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?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Bits and Pieces of ALTA

Illustration from the page of the Carmina Burana that includes "O Fortuna" / Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Each fall, a town somewhere in North America gets overrun with literary translators, writers, editors, and (small) publishers. That’s when our little mob of littérateurs gets together for the annual conference of the American Literary Translators Association, and this year the place was Rochester, New York — home to Open Letter Books, the online literary resource Three Percent, and the University of Rochester’s program in Literary Translation Studies. (Next up: Bloomington, Indiana!) Any ALTA conference is a rich, varied, and intense experience, making it difficult to sum up neatly and comprehensively, but that’s why the gods of typography invented bullet points. With bullets, I don’t actually have to connect my thoughts. How nice! So here are a few of the moments (excluding bar scenes) that stood out to me from our gathering in Rochester earlier this month:

·      The plenary lecture on humor by David Bellos, whose hilarious example on shit and samogon from Vladimir Voinovich’s Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin has got me determined to read that novel at the soonest possible moment. (I’m a sucker for the scatological.) Bellos also showed us how our ears could fool us into thinking that the beautiful lyrics of “O Fortuna” had morphed into a “piece of lovely cake.”

·      The roundtable on reviewing translations, which happens to have become a pet topic of mine lately. My interest owes partly to my own recent forays into reviewing and partly to the book reviews I now ask my students to write. The panelists generally gave lots of advice for new reviewers, and they also formulated what a proper review ought to look like. (“Ably translated by X” just doesn’t cut it anymore.) Katherine Silver talked a lot about a certain “good” review that panned her recent translation of Daniel Sada’s Almost Never: sure, the reviewer didn’t like the translation, but at least she didn’t make Silver invisible. On the contrary, it was exactly Silver’s use of language that she objected to (e.g., “the translation fails spectacularly to deliver anything like Sada’s wonderfully wacky prose”). But not all “good” reviews are bad reviews. Silver also mentioned one in The New York Times, for instance, that exulted in her language. And where else can readers find decent reviews of translations? The panelists suggested Bookforum, The Nation, Full Stop, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Coffin Factory, not to mention two individual critics: Tim Parks and Ruth Franklin.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Pussy Riot at Kitzel’s

Pussy Riot Olympia performing at Kitzel’s (September 14, 2012)

Last Friday, at Kitzel’s Crazy Delicious Delicatessen in downtown Olympia, my colleague at Saint Martin’s University and deli co-owner Irina Gendelman organized and hosted a mishmash of an evening celebrating the art and activism of Pussy Riot. The women who formed the group in Russia, as many have pointed out, found inspiration in the riot grrrl scene that has its roots in Olympia. So what better place to hold an event to honor them than here?

Everyone who came had a blast. Irina has a knack for cultivating a carnivalesque mood, and this time was no exception. The show featured a number of activists and performers, including local songwriter Mary Water, Seattle theater group Pasajer@s, and Pussy Riot Olympia, the anonymous collective that was formed earlier this year in solidarity with their Russian counterpart. Tobi Vail, the former drummer for riot grrrl band Bikini Kill, was also on hand to rouse the room with her punk spirit. And besides taking in the performances, the crowd joined in for sing-alongs of Vladimir Vysotsky’s “Wolf Hunt” (“Охота на волков”) and the Italian anti-fascist folk anthem “Bella Ciao.” No one’s political conscience was left unfired!

Monday, August 13, 2012

New Poems by Irina Yevsa

Image courtesy of RIA Novosti

I was happy to see that the May issue of the journal Novy Mir features seven new poems by Irina Yevsa, the Ukrainian poet whose work I translated not long ago for Anomalous Press. (The editors even had me make audio recordings of the poems! I wish that Ms. Yevsa could have done the the Russian originals, but we were thwarted by technical difficulties.)

The new batch includes an epistolary dialogue between Libra and Aquarius, an elaboration on a children's rhyme from the Soviet years, and a belated confession of Nabokovian ignorance. But my favorite is this one, an elegy for an old friend killed in a fight, with its long lines and narrative sensibility:
“Погиб, — сказали. — В пьяной драке не уберёгся от ножа.
Его нашли у гаража, ну, там, где мусорные баки”.
Два бака. Я их помню. Да. Ещё — беседку в брызгах света,
где мы играли в города, а повзрослев, совсем не в это.
Кусты, скрывающие лаз в заборе. Запахи столовки.
За тридцать лет хотя бы раз могла сойти на остановке.
Так нет же. Пальцем по стеклу водила, злясь на жизнь иную,
где старый хлебный на углу перелицован был в пивную.
Но если б знать, что ты уже — от встреч случайных независим —
в тот край, куда не пишут писем, успел отбыть на ПМЖ,
чтоб, как тогда, — из темноты, многоочитой и хрипатой, —
кричать мне с первого на пятый: “Я не люблю тебя! А ты?”
(Notice the internal rhymes, which mask the poem’s true form. Why did Yevsa disguise her tetrameter quatrains as octameter couplets?)

