“O Amazing Pals”: Semyon Olender’s “Pat and Patachon”

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My dear friend Sasha Razor, who’s finishing a dissertation on the work of early Soviet authors in the film industry, sometimes sends me her neatest finds. The image above, for instance, appeared in an issue of the journal Kino in 1928. It depicts the pioneering film editor Esther (Esfir) Shub (1894-1959) “operating” on Count Leo Tolstoy. The story behind the caricature is that Shub, working in the late 1920s, spliced footage of the late Count into the third part of her trilogy of historical “compilation films.” This third part — now lost, alas — was titled The Russia of Nicholas II and Leo Tolstoy (1928). As Jay Leda, the first great historian of Soviet cinema, tells it, Shub had originally planned to make the film all about Tolstoy himself, but found too little material, and so “decided to work on the epoch, using Tolstoy as a central figure, a spokesman of his time.” She did use the footage shot at Yasnaya Polyana by the Odessan half-huckster Alexander Drankov, which I posted in June of last year, and I would have loved to see it in its new context. In any case, the caricature from Kino couldn’t help but remind me of, well, me, translating and editing Tolstoy’s prose; it doesn’t help that Esther and I have the same ‘do…

But this sketch is just one of the many filmic treasures Sasha has dug up. Another is a poem by Semyon Olender, whose lovely late lyric about Odessa appeared here back in August. This time Olender writes with more humor, but just as movingly, about the Danish comic duo Pat and Patachon  Actually, those are the names by which they were known in Russia and Germany. In the US, they went by Ole & Axel; in the UK, by Long & Short; in their native land, by Fy go Bi; and so on… I think their British monikers sum up the shtick most effectively: one of them was tall and gangly, the other short and plumpish.

Pat and Patachon.jpg

But as with Laurel and Hardy, those bare facts can’t possibly communicate the charm of the combo. Perhaps only celluloid can. And maybe poetry, too. I feel Olender’s ode certainly captures the magic.

Pat and Patachon

Was it real? Perhaps I was dreaming?
O amazing pals, all I know
is the two of you really gave me
quite a shock with your funny clothes!

Can’t remember, or didn’t notice,
how this pair snuck into my flat…
One was short, in a shabby waistcoat
and a crumpled old bowler hat.

The other was tall and slender,
his ill-fitting jacket all stained,
and like some enormous toddler,
he held his pal by the hand.

Crouching and bending briskly,
they spoke in the gentlest tones:
“Pat is my name,” one whispered.
“Me you can call Patachon.”

In response to my friendly offer,
they plopped themselves down, but so
excitedly that the sofa
suffered — the fabric tore!

Patachon turned to me quite sadly,
with a guilty squint in his eyes.
And Pat took it just as badly —
his whiskers would fall and rise…

I tried to console the poor souls:
so what if the sofa creaks?
But the screen: it swallowed them whole!
Boy, is celluloid quick!

I know I need to keep watching
and laughing for five more parts —
but I swear, I’ve not seen a friendship
as warm and as full of heart…

Пат и Паташон

Наяву или в сновиденьи
Поразило мои глаза
Ваше странное облаченье,
Изумительные друзья!

Я не понял и не заметил,
Как пробрался в мой дом тайком
Коротыш в потёртом жилете
И с приплюснутым котелком.

А другой был высок и тонок,
В замусоленном пиджаке.
Он держал, как большой ребёнок,
Руку друга в своей руке.

Приседая и нагибаясь,
Мне друзья прошептали в лад:
— Паташоном я прозываюсь.
— А меня называют — Пат…

И в ответ на моё приглашение
Оба грохнулись заодно
На диван — и в таком волненьи,
Что не выдержало сукно.

Паташон ко мне виновато
Повернулся, глаза скосив.
И подергивались у Пата
Отвисающие усы.

Я старался их успокоить:
Ничего, что трещит диван…
Но — стремителен целлулоид, —
И друзей поглотил экран.

