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.