Velimir Khlebnikov’s ‘Don’t Be Bad!’

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


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

The Futurists basically argued that as modern, industrial, urban life in the early twentieth century was evidence of a radical departure from the ways of the past, so art should be transformed, forward looking and encumbered by tradition and convention. Russian futurists were primarily poets and authors, and so sought to free language and literature from the bonds of past forms, even to change language itself. Their vision for a new literature was spelled out in their manifesto—A Slap in the Face of Public Taste—published in 1912. Khlebnikov was himself a pioneer in efforts to create new meanings for words, word combinations, to resurrect ancient words and invent new ones.

Knowing this, I have felt intimidated by the prospect of trying to translate Khlebnikov. At the same time, the essence of futurism itself should argue for liberation in the art of translation. But while I might be able to throw off the chains of old conventions, I remain bound by truth. As it turns out, this particular poem, while far from easy to translate, was not so esoteric, and made sense to me given my understanding of the time when it was written.

These verses by Khlebnikov were written in 1922, the year of his death. To me it reflects a common sentiment of educated Russians after experiencing the excitement, optimism, anxiety and horror of the Revolution and Civil War. In the twenties, especially after the announcement of the New Economic Policy, or NEP (see previous posts-Former People, The Old Timers of Moscow Will Remember!), many who believed they were fighting for a bright, free and just new future felt that things were returning to the pre-revolutionary “normal” of rich and poor, exploiters and exploited.

Perhaps this century-old poem has resonance today. Those protesting the politics of Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party since 2011 seem to be expressing a similar sense of disappointment and frustration after the euphoria of the 1990’s, which promised a freer, more just future after the fall from power of the Communist Party.

Russia seems to prove the aphorism–the more things change, the more they stay the same. But Khlebnikov offers some comfort in this; through it all, there are with us—our friends.


{Original Russian version of ‘Don’t Be Bad!’}:

Не Швлить

 Эй, молодчики-купчики,
Ветерок в голове!
В пугачевском тулупчике
Я иду по Москве!
Не затем высока
Воля правды у нас,
В соболях — рысаках
Чтоб катались, глумясь.
Не затем у врага
Кровь лилась по дешевке,
Чтоб несли жемчуга
Руки каждой торговки.
Не зубами — скрипеть
Ночью долгою —
Буду плыть, буду петь
Я пошлю вперед
Вечеровые уструги.
Кто со мною — в полет?
А со мной — мои други!

Февраль 1922

© 2013, John Dougherty. All rights reserved

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