И хотя мне смеяться нужно
В продолженьи шести частей,
Я поклясться готов, что дружбы
Я не видывал горячей.

Asti for Mandelstam, Soup for Tsvetaeva: Julia Nemirovskaya’s Gifts for the New Year

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Stray Dog Cabaret, 1912-13

Last January, just after New Year’s Day, I posted my translations of two poems by Igor Severyanin, the first of which was a seasonal delicacy, bubbling with verve and with pineapple-laden champagne. As 2019 draws to a close, I’d like to share another lyric infused with sparkling wine. This poem is just as full of spirit, but it is far more serious. Its author is one of my very favorite poets, Julia Nemirovskaya, whose work I’ve discussed in Asymptote and featured in Ten Poems from Russia. In the short, skinny stanzas below, Julia journeys into the past, hoping to deliver sustenance to her poetic forebears, Marina Tsvetaeva and Osip Mandelstam. Her journey, which begins in a wormhole (don’t the lines seem to have been spaghettified?), transforms into a katabasis.

What she wishes to bring to Tsvetaeva is soup. During the lean years of the Civil War in Moscow, Tsvetaeva once wondered, referring to her two daughters, “Who should I give the soup to, Alya or Irina?” She would have appreciated Julia’s help. And Mandelstam, for his part, wouldn’t have turned down a glass of bubbly. He makes that clear in the final couplet of his 1931 poem “I drink to military asters,” which Clare Cavanaugh calls a “poetic slap in the face of socialist taste” that “extols all the haute bourgeois ephemera that the new regime deplores”: “I drink, but I’ve not yet decided which of the two I will pick: / A sparkling Asti Spumante or a Chateauneuf-du-Pape.” Julia takes a gamble on Asti.

Through wormholes I travel
a century back
with a bundle of firewood,

with Asti for Mandelstam,
with soup for Tsvetaeva.

People tell me,
forget about
this food,
this wine,
so the living may live
and the dead may die.

Why care for a corpse
in some pit, they ask me,

for Tsvetaeva’s soup,
for Mandelstam’s Asti?

But I train my eyes
on the unseen field:

here, in the past,
there is no free will.

I pity the river,
the willows that shade it,
and beyond is a dump,
or the hound of Hades —

I pour
in its greedy
maws the tasty

soup for Tsvetaeva,
Mandelstam’s Asti.

It is, in the end, Cerberus who ingests the treats meant for the dead greats. Still, Julia’s journey was not in vain. For the duration of her poem, Tsvetaeva and Mandelstam were revived, and not just as poets, but as people, replete with human cravings and personal tastes. So here’s to all three of them — Marina, Osip, and Julia — may their cup overflow in 2020 and beyond!

Кротовыми норами
назад лет на сто
несу дрова и вина и яства

Суп Цветаевой
Мандельштаму асти

Но мне говорят
Что ты
Чтоб умерли мертвые
и жили живые

Зачем тебе труп
в неведомой яме

Цветаевой суп
Асти Мандельштама

Вперяю взгляд
в безвидное поле

Тут — в прошлом —
нету свободы воли

Реку жалко
ивы да вербы
дальше свалка
а может быть Цербер

в собачьи
жадные пасти

Суп Цветаевой
Мандельштама асти

Which Version of Gogol Should You Read? Easy!


Late last month, Lives and Deaths, my small selection of Tolstoy’s fiction, joined Pushkin Press’s growing library of “essential stories.” My work on Tolstoy was strenuous, rewarding, and memorable, but what will stay with me longest is the experience of translating “Pace-setter: The Story of Horse” — a tale I describe in my preface as “a remarkable feat of empathy and invention.” I’ve placed it after the more famous novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and I hope the combination awakens a spirited resonance in readers’ minds. To quote myself again, “While the narrative of Ivan Ilyich burrows inwards, growing ever more narrow, the story of Pace-setter expands in wholly unexpected ways, offering us a fresh — if not refreshing — perspective on our world.”

