Monday, December 24, 2012

A Nativity Poem by Timur Kibirov

Cover of Греко- и римско-кафолические песенки и потешки, 1989-2009 (М.: Время, 2009) 

NOTE: I’ve gotten into the habit of posting a Russian nativity poem each Christmas, and while so far it’s all been Brodsky (see here and here), this year I’m introducing a new voice. Below are the final lines of Timur Kibirov’s poem “The Den,” where all eyes are turned toward the mother and child. The poem was published in Kibirov’s 2009 collection Greek and Roman Catholic Songs and Nursery Rhymes (Греко- и римско-кафолические песенки и потешки).

*     *     *

From “The Den”

And the magi came in with plumes of steam
as they carried in gifts for the newborn king,
while nearby the men gathered shyly together,
each gripping a hat made of fur like the others,
and his papa did not have the slightest notion
what to offer his guests or where he should put them,
while his mama could see not a single soul,
not a one, except for her very own son,
and the ox lackadaisically chewed its cud,
and the donkey’s long ears quaked and twitched on its head,
but the newborn just sucked at the boob.

Meanwhile, in Kerioth, another child
held in his lips a taut nipple and fed,
while far, far away, across the vast sea,
a third child gulped down his milk with greed—
the very same one who would fasten a sign
to the cross declaring Him king!

Translated from the Russian by Jamie Olson

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Porvin's Debut

Among the Russian literary prizes that I like to keep my eye on is the million-ruble “Debut” («Дебют»), which is awarded each December to younger writers in six different genres: novel/novella, short fiction, poetry, drama, essay, and fantasy. The winner in the poetry category this year was Alexey Porvin, whose name was new to me but probably shouldn’t have been. Why should I know who he is? Well, Jim Kates, one of my colleagues from the American Literary Translators Association, happens to have already published a small collection of Porvin’s poems in English with New Zealand’s Cold Hub Press. Chances are I’ve even thumbed through it at the ALTA book display.

Jim, who also writes his own original poetry and helps run Zephyr Press, has done a few books of translations for Cold Hub. One of them, Genrikh Sapgir’s Psalms, 1965-1966, is sitting on my desk waiting to be read, and Porvin’s Live by Fire is another. The publisher’s page for Porvin’s book features Jim’s translation of this surprisingly unrhymed poem (still a relative rarity in Russian verse):

On the smooth surface of the night
gleaming like a turnstile,
the sudden slot of a sunrise
requires some payment from you.

You want to pass, and you drop
an uneasy token into the interior
of the mechanism that holds up
any movement through here.

The machinery lets passers by through
to open space, which can take
loving possession of those minds
who have paid their own way

nor will you even recall the restless
little circle from your pocket, soul,
because there is far less profit
in constricted passageways.

Translated from the Russian by J. Kates

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Did You Wash Behind Your Ears?

Moidodyr postage stamp (Russia, 1993) / Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

All good Soviet children knew the importance of bathing properly. They knew it from their grandmothers, certainly, but they also knew it from Kornei Chukovsky, author of the classic children’s poem “Moidodyr” («Мойдодыр», 1921). In the poem, when a filthy young boy’s clothes and other belongings flee from him, a talking washstand named Moidodyr comes on the scene to sort things out.* Moidodyr, whose name means something like “scrub to the bone,” announces himself as “leader of washstands and commander of sponges” and orders his crew to get to work. “Kara-baras!” he shouts nonsensically, and they set off after the boy.

The soap and brushes do their duty, stinging the boy like wasps, but the “rabid sponge” has to chase him all over Saint Petersburg. Only after he is taken to task by a sponge-eating crocodile does the boy finally agree to get cleaned up. Now freshly scrubbed, he stands by as his pants willingly come back to him and a sandwich hops right into his mouth. The young speaker then delivers a classic bit of didacticism:

You must, you must wash up
every morning and every evening,
and as for unclean chimneysweeps,
they should be ashamed!
They should be ashamed!

(«Надо, надо умываться / По утрам и вечерам, / А нечистым / Трубочистам – / Стыд и срам! / Стыд и срам!»)

All of this is a way of talking not about Chukovsky, but about Timur Kibirov, the contemporary Russian poet whose work I have been translating lately. Kibirov appeared last month on Radio Svoboda’s program Over the Barriers, where he contributed a reading to their ongoing “radio-anthology” of contemporary poetry. The poem he read was “Kara-Baras! An Experiment in Interpreting a Classic Text” («Кара-Барас! Опыт интерпретации классического текста»), whose title derives from the nonsense word that Moidodyr shouts to rally his troops.

Now, Kibirov and I differ on what’s translatable and what’s not – with me being the more optimistic one – but this is one poem that I have no intention of ever tackling. It defies translation. The problem is that every line in Kibirov’s poem refers to an original line in Chukovsky’s, with plenty of puns along the way. Essentially, “Moidodyr” is the soundtrack that plays continuously beneath “Kara-Baras!” Readers who don’t know Chukovsky inside and out won’t make heads or tails of Kibirov. Well, okay, since I am such an optimist, maybe I could imagine a side-by-side, heavily annotated double translation for an academic audience, but such a thing would suck the pleasure right out of the text. Why bother?