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.
Here is my translation:
I’ve returned to my city, familiar to tears,
To veins, swollen glands of childhood years
You’ve returned here to Leningrad, so quickly gulp down
Fish oil from the riverside lamps in the town
Recognize all the sooner the day in December
Where mixed with black tar is an egg yolk of sulphur
Petersburg, I still do not yet want to die
You have my phone numbers, please give them a try
Petersburg, I still have an address that boasts
Surroundings filled with the voices of ghosts
I live on the dark stairs, and inside my head
Sounds a bell torn out from the flesh of the dead
And all through the night I await my dear guests
Moving door chains, like shackles, their coming attests
I love how this poem, though titled Leningrad, appeals to “Petersburg”. I realize that though my own nostalgia, and longing to return to this place that still holds, tenderly, some of my own tears, blood and youthful passion, the Saint Petersburg/Leningrad of someone who had lived through World War One, the revolutions of 1917, the Russian Civil War and the establishment of Communist Party rule held a power over them of a different character. I imagine there were more than a few people who continued to think of the city as Petersburg for quite a long time. The fact that it was given back this name in 1991, within a year of the fall from power of the Communist Party, is evidence of the persistence of this kind of memory.
The translation of this poem was a fun exercise. I have done my best to preserve the imagery, even when it was hard for me to fully understand its significance. Probably the most difficult line in this regard is the twelfth- Sounds a bell torn out from the flesh of the dead. Having trouble with this, I went to Google translate to see what that had to say. This is what it gives for the eleventh and twelfth lines:
I live on the dark stairs, and in the temple
Strikes me torn meat call
One good thing about Google-translate is that it so lowers the bar for translations that I can feel I’ve done pretty well, when compared with this kind of computer generated nonsense.