But as excited as I was to see “Pace-setter” out of the gate in November, it was the launch of my volume’s newest stablemate that thrilled me most. Oliver Ready’s selection of “essential stories” by Nikolai Gogol, And the Earth Will Sit on the Moon, does just what its title promises, upturning the reader’s mind, setting the whole solar system on its ear. I’m a great fan of Oliver’s translations of Dostoyevsky and Vladimir Sharov, so I was primed to enjoy his Gogol (and was also lucky enough to see early drafts of these stories). Still, I couldn’t have expected to be so dazzled by the little book as I read it cover to cover, beginning with Oliver’s lively, lucid introduction (Gogolians rejoice: he’s working on a biography of the man!). Careening through the final version of the head-spinning opening paragraph of “The Nose,” I knew I was in good hands:

A most peculiar incident occurred in St Petersburg on the twenty-fifth of March. The barber Ivan Yakovlevich (only his first name and patronymic have been preserved: even his shop sign, which depicts a gentleman with a lathered cheek and the words We Also Let Blood, says nothing about his surname), the barber Ivan Yakovlevich, who lives on Voznesensky Prospect, woke quite early and caught the smell of hot bread. Lifting himself up a little in bed, he saw his spouse, quite a worthy lady who was very fond of coffee, taking some freshly baked loaves out of the stove.

As I wrote to Oliver, no previous translator of these stories has ever captured Gogol’s free-floating lunacy with such fine-grained accuracy, truly bringing the moon and the earth together. Such a feat requires great daring and great attentiveness, the key ingredients of translational genius, which Oliver’s every sentence demonstrates in full.

I’m happy to announce that I’ll be discussing Gogol and Tolstoy with Oliver at St Antony’s College, Oxford, next month, but not before Robert Chandler and I recommend his Dostoyevsky and Sharov translations at Pushkin House in London, as part of our “Which Version of [Russian Classic] Should I Read?” presentation. I hope to see some of you in London on January 15 or Oxford on January 17!

“Far Off in Sultry Argentina”: Isa Kremer, Vera Kholodnaya, and “The Last Tango” in Odessa


This week I’ve been listening to old Russian tangos, going back again and again to a true classic, “The Last Tango,” the story of which ties Argentina (of course!) to Paris (why not?) and Odessa (you should have seen it coming). Born in the working-class neighborhoods of Argentina and Uruguay, tango took Europe by storm in 1913, having landed in Paris the previous year. It was there, in Paris, that the Odessa-reared soprano and soon-to-be-star Isa Kremer (1887-1956) first heard “Le dernier tango,” composed by Emile Deloire with lyrics by Armand Foucher:

Kremer, who had gotten her artistic start by publishing revolutionary verses in the Odessa News at the age of 15, now turned her poetic talents to translation, fashioning a Russian version of “The Last Tango” that became a major hit in the late 1910s. Indeed, it was even adapted for the screen in 1918 — in Odessa, needless to say — with the legendary Vera Kholodnaya (1893-1918) playing the female lead. Tragically, The Last Tango was also to be Kholodnaya’s last film; she succumbed to influenza less than a year after it premiered. Only a fragment of the 67-minute feature survives — but before I share it, let me set the scene by translating the first two stanzas of Kremer’s song:

Far off in sultry Argentina,
beneath the bluest southern sky,
among the loveliest of women,
beautiful Chloe caught Joe’s eye…
Each evening, when the lights came on,
the two of them would be entangled,
teasing the lusty, drunken throng,
dancing a tantalizing tango.