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Poems that Drive Us Bonkers

Bonnie "Prince" Billy at a show in Dallas / Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I’m a professor of poetry, more or less, but sometimes I find myself exhausted by the intense focus that poems demand of me. (Wallace Stevens can be especially exhausting—though well worth the effort.) Naturally, my students tend to get fed up with poetry’s opacity too. Who doesn’t? So I was pleased as Punch to find a short piece in the June issue of Poetry that takes on the topic of tricky poems from the point of view of someone intrigued but frustrated. It’s called “To Hell with Drawers,” and it was written by Will Oldham, the songwriter who goes by the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy and whose bearded visage I remember from movies like Old Joy.

The trouble is, you can’t read the damn thing online. In fact, “To Hell with Drawers” is the only thing from the June issue that the magazine doesn’t allow access to. So I’ll tell you about it.

In his central metaphor, Oldham sets up a contrast with prose: while prose arranges its contents neatly on shelves for inspection, he says, poetry hides them away in drawers. And Oldham doesn’t like drawers, even if he loves what they contain. “There must be shelves,” he writes, “where the contents are visible. When things are hidden in drawers, they do not exist. Prose is shelving.” Come to think of it, this is precisely why many of my students enter my course wary of poetry: they don’t want to have to open all those drawers. Or maybe they’re afraid that they won’t even be able to open them.

Yet I would argue that much of the pleasure of reading poems comes from opening the drawer and sorting out what’s inside of it. A poem that you find bewildering at first can later give you a sense of real satisfaction when you’ve figured out just what it’s up to. Auden knew this. He once explained that he took a workmanlike approach to reading poems, asking himself, “Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work?” And really, figuring out what a poem is doing turns out to be a pretty straightforward task, since the poem itself tells you which questions to ask. Why is there a line break here? Why do those words alliterate? Why is this stanza so long and the next one so short? Why is that word used and not another? This pragmatic method is something I try to pass on to my students.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Bath for Alexander Sergeyevich

Statue of A. S. Pushkin on Arts Square in St. Petersburg / Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Today is banya day for Pushkin. His birthday is tomorrow, after all, so Russians want to be sure that their national poet is spick and span for the celebration. In Saint Petersburg, according to one Russian newspaper, experts from the Museum of City Sculpture, with a little help from local actors, will give the Pushkin statue on Arts Square a thorough scrubbing, but everyone is welcome to swing by with their own statuettes to take part in a truly public, open-air bathhouse. I hope the people themselves keep their pants on...

As for me, when I get to Petersburg on Friday, I'll pass through the square and make sure that the poet is looking his best. I hear that the sculpture-scrubbing specialists from the museum bathed the Bronze Horseman on the Neva embankment not too long ago, and maybe they'll get around to him again soon, but for a while at least, Alexander Sergeyevich will be the cleanest fellow in town.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

In This House Lived a Poet

Plaque on the corner of Pestel Street and Liteyny Prospekt in St. Petersburg

Today is Brodsky’s birthday. If the Nobel laureate were still around, he would have been seventy-two. In his native Saint Petersburg—formerly Leningrad, or in the poet’s lexicon simply “Peter”—Russians are celebrating Brodsky Week, whose goal it is to raise money to open a long-awaited museum in the apartment where Brodsky lived with his parents. According to Russia’s official national paper, the program for the week is “pleasantly unofficious,” including walking tours, a play, and screenings of a documentary about the poet.

Many doubt that Brodsky’s famous “room and a half” will open to the public anytime in the near future. The delay is owing to negotiations with a neighbor who occupies an adjoining apartment. The New Yorker’s Book Bench reported last year that a sale was imminent, but they were obviously mistaken. In the ensuing months, the neighbor’s asking price for the space rose to seventeen million rubles (over $530,000), but she recently agreed to bring it down to twelve million (just shy of $380,000) – still more than the city is willing to pay.

