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.