But then, one day, an English sir
took her to Paris… On the Seine
she reigned over Bataille de Fleurs,
wearing a gown by Jeanne Paquin.
Her figure, fit for Ancient Greece,
her face, a classic cameo,
were all the rage in Gay Paree,
at the Grand Prix, the Opéra…

As the song’s title and the sheet music’s illustration suggest, things don’t end well for Chloe. Joe comes back, with ill intent. The surviving fragment of film picks up where my translation leaves off:

And here is Kremer’s song in its entirety, performed by the great Vladimir Kozin (1903-1994):

There is a great deal to say about Kremer and her song, which has been quoted by everyone from Ilf and Petrov to Vladimir Nabokov (in Ada: “‘Neath sultry sky of Argentina, / To the hot hum of mandolina”). But, for our purposes, one last touching detail will suffice. After triumphing over antisemitism in tsarist Russia, surviving the violence of the Revolution and Civil War, singing Yiddish songs in Nazi Germany, and becoming a major recording artist in the United States, Kremer passed away in Argentina, “beneath the bluest southern sky.”

Isa Kremer.jpg

“I Salute You, Cobblestone-thunderer!”: Remembering Peter Oram

Peter Oram.jpg

Last Sunday I learned of the passing of Peter Oram, whom I first came to know through his highly original translations of Russian poetry. The word “original” still sits uneasily next to the word “translation,” but of course it shouldn’t.  Tell me, can one call the English poem below anything but original?

Beyond the chimneys and steeples,
baptized by smoke and flame,
stamping-footed archangel,
down the decades I call your name!

Rock-steady or change‑at‑a‑whim!
Coachman and stallion in one!
He snorts and spits into his palm —
chariot of glory, hold on!

Singer of city-square wonders,
I salute that arrogant tone
that rejected the brilliant diamond
for the sake of the ponderous stone.

I salute you, cobblestone-thunderer!
— see, he yawns, gives a wave, then he swings
himself back into harness, back under
the shafts, his archangelic wings.

The original of this original was written by Marina Tsvetaeva in 1921, and its addressee is the physically robust, fire-breathing Vladimir Mayakovsky. But the English poem is all Peter’s, who was, when I last saw him, quite frail, thin and heavily stooped, as if he were bearing a “ponderous stone” rather than slinging it.

That outward appearance was deceptive. The sparkle in his elfish eyes told the truth. It spoke of an endlessly vibrant, endlessly vivacious creative spirit — the spirit of a poet and translator, composer and performer, and, towards the end of his life, painter. Here is a captivating nocturne, which Peter tried to send me from his home in Nürnberg, Germany.

Peter Oram - Full Moon.jpg

Unfortunately, no package was large enough for the canvas. That, I now feel, was emblematic. Peter’s creative gift was outsize, extravagant. He shared it freely, at every opportunity, expecting nothing in return. One of Peter’s late sonnets, “a riddle,” could be read as a kind of autobiography.

He’s a smuggler, bearing certain small
but heavy packages across the borders.
No one knows the powers from whom his orders
come or what authority he’d call
upon, should he be spotted as he drags
himself through brambles or goes burrowing through
the undergrowth. He carries with him few
possessions and his clothes are all in rags —
he doesn’t care: his sole concern is for
the things he carries and the consequence,
should frontier guards discover and inspect them.
He leaves them in left luggage lockers or
on supermarket shelves or under stones,
and no one ever turns up to collect them.

I urge all readers to seek out the smuggled goods Peter has left for us, beginning with his incandescent anthology The Page and the Fire: Russian Poets on Russian Poets (Arc Publications, 2007), where you will find Tsvetaeva’s “To Mayakovsky.” Robert Chandler, Irina Mashinski, and I also included that poem, and many other Oram translations, in The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (2015). In his finals years, Peter was working on a manuscript of poems by Arseny Tarkovsky, having won both second prize and honorable mention for his versions of individual lyrics in the 2014 Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender competition. I very much hope this Tarkovsky collection — Peter’s last gift — will find its way into the light.