Now, according to, project organizers hope that the United States government will pitch in the money needed to close the deal. After all, Brodsky lived in the U.S. for over two decades, and he was the American poet laureate back in the early 1990s. In my own view, a museum jointly funded by the U.S. and Russia would be a fitting tribute to a writer who straddled two cultures and two languages. As Brodsky put it himself, he was a “Russian poet, an English essayist, and of course, an American citizen.”

In the meantime, visitors to Saint Petersburg can drop by the Anna Akhmatova Museum to view Brodsky’s desk and other items from his study, not to mention his postcard collection. As it so happens, I’ll pass through the city in about two weeks on my way to Petrozavodsk, so I might just stop in!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Tsvetaeva, Poet of the Moment

Marina Tsvetaeva with her dog in Savoy, France (1930) / Image courtesy of the Poetry Foundation

Lately, it seems that Marina Tsvetaeva pops up everywhere I look. After last year’s inaugural prize for a translation of a poem by Nikolai Gumilev, the organizers of the Compass Award have announced that they’re now seeking translations of Tsvetaeva. Her work is famously difficult to translate, so whoever wins will certainly have earned the $300 in prize money. (That may not sound like much, but hey, we all know that literary translation isn’t the most lucrative field.) On their page, the Compass organizers speculate why Tsvetaeva’s poems rarely come across well in translation: “Their poetic tension is just too high, and their force fields are overwhelmingly complex.” Anyone who has read her in Russian knows exactly what the Compass folks mean: nobody writes such intricately formal poems as Tsvetaeva.

Just when I had the Compass Award on my mind, the annual translation issue of Poetry magazine arrived, replete with a portfolio of Tsvetaeva’s work. The eight poems in the portfolio, along with accompanying prose excerpts, were translated by Jean Valentine and Ilya Kaminsky, who says that Tsvetaeva offers a particular challenge to translators because of her “over-abundance of lyricism.” The solution that he and Valentine came up with was to avoid imitating the form of her poems altogether. Kaminsky explains that the two of them do not even claim to have “translated” Tsvetaeva’s poetry, but have rather composed a kind of commentary on it—mere “fragments, notes in the margin.” Still, some of their translations (or whatever they are) come off pretty well.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Wisdom from Pasternak

Portrait of Boris Pasternak (Yuri Annenkov, 1921) / Image courtesy of WikiPaintings
“I believe, as do many others, that closeness to the original is not ensured only by literal exactness or by similarity of form: the likeness, as in a portrait, cannot be achieved without a lively and natural method of expression. As much as the author, the translator must confine himself to a vocabulary which is natural to him and avoid the literary artifice involved in stylization. Like the original text, the translation must create an impression of life and not of verbiage.” 
– Boris Pasternak (“Translating Shakespeare,” 1956, trans. M. Harari)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

What They Said in Kansas City

Statue of Winston Churchill near the conference hotel in Kansas City / Image courtesy of ChrisM70

Each fall, a group of translators gathers somewhere in North America for the annual conference of the American Literary Translators Association. I’ve gone twice now to the ALTA conference, and I can’t imagine a more welcoming community for a beginning translator. In particular, those who translate from Russian and suchlike languages have gone out of their way to make me feel at home. And I truly appreciate their company. For someone like me who often has no real connection with other translators for months at a time, ALTA can be downright exhilarating.

My second ALTA conference took place in November of last year in Kansas City, and ever since then I’ve been meaning to write up a quick post giving a few highlights from the gathering. Well, somehow the busyness of everyday life has prevented me from even writing something “quick,” but a nasty cold that kept me home from work today has given me a little free time to organize my thoughts.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Timur Kibirov (b. 1955)

Timur Kibirov (Dmitry Rozhkov, 2011) / Image courtesy of Википедия

[NOTE: For my own purposes, I recently wrote a biographical statement for Timur Kibirov, a Russian poet whose work I have been translating and hope to publish as a book someday. Since no good bio exists for Kibirov in English anywhere online, I am posting what I came up with here.]

Timur Kibirov (born Timur Yur'evich Zapoev), who ranks among the most influential of contemporary Russian poets, was born in 1955 and began publishing his poems in the 1980s. In the late Soviet period, he was closely associated with underground poets like Lev Rubinstein, Dmitri Prigov, and Sergey Gandlevsky, and critics have often identified his work with postmodernism and conceptualism. Mikhail Ardov claims that “Kibirov has been and remains the best, most talented poet of our post-Soviet era,” and Andrei Nemzer and Mark Lipovetsky call him “the voice of an entire generation.” [1]