Monday, December 25, 2017

Lenin’s Christmas: A Nativity Poem

Unattributed illustration from Bonch-Bruyevich’s Lenin and the Children (1975) / Image courtesy of e-Reading

From “Christmas” (1985)
by Timur Kibirov

                             … Yet the Son slept
a sweet sleep, and over His brow
streamed the light from last night’s

Star, blending with the radiance
of the scarlet dawn.
Free from anger or sadness,
bubbles formed on
those Lips that yet again would
give the Good News, that would
grimace and spit blood
and praise the merciful Lord…

But the news spread, and rumor
filled the world.
At last it reached the Kremlin,
our Russian stronghold.
 And the tall blue firs rustled!
The cannon fired for the first time!
A watchman recoiled in terror!
And then from the mausoleum

he came. He climbed into the car.
Iron Felix sat beside him.
Behind the wheel was the “Sailor,”*
staring down anyone they passed.
They flew faster than the wind.
They drove up. They knocked.
A smile beamed
from the face of Ilyich.
He had come with New Year’s gifts:
the Peace Decree, saccharin,
a copy of the Great Initiative,
the log he’d hauled at the work party,

first-rate provisions, and a bouquet
of white paper roses,
just as alluring and bright
as our poet Blok evoked them.
A bust of Marx, a pioneer scarf,
a packet of blank arrest forms,
the 3rd Congress of the Komsomol,
and a bayonet from the Red Guard.

They left the Sailor standing
at the door. They went in.
No sooner had they seen Him
than they became bewildered
and backed away in terror.
Their faces grew pale. They trembled
and dissolved in the air… The Sailor
instantly toppled off the porch
and sprawled out like a worm.
But listen! Already, the horns

of battle have begun to sound
from far off in the distance.
Our armor is strong! Our hand
is firm! Our fury is righteous!
The sky quakes with thunder —
propeller, sing your furious song!
And now an NKVD squad
has got the place surrounded

Translated from the Russian by Jamie Olson


* Anatoly Grigoryevich Zheleznyakov (1895-1919), also known as “Sailor Zheleznyak,” was an anarchist, seaman in the Baltic fleet, and one of the leaders of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. During the Russian Civil War, he commanded a brigade of armored trains and died from a chest wound sustained in a battle against White army troops in Ukraine.

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]