Vladimir Vysotsky Sings Vera Inber’s “The Girl from Nagasaki”

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Vera Inber

A couple weeks ago I quoted Isaac Babel’s evocative description of Odessa as “a Russian Marseilles on the site of Turkish Khadjibey.” But Babel wasn’t the only Odessan to establish a link between his hometown and the French port. In a poem first published in 1922, Vera Inber, the subject of my most recent post, paints a Pucciniesque picture of doomed love between a Marseillais sea captain and a girl from Nagasaki. Of course, being a true Odessan, Inber leavens the melodrama with a generous dash of humor; the exotic elements (ale in Marseille? jigs in Nagasaki?) are piled on so thick that one can hardly make sense of them.

The original poem is only three stanzas long, but it was soon set to music and taken up by popular performers, who added their own twists and embellishments. My favorite interpretation belongs to the inimitable Vladimir Vysotsky, who had a special affinity for Odessan songs and clearly enjoyed belting this one out (you can hear a great big chuckle at the end of the clip):

Below is my translation of Vysotsky’s version. (I continue the interpretive tradition by taking a handful of liberties.)

The Girl from Nagasaki

He is a captain, and his hometown is Marseille.
He’s fond of brawling, ain’t too fond of talking.
He smokes a pipe, prefers the strongest ale,
and loves a girl from Nagasaki…

She’s got old leprous scars along her hands,
she’s covered in tattoos, and if you’re lucky,
in the evenings, you can see her dance
the jig in barrooms down in Nagasaki…

Her chest is very, very small, her skin is pale,
her lips — her lips are red as poppies…
And now, once more, the captain has set sail,
longing to see the girl from Nagasaki.

A coral necklace, scarlet as fresh blood,
a blouse of silk — its color khaki —
all this, along with fervent, fiery love,
he’ll offer to the girl from Nagasaki.

The captain has arrived, only to find
that some gent in a tailcoat, after smoking
too much hashish for far too many nights,
had stabbed and killed the girl from Nagasaki…

Her chest is very, very small, her skin is pale,
her lips — her lips are red as poppies…
And now, once more, the captain has set sail,
never again to see the girl from Nagasaki…

Девушка из Нагасаки

Он капитан, и родина его — Марсель,
Он обожает споры, шум и драки,
Он курит трубку, пьёт крепчайший эль
И любит девушку из Нагасаки…

У ней следы проказы на руках,
У ней татуированные знаки,
И вечерами джигу в кабаках
Танцует девушка из Нагасаки…

У ней такая маленькая грудь
И губы, губы алые, как маки…
Уходит капитан в далёкий путь
И любит девушку из Нагасаки.

Кораллы, алые как кровь
И шелковую блузку цвета хаки
И пылкую, и страстную любовь
Везёт он девушке из Нагасаки.

Вернулся капитан издалека
И он узнал, что джентльмен во фраке
Однажды, накурившись гашиша,
Зарезал девушку из Нагасаки…

У ней такая маленькая грудь,
И губы, губы алые как маки,
Уходит капитан в далёкий путь,
Не видев девушки из Нагасаки…

Vera Inber Takes Pity on Northerners

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Vera Inber (1890-1972) is chiefly remembered as a properly Soviet author, who wrote on properly Soviet themes — the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal, the Siege of Leningrad, etc. — but she started out, in her native Odessa, as a poet of delicate, ironic lyrics that betrayed the influence of Anna Akhmatova.

Inber belonged to a well-to-do family. Her father, Moisey Shpentser, ran a publishing house, and her mother, Fanni, was the director of a Jewish girls’ school. During the first five years of Inber’s life, her father’s young cousin, Lev Bronstein — better known as Leo Trotsky — lived with the Shpentsers while attending Odessa’s elite St. Paul’s Realschule. In the 1930s, the family’s link to Trotsky, the chief “enemy of the people,” could have spelled doom for Inber, but she survived and thrived, and even secured a Stalin Prize in 1946.

Happily, there isn’t a whiff of either Trotskyism or Stalinism in the witty little poem below, drawn from Inber’s second collection, Bitter Delight (1917). Written in Odessa, to which Inber had returned after two years in Paris and some time in Moscow, it expresses my own sentiments after returning from a wonderful ALTA conference in frosty Rochester and Jenny’s marvelous reading in beautiful but downright freezing Chicago, which I look forward to seeing again this summer.

