskova, Anna Glazova, and Maria Stepanova, translated into English by three more women: Catherine Ciepiela, Anna Khasin, and Sibelan Forrester. Thats six writers for the price of one! According to Amazon’s description of Relocations, the three poets were all born in the 1970s and “came of age” during the frenzied years of Perestroika:

They are old enough to have visceral memories of Soviet life but young enough to move adeptly with the new influences, new media and new life choices introduced in the post-Soviet era. In distinct ways all three are engaged in the project of renovating Russia’s great modernist tradition for a radically different historical situation.

Even if I knew nothing about the poets, this description alone would be compelling enough to make me want to buy the book. These three women are my coevals, and I find it fascinating to consider how their generation in Russia has tracked alongside mine, though on a completely different path. Given their experience, it is only natural that they have been among those writers seeking a new poetic idiom for post-Soviet Russia – as poets always must do, but as is all the more necessary in their case.

More than the other two poets, Maria Stepanova has kept crossing my radar in recent years. The first poem that I remember reading by her was “O,” which came out in the journal Znamia in 2006. At the time, I was on the lookout for poets to translate, and even though I still have never tried my hand at translating Stepanova’s poems (except piecemeal in this post), the sound of her voice stuck with me.

The poem begins with Stepanova’s reflection on another Maria Stepanova – no doubt better known than her by the sports-loving general public – who played center for the Russian national basketball team until 2011. In a helpful footnote to “O,” we learn that the other Stepanova is 202 centimeters tall (or 6’7”) and was selected in 2005 as the best woman basketball player in Europe. (Apparently, she is also one of the few women who can dunk.) After an intentionally misquoted epigraph by Velimir Khlebnikov about a ball and sword, Stepanova proceeds to describe her namesake:

Her height is just right for this sort of thing—
to look the air in its half-opened mouth
and pop in a caramel (the color of its rubber):
a dazzling ball into a vulnerable basket,
grounding itself at the other end of the arc,
through the funnel where it was coaxed by
kisses of soles and soil, the minutes ticking by,
the rumble from the stands, the slap of each pass.

(У неё подходящий для этого дела рост— / Чтоб заглядывать воздуху в полуоткрытый рот / И совать карамельку (в цветную его резину): / Ослепительный мяч в подставленную корзину, / Приземлив себя на другой конец вертикали, / В ту воронку, куда баюкали-утекали / Поцелуи подошв и грунта, минуты часа, / Урчанье трибун, шлепок каждого паса.) 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Now That They’ve Hatched

Cover of Vsevolod Emelin’s “Bolotnaya Songs” / Image courtesy of Falanster

Last September, on the eve of the literary award season, Colta.ru ran a piece by Stanislav Lvovsky called “Chicken Count” («Подсчёт цыплят») identifying some of the major Russian poetry works of 2012. Since then, countless other critics, websites, and journals have put out their own lists (like these), but Colta’s was the first one to get me thinking about what the year’s landmark books might turn out to be. I found it humbling that some of the names on their list – even the older poets – were new to me, and I think it’s regrettable, but not really suprising, that many of them are not much available in English translation.

A new book of poems by the late Jan Satunovsky, for instance, has made quite a splash among Russian poetry critics, but I had only been dimly aware of his work before this winter. That’s a shame. I wish I had encountered him earlier; even a cursory glance at his stuff on Vavilon reveals a major poet with fine eye for the absurd. The new book is big – about eight hundred pages – and it is called Poems and Prose on Poems (Стихи и проза к стихам). In the Colta piece, Lvovsky writes, “This volume, when you consider the scale and personality of the author, as well as his influence (though often indirect) on contemporary Russian poetry, should have come out long ago. It’s nice that it finally happened.” But even though Satunovsky was an important modern Russian poet, he is little known here in America. Among the only translations I have been able to turn up are five by Alex Cigale from his “Anthology of Minimalist and Miniature Poems,” including this superb one:

In perfect pitch the outdoor brass orchestra,
the horns in pace with the concert master,
the sound quality ascending to the stars,
violins on key – like on his web the spider;
and swooning couples stride along the street
(as it was written, two of every monster.)

                                                Yalta, Apr. 30, 1974

[Всё в порядке в духовом оркестре, / дудки, капельмейстер — все на месте, / звук отличный, стереофоничный, / паучок на нитке — ключ скрипичный; / и, кружась, шагают пары на бульваре / (всякой твари, сказано, по паре).]

Monday, February 25, 2013

Brodsky's Jig and Bop

Joseph Brodsky, by David Levine (1980) / Image courtesy of NYRB

Last week, The New Yorker surprised me by running a new translation of a 1967 poem by Joseph Brodsky, “In Villages God Does Not Live in Corners” («В деревне Бог живет не по углам»). Just when I start to think that Brodsky has been completely muzzled in English, his estate lets out a little squeak to remind me that they still have more in store for English readers. Sure, they’ve got a new collected edition in the works, but we’ve been hearing that line for almost ten years now. That’s a long silence for one of the great poets of the twentieth century – and a largely untranslated one at that. Let’s hope we see plenty more of his poems in English soon.

Naturally, the magazine has restricted access of the poem only to its subscribers, but if you squint just right you can make out at least its general shape. So you’ll have to take my word for it when I say that the translation, by Glyn Maxwell and Catherine Ciepiela, is masterful. And by that I don’t mean that they have stuck mechanically to Brodsky’s Russian lines, but that their translation came alive for me as a new work in English. In terms of prosody, the form of the poem remains more or less intact in their translation, especially in the slant rhymes, though they loosened up Brodsky’s iambic pentameter to the point where it’s no longer audible. Also, they unaccountably chopped up some of Brodsky’s sentences into fragments. I suppose the fragments are not too terribly distracting, but I’m still not sure what effect they were seeking to achieve with them.

Most importantly, the tone of Maxwell and Ciepiela’s translation hits right on the mark. Brodsky’s whimsical countryside theology comes through loud and clear, and if anything, the translators have even cranked up the whimsy. My favorite passage comes near the middle of the sixteen-line poem, when God has migrated from the icon corner to the kitchen:

He’s plentiful. In the iron pot there.
Cooking the lentils on Saturday.
He sleepily jigs and bops in the fire,
he winks at me, his witness…

(В деревне Он - в избытке. В чугуне / Он варит по субботам чечевицу, / приплясывает сонно на огне, / подмигивает мне, как очевидцу.)

Maxwell and Ciepiela may perhaps have taken an ever-so-slight liberty by jazzing up their God and having him “jig” and “bop” in the fire (in Russian, he basically just dances in place), but who can argue with the sound of that phrase? I love it.