Maria Petrovykh’s ‘Muse’

As it turns out, I did not win this year’s Compass Award for outstanding English language translation of Russian poetry, awarded through the Cardinal Points journal. I did not even make the short list.

Not too disappointed, though, as it was my first entry to any such competition, and now that I am no longer in the running I can present my work to anybody out there with any interest in the Russian poetry of the Soviet period.

This year the contest asked for translations of poems by Maria Petrovykh, a poet who was a friend of some of the greatest luminaries of the early Soviet period, notably Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam; Mandelstam’s poem, Masteritsa vinovatykh vzorov, that Akhmatova called “the greatest love poem of the 20th century,” was dedicated to Petrovykh.

Maria Petrovykh's Muse

Maria Petrovykh

The poem of hers I chose to translate for this contest is Муза—‘Muse.’ As I had not been familiar with ther work until I learned of this competition, I decided this poem would be a good place to start as it might give a clue to what inspired her to write. It turns out that “night” was one of her muses at this time. This is not that surprising for someone who had just survived WWI, the Russian Revolution, The Russian Civil War, the “Red Terror,” unprecedented poltical, economic and social experimentation and the beginnings of Stalinist totalitarianism.

But aside from historical context, I found this to be a beautiful poem, and my humble translation a pale ghost of the real thing. As always I struggled in my efforts to balance meaning, meter, tone and rhyme. I feel convinced that sacrifices must always be made of one for another; a strict observance of the exact meaning of each word makes it impossible to convey the meter and rhyme, but departing too much from meaning for these feels like an abomination.

But sacrificies must me made.

That said, below is my translation, followed by the original:

 

Muse

When by mistake I let the pen slip,
Missing the inkwell, near the moon see it dip,-
To the lake of black nights in its unceasing creep,
Is stitched the overgrown inkwell with a dream from the nightingale’s keep,-
Diverse harmonies rush from the pen,
An astonishing layer of silver on them,
They are like birds, of whose touch I am afraid,
But the lines flock together and fill up the page.
I welcome you here, wild-running night,
And we have exactly one origin and plight-
We are both dark for our doubting eyes,
One homeland we share and she never dies.
I remember how you were conquered by day,
You remember how I, from the rock, broke away,
You ever from the milky paths turn aside,
In the cracks of the lines you do love to hide.
Child of a dream, sketched with nightingale’s hues,
Solitary reader, you are my muse.
I see you off, with no thanks for your time,
But in a froth of delight, I am brimming with rhyme.

1930, Maria Sergeyevna Petrovykh

translated by John Dougherty Continue reading

‘Хочу Перемен!’- Anthem of Dissent? Or Just Another Cool Pop-Song?

Getting back to another of my favorite subjects relating to Russian culture and history—80’s pop music—I decided recently to write a complete translation of Хочу Перемен! (Khochu Peremen, Eng.= I Want Change!) a singular song of its time and place, by the russian band Kino (see also my translation of Kino’s Aluminum Cucumbers).

Перемен!- I Want Change!

цой перемен

Viktor Tsoy

Instead of warmth- greens of glass,
Instead of fire- smoke.
From the calendar grid a day is torn.
The red sun fires its entire mass,
The day is burned out by its stroke.
On the flaming city a shadow descends.

Change!- Demanded by our hearts,
Change!- Demanded by our eyes,
In our laughter and in our tears,
And in the pulse of veins
Change!
We wait for change. Continue reading

Velimir Khlebnikov’s ‘Don’t Be Bad!’

Khlebnikov’s century-old poem resonates with the Russia of today.

Khlebnikov

I do love translating poetry, agonizing as it can be sometimes (see previous post- It Has to Be “Love”). My latest effort puts into English a poem written by one of the founders, and leading lights, of the Russian ‘Futurist’ movement, Velimir Khlebnikov (Viktor Vladimirovich; “Velimir” was his pen name). Below is my translation of Не Шалить (pron.-Ne Shalit’!= Don’t Be Bad!), followed by a discussion of Khlebnikov, the futurists and the resonance of this poem with Russian society today.

 

Don’t Be Bad!