The sun’s caught cold and hides its rays,
though dawn came hours before…
How pleasant, on an autumn day,
to set off for my native shore.

I even love the slanted rain
up here — since, after all,
I’ll reach my home exactly when
the leaves begin to fall.

I’ll breathe fresh air, so full of spice,
beneath the endless blue.
I’ll stroll and think, “Cool northerners —
oh, how I pity you…”


Больному солнцу выйти лень,
Хотя давно трубили зорю.
Как хорошо в осенний день
Собраться в путь к родному морю.

И мил мне даже дождь косой
Затем, что я безмерно рада:
Я возвращусь к себе домой
Как раз к началу листопада.

Там будет воздух чист и прян
Под бесконечно синим сводом.
И вас, холодных северян
Я пожалею мимоходом.


Isaac Babel and the Ephrussis


The name of the Ephrussis — an influential Jewish dynasty of bankers, art collectors, and, latterly, authors — is intimately tied to Odessa and colorfully immortalized in “The End of the Almshouse,” one of the most poignant of Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories. In the following passage, Babel celebrates “the century-old history of Odessa, which lay resting under granite slabs” in the city’s Second Jewish Cemetery. Here were

the tombstones and crypts of the wheat exporters, shipping brokers, and merchants who had erected a Russian Marseilles on the site of Turkish Khadjibey. They all lay there, facing the gates — the Ashkenazis, the Gessens and the Ephrussis — refined misers, bon vivants with deep thoughts, creators of wealth and of Odessan jokes. They lay beneath tombstones of Labrador granite and pink marble, guarded by chains of chestnuts and acacias from the plebs huddling close to the walls.

Babel’s concluding line renders vivid the social stratification of Odessa’s Jewish community, which he also depicts in “The Story of My Dovecot,” again referring to the Ephrussis, who bribe their way into an elite secondary school that enforces a strict quota (no more than two Jewish students in a class of forty):

I had a gift for learning. No matter how tricky the teachers got, they couldn’t deny that I had brains and a voracious memory. I had a gift for learning and scored two fives. But then everything changed. Khariton Ephrussi, the grain merchant who exported wheat to Marseilles, slipped the school a five-hundred-rouble bribe on behalf of his son, one of my fives acquired a minus, and my place at the school went to Ephrussi junior. My father nearly lost his mind.

Yet Babel reminds us that even extraordinary wealth could not shield Jews from violence under the tsars. In the midst of a pogrom, the little boy who had been robbed of his place at the school sees “a young peasant in a waistcoat […] smashing a window frame at Khariton Ephrussi’s house. He was smashing the frame with a wooden mallet, putting his whole body into it, breathing deeply and beaming in all directions with the kindly smile of drunkenness, sweat and hardiness of spirit.”

The true story of the Odessan Ephrussi family is indeed one of privilege and tragedy, and it is told with exquisite lyricism by Edmund de Waal, one of its descendants, in The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010). And now his brother Thomas de Waal has published a moving piece on his own return to the city of his ancestors, which I recommend just as highly. At the end, de Waal describes the sensation of stepping into the Ephrussis’ former home on Primorsky Boulevard:

[T]he doorkeeper was happy to let me in. Old classical mouldings peered out from behind plywood partitions. I found a door onto a wrought-iron balcony, walked out and savoured the chestnut and lime trees in the boulevard and the long view down to the Black Sea in front of me. I felt a curious sweet sensation of homecoming.

