Thursday, February 24, 2022

"What Do Sheep Talk About?" by Irina Yevsa

Site of shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 24, 2022 / Photo by Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy (Reuters)

Today, Russian troops invaded Ukraine. There have been reports of explosions in Kharkiv, the largest city in the northeast. Kharkiv is the home of Irina Yevsa, the author of this 2017 poem. 

As a veteran and advocate for peace, my heart goes out to the people of Ukraine and to the soldiers on both sides who will suffer and even die in this war.

Who runs the slaughterhouse? (We know the answer, of course.)

*     *     *

What do sheep talk about,

mindless amid the rabble,

as they head to the slaughter?


To the left and right of them,

a detail of stern sheepdogs

keeps order in the ranks.


On the front line, the rams

bleat triumphantly, “Glory

to those who provide food!”


A mad chorus of voices

responds, “Slice up the traitors!

Enemies—into the pot!”


Above, the vault of heaven.

Behind, the landscape of home.

Ahead, the slaughterhouse gates.


The bravest march straight in,

while others get a horn

in the flank. As everyone


is knocked about, some shout,

“Man the battering ram!”

But the last of them soils


the grass and strains his throat

as he lets out an awful

shriek, “I’m a veteran!”

Translated by Jamie Olson

Friday, December 25, 2020

Brodsky's "Flight": A Nativity Poem

Giotto di Bondone, "The Flight into Egypt" / Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Flight into Egypt

   by Joseph Brodsky

   …nobody knew where the herdsman had come from.

Out there in a desert chosen by the sky for

the miracle, they stopped for the night and kindled

a campfire, echoing the star. Without sensing

the role he would play, in a snow-laden shelter

the child lay asleep amid a golden halo

of hair, which had already taken on the habit

of radiance—not just for this dark-haired empire

at this moment, but, truly akin to the star, for 

as long as the earth exists: everywhere.

December 25, 1988

Translated from the Russian by Jamie Olson

Friday, September 20, 2019

Kibirov's Poplar

Image courtesy of Poetry Northwest

I've clearly been doing a terrible job of keeping up this blog, but here's a belated link to my translation of a poem by Timur Kibirov, which I was very happy to place with the venerable journal Poetry Northwest. If the gods are kind to me, there will be plenty more of his poems showing up in English in the coming years. They're piling up in my notebooks, desk drawers, and on hard drives...

The poem also appeared in Russia in the 2016 anthology 100 Poems about Moscow / 100 стихотворений о Москве, edited by Maxim Amelin with much help wrangling translators from Anne O. Fisher—or Annie, as we in the translation crowd know her.

Here are the opening two stanzas, with the Russian below the fold:

from the cycle “Romances of the Cheryomushki District”
On valor, on heroism, on the glory
of the Communist Party on the bitter earth,
on Ligachev and Okudzhava,
on the poplar that rustles in the mist.
On the poplar by my window, on you and
your warm body, on the poplar right here,
on how we’ve barely left the cradle,
the grave awaits, and nothing is clear.

(You can read the full poem and my translator's note here.)

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

A Nativity Poem by Konstantin Vaginov

Konstantin Vaginov (unknown photographer, circa 1920) / Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

My Finger Gleams Like the Star of Bethlehem
   by Konstantin Vaginov

My finger gleams like the star of Bethlehem:
the garden looms within it, a stream sighs.
Now Jesus comes, drifts off beneath a fig tree,
and plays dreary old songs on a Greek lyre.

I had walked with care around a house doomed
to fall, and then took twelve soft, shaky steps
and set off through the Haymarket to hear the star
smoldering above black snow and icy streets.

From “Petersburg Nights,” 1919-1923

Translated from the Russian by Jamie Olson

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.

*     *     *