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

Vera Inber 2.jpg

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…

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

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