“The Port Spins Like a Living Top”: Vadim Strelchenko’s “The Stevedore”

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Ilya Katz’s Odessa’s Docks (1955)

When I was a child, it seemed to me that my relatives were obsessed with my posture… I was encouraged to stand up straight and shove out my chest. It turns out I was being molded to fit a very Odessan pattern. The following phrase, which I heard countless times, expresses my hometown’s distinct ideal of masculine beauty: “The chest of a sailor and the back of a stevedore!” This stands to reason, of course — the port is the beating heart of the city. Many Odessan poets have sung paeans to the port and its denizens, but I’m especially fond of this heartfelt proletarian ode to stevedores by Vadim Strelchenko.

The Stevedore

The port spins like a living top
(so full of youth — astonishing)…
Your back is burdened by a sack.
Your arms are taut as fiddle-strings.
And — marking off your giant day
with tons of cargo in each hold —
you sense
clouds flapping over waves
just like a flock of flustered gulls…
The load is dropped.
And so you walk
with even, springlike step again.
Your heart is beating like a clock
set to the clinks of hoists and cranes…
Another load.
Your shoulders slake
their thirst for coolness — what a treat.
Meanwhile your hands
wait for the sack
to swell beneath the stream of wheat.



Порт вертится живым волчком
(Порт — он до изумленья юный)…
Спина нагружена мешком,
И руки напряглись, как струны.
И чуешь ты,
Свой день большой
Пудами клади отмечая,
Как бьются тучи над волной
Встревоженною стаей чаек…
Но сброшен груз.
И снова так
Идти пружинным, чётким ходом.
А сердце отбивает в такт
Коротким возгласом лебёдок…
Вновь сброшен груз.
И хорошо
Плечам прохладою напиться.
А руки ждут,
Пока мешок
Не вздулся от струи пшеницы.


“What a Radical Treatment for Boredom”: Zinaida Shishova on the Road

Shishova 1919.jpg

Zinaida Shishova in 1919.

Tomorrow evening I’m traveling to Palm Springs to attend the 60th annual American Translators Association (ATA) conference, where I’ll have the honor of delivering two talks — one on mentorship in translation, the other on a topic of which I just can’t get enough: Odessan literature. A couple months ago, the award-winning translator Nora Favorov asked me a few questions for the ATA Slavic Division’s newsletter, the SlavFile, and you can find our conversation in the latest issue.

I’ll be taking the bus to Palm Springs, not driving, but in honor of the 100-mile journey I thought I’d share a little poem on four wheels. It was written (where else?) in Odessa, in 1918, by a young poet named Zinaida Shishova (1898-1977), who was then the wife — and would soon be the widow — of Anatoly Fioletov. Greatly admired by her fellow Odessan literati, Zika, as she was known in those days, would go on to write moving poems about the Leningrad Blockade in the 1940s, as well as works of historical fiction for young adults. But I’m partial to her youthful lyrics, which somehow blend the modes of Anna Akhmatova and Igor Severyanin. Take this one out for a spin:

What a radical treatment for boredom:
your auto — this small landaulet…
To see your swarthy hands gripping
the wheel’s white enamel that way…

Your lips, with their lines of exhaustion,
and your lashes, so calm and so fine…
“Oh tell me, isn’t it splendid
to be us — like birds in the sky?”

I’ll unpin my shy veil of gauze
from my hat, made of old felt…
So sultry — the wind, the sun’s rays,
and your eyes, which will not relent.

Your thin swarthy hands, your profile
shining back from the glass, clear as day…
“What a radical treatment for boredom:
your auto — this small landaulet…”


Радикальное средство от скуки
Ваш мотор — небольшой landaulet…
Я люблю Ваши смуглые руки
На эмалевом белом руле…

Ваших губ утомленные складки
И узоры спокойных ресниц…
— Ах, скажите, ну разве не сладко
Быть, как мы, быть похожим на птиц?

Я от шляпы из старого фетра
Отколю мой застенчивый газ…
Как-то душно от солнца, от ветра
И от Ваших настойчивых глаз.

Ваши узкие смуглые руки, профиль Ваш,
Отраженный в стекле…
— Радикальное средство от скуки
Ваш мотор — небольшой landaulet…