Hey, cut-throat racketeers,
Heads full of sludge!
In old Cossack leathers
Through Moscow I trudge!
Not for its grandeurs
Is truth on our side,
So that in rich furs
We may haughtily ride.
Not in that strife
Did blood flow without check,
So that each merchant’s wife
Could wear pearls round her neck.
It’s no good to rail
All the night long
I will sing, I will sail
The Volga, the Don!
I will go tonight
Ahead where fate tends
Who’s with me in flight?
There are with me–my friends

February 1922
Velimir Khlebhikov
Continue reading

A Winter’s Night—Pasternak’s ‘Зимняя Ночь’

A Translation of Boris Pasternak’s poem, ‘A Winter’s Night’

Boris Pasternak, a winter's night

Boris Pasternak

Feeling the need to take a break from translating prose, I decided to finally make an attempt to translate a Boris Pasternak poem that, while not seasonally appropriate in May, is one of my favorites—’A Winter’s Night’.

 

A Winter’s Night

The blizzard swept over all the land
Beyond the furthest road
A candle glowed near at hand
A candle glowed
Continue reading

It Has to be “Love”, in Pushkin’s ‘To. . .’

Alexander Sergeivich Pushkin

Alexander Sergeivich Pushkin

In the course of my studies of Russian language and literature, there has long been the enormous, looming figure of Alexander Sergeivich Pushkin (1799-1837), Russia’s most celebrated poet. Thinking it was about time I tried translating some of his work, I turned to a poem that is one of the handful of Russian poems that I have committed to memory (another is Osip Mandelstam’s Leningrad, my translation of which is included in an earlier post). The process of trying to render the poem, К. . . (To. . . ), into English has led me to consider some things about the nature of language and translation. I will write a little about these musings before presenting my translation. Continue reading

“Alain Delon is Speaking French” (in Russian)

 

alain delon

“Mother teaches heart phone morgue” is how google-translate renders the seventh line of another glasnost-era Russian pop song that recently caught my attention. I had a Russian radio stream playing as I puttered around the house one day this summer, but wasn’t really paying attention until a repeated line in the chorus of a song grabbed my ear. I stopped what I was doing and thought, did they just sing “Alain Delon speaks French?” In fact, that was exactly what they were singing. I felt the urge to know why a Russian band would record a song about a French actor speaking French. A little research into this song revealed a degree of cultural interconnectedness that I was unaware of in the nineteen eighties when this song was produced in the still existing, and I presumed still closed, society of the Soviet Union.

Nautilus Pomplilius (Наутилус Помпилиус)

It turns out that this song–A Look from the Screen (Vzglyad s Ekrana, which google-translate gives as “Sight Screen)–by the group Nautilus Pompilius, was inspired by, and is even described as a “free translation” of, the song Robert De Niro’s Waiting, by the 80’s British pop band Bananarama. The line repeated in the chorus of the Brit song—”Robert De Niro’s waiting, talking Italian”becomes, in the Russian song, “Alain Delon is speaking French” (Alen Delon govorit po Frantsuzkiy). Continue reading

Leningrad, by Osip Mandelstam

The following is a poem by Osip Mandelstam that I translated recently. This poem has particular appeal to me for a number of reasons: it is inspired by a city that I lived in long enough for it to get into my heart, and become a friend; it speaks to the history of the name changes it has gone through in the 20th century-from St. Petersburg, to Petrograd, to Leningrad and back to St. Petersburg; the imagery in this poem is dark, and intimate at the same time. on a canal in Leningrad (St. Petersburg today

Here is my translation:
Leningrad
Osip Mandelstam
(1930) Continue reading

Aluminum Cucumbers

Aluminum Cucumbers, or Алюминиевые Огурцы (pron.- Alyumienvye Ogurtsy)

Kino- Aluminum Cucumbers

This is the title to a catchy tune from the 1980s by the Russian pop phenomenon Viktor Tsoi, and his band Kino (pictured above; Tsoi is second from the left). Tsoi was hugely popular in the Soviet Union in the era of glasnost (“openness”), but died at the age of 28 in 1990. Since that time he has lived on as a cultural icon in Russia, somewhat like Elvis in the U.S. When I was visiting St. Petersburg in 2012, there were new posters of Tsoi everywhere—in the Metro station, along the sidewalks, in shopping malls—with the slogan, “We are with you”, and announcing the celebration of what would have been his fiftieth birthday. On the sidewalk along Nevsky Prospect I saw a busker, three nights in a row, singing and playing old Kino songs, with crowds of people singing along.

As I struggled to translate the lyrics of this song I found any kind of meaning to be so elusive that I started doubting my grasp of the Russian language. But looking at a number of discussion boards, in Russian, I found that native speakers seemed to have no better success at getting what this song was about. I soon found a number of references to a 1987 interview with Tsoi, where he commented: “there is not any kind of meaning in the lyrics, in fact it was an attempt at completely deconstructing reality.” Looked at this way it fits perfectly into the mold of pop music in the West in the 1980s; Continue reading