“Scows Full of Mullet”: Vladimir Agatov’s Sentimental Tribute to Odessa

Not long after Maxim returns to Tarusa, Jenny and I fly off to London, where she’ll attend to Booker business and I’ll give a talk at Pushkin House on the language of Odessa — a talk for which I’ve been casually preparing my whole life, and which is scattered like breadcrumbs on the pages of this blog. In my blurb for the talk, I mention Eduard Bagritsky, Leonid Utyosov, and, of course, Isaac Babel, saying that, “in the 1920s, their writings and popular songs infused Soviet culture with a new ‘Southern’ flavor, a spicy blend of Russian, Ukrainian, and Yiddish unique to their hometown. For a translator of Odessan texts, the question of whether this blend was a language all its own or a dialect is beside the point. What matters is what one does with it.”

Just to demonstrate how widely influential and easily recognizable this Odessan “blend” was, I thought I’d share my translation of an immensely popular Soviet song written by a Kyivan-born poet and performed by the Nizhyn-born singer Mark Bernes. The poet, Vladimir Agatov (born Velvel Gurevich, 1901-1966), contracted a serious case of Odessa-philia in the mid-1920s, while working for the Moscow-based newspaper Gudok (The Whistle), the staff of which was rife with genuine Odessans at the time. As Charles King writes in his lively history, Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams (2012), the song Agatov wrote for Leonid Lukov’s war film Two Warriors (1943) — “a lively nonsense ditty about a goodtime sailor, Kostya, and his pursuit of the fisherwoman Sonya” — “cemented Bernes’s place as a professional Odessan”: “This was supreme silliness, of course, but it was Odessa’s silliness, and in a time of awfulness and privation, it could make a person smile or even cry — Odessa’s own version of ‘Yankee Doodle’ or ‘Waltzing Matilda.’”

The times were indeed awful; in 1941, Odessa was besieged and occupied by Nazi-allied Romanian forces, and it was not liberated until 1944. Agatov’s song, which strings together a number of Odessan tropes and distinctive words — the neighborhoods Peresyp and Moldavanka, chestnut trees, swaggering sailors, scows and longboats brimming with fish, gruff draymen and stevedores — is a little too pat and sentimental to be authentically Odessan, but it was just the treat Soviet Odessa-philes needed: a sugary monument to the city’s resilience, to the indomitable buoyancy of its spirit. (That said, I couldn’t help roughing it up a bit in my translation, bringing it a little closer to what I think an Odessan song ought to sound like.)

Kostya the seaman used to sail
scows full of mullet to Odessa.
And in the beer joint, draymen hailed
him on their feet, raising their glasses.

The blue sea sparkles from afar,
the chestnut trees are in full bloom —
our Kostya picks up his guitar
and, nice and soft, begins to croon:

“Can’t say this is true of all Odessa,
since Odessa is a sprawling town,
but Moldavanka and Peresyp? Yessir —
they love Kostya. He’s their favorite son.”

Once, in May, the fisherwoman Sonya
moored her longboat at the dock and said:
“Everyone around here knows you, Kostya,
so I figure it’s high time we met!”

Kostya always played it cool and calm.
Reaching for his pack of cigarettes,
he said, “You’re a fascinatin’ dame,
Sonya — but the thing is that…

Can’t say this is true of all Odessa,
since Odessa is a sprawling town,
but Moldavanka and Peresyp? Yessir —
they love Kostya. He’s their favorite son.”

On French Boulevard and near the shore
bird-cherry trees are blooming up above,
and this is all you hear from stevedores:
“Hey, it looks like Kostya is in love!”

All week long, the fishermen at sea
were buzzing with the latest news.
Before the wedding, with an awful creak,
the stevedores squeezed into leather shoes.

Can’t say this is true of all Odessa,
since Odessa is a sprawling town,
but Moldavanka and Peresyp? Yessir —
they love Kostya. He’s their favorite son.


Шаланды, полные кефали,
В Одессу Костя привозил,
И все биндюжники вставали,
Когда в пивную он входил.

Синеет море за бульваром,
Каштан над городом цветёт.
Наш Константин берет гитару
И тихим голосом поёт.

Припев:

Я вам не скажу за всю Одессу
Вся Одесса очень велика.
Но и Молдаванка, и Пересыпь
Обожают Костю моряка.

Рыбачка Соня как-то в мае,
Причалив к берегу баркас,
Сказала Косте: «Все вас знают,
А я так вижу в первый раз!»

В ответ, достав «Казбека» пачку,
Ей молвил Костя с холодком:
«Вы интересная чудачка,
Но дело, видите ли, в том…»

Припев:

Я вам не скажу за всю Одессу
Вся Одесса очень велика.
Но и Молдаванка, и Пересыпь
Обожают Костю моряка.

Фонтан черёмухой покрылся,
Бульвар Французский был в цвету.
«Наш Костя, кажется, влюбился»,
Кричали грузчики в порту.

Об этой новости неделю
Шумели в море рыбаки,
На свадьбу грузчики надели
Со страшным скрипом башмаки.

Припев:

Я вам не скажу за всю Одессу
Вся Одесса очень велика.
Но и Молдаванка, и Пересыпь
Обожают Костю моряка.

9 thoughts on ““Scows Full of Mullet”: Vladimir Agatov’s Sentimental Tribute to Odessa

  1. Thanks for posting this, Boris! Your translation is wonderful. Your commentary and the song itself brought back some nice memories of my last time in Odessa, much too long ago, in the spring of 1985. And thanks too for introducing me to this song, and to the work of Mark Bernes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Rawley, it’s always a pleasure to hear from you — and you know how much your opinion means to me! Can’t say this is true of all Odessa, but I thank you from the bottom of my heart! I hope you’re working well, and that you get a chance to revisit the Pearl on the Black Sea soon enough!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “a talk for which I’ve been casually preparing my whole life.” How I would love to attend. Have a scone with cream and jam for me (photo opp.). You will be a natural success of course.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s