2017 Compass Translation Award

My tireless co-editor, Irina Mashinski, has been updating the Cardinal Points website. It now features a call for submissions for this year’s Compass Translation Award, which is dedicated to the poetry of Maria Stepanova. (In June of this year I posted Cynthia Haven’s excellent interview with Stepanova, which appeared in LARB.) The Compass Award’s Director, Alexander Veytsman, writes:

Maria Stepanova is one of the most prominent and politically engaged Russian poets of our time. With more than a dozen poetry volumes to her name, she is also an accomplished journalist and a defender of the freedom of the press. Stepanova is the founder of Colta.ru, an online publication that is often likened to The New York Review of Books. She is the recipient of several Russian and international literary awards.

In 2017, Compass Award enters its seventh year, with prior competitions dedicated to Nikolay Gumilev, Marina Tsvetaeva, Maria Petrovykh, Arseny Tarkovsky, Boris Slutsky, and Bella Akhmadulina.

This year is the first time that we have honored a living poet. Unlike past Compass poets, Stepanova will have a chance to read the award winners’ translations of her work.

To learn more about the competition and to submit your entry, please visit the site.


The Revolutionary spiked review

October is upon us! Late last month, Tim Black, editor of the estimable spiked review, sent me a number of astonishingly penetrating questions about the 1917 anthology and writers’ responses to the revolution. The interview has just appeared online, in an issue dedicated to all things revolutionary, which also features Susan Weissman’s always stimulating thoughts on Victor Serge.

And I was also happy to see Andrew Stuttaford end his excellent, though decidedly right-of-center, survey of revolutionary books in last weekend’s The Wall Street Journal with two paragraphs about 1917:

Finally, 1917: Stories and Poems From the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, 236 pages, $14.95) is an anthology of literary responses to Bunin’s “damn year.” Neatly chosen by Boris Dralyuk, with room for the familiar (such as Boris Pasternak) and those known less well (the sardonic Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, who wrote as Teffi), the volume is reasonably well balanced between the October revolution’s supporters and those appalled by it. Vladimir Mayakovsky catches the millenarian mood (“We’ll cleanse all the cities . . . with a flood even greater than Noah’s”) while in “The Twelve” Alexander Blok opts for a warmer purge: “We’ll . . . set the world on fire . . . give us Your blessing, Lord!”
History made fools of the cheerleaders of revolution, but the words of those who opposed it still haunt. Anna Akhmatova resolves to stay with her “nation, suicidal” and does so, her great chronicling of Stalinist terror still to come. Marina Tsvetaeva writes of the wine flowing down “every gutter” and a “Tsar’s statue—razed, black night in its place.” Zinaida Gippius mourns the death of long longed-for liberty: “The Bride appeared. And then the soldiers / drove bayonets through both her eyes . . . The royal axe and noose were cleaner / than these apes’ bloodied hands . . . Can’t live like this! Can’t live like this!” Both Gippius and Tsvetaeva went into exile. Tsvetaeva later returned to her homeland. She hanged herself in 1941.

David Samoylov’s “The Bandit Woman” on the WLT Blog

This morning the wonderful World Literature Today Blog posted my translation of a poem by David Samoylov. (Many thanks to WLT’s tireless Editor-in-Chief, the poet Daniel Simon!) Since the poem appears to be behind a (very affordable!) paywall, I’ll repost the material here, along with the original Russian and a handful of links. You can also find a Ukrainian translation at Olena Bilozerska’s blog.


David Samoylov in the Red Army in the 1940s.

In June 1944, David Samoylov (1920-1990), an important Russian-language poet who was then a soldier in the Red Army, was sent to Ukraine to help suppress the nationalist insurgents fighting against both Nazi and Soviet occupation. The poem below, written in 1946, is, on the surface, a loyal Soviet soldier’s account of eliminating a hostile element — in this case, a woman who has ambushed and killed one of his comrades. Still, the reader cannot but admire the dignity of this “bandit,” a follower of Stepan Bandera (1909-1959) and Taras Bulba-Borovets (1908-1981). Writing in the 1980s, Samoylov recalled this period in his life: “It seemed self-evident that anyone who didn’t fight on the side of the Red Army, whatever their reasons may have been, was our enemy, abetting the fascists. That was also my point of view. Yet my poem ‘Bandit Woman,’ which was written after the war, shows that my feelings were always truer and more honest than my thoughts.” The poem reflects, in bold terms, the complexity of Russian-Ukrainian relations then and now, as well as a commitment to understanding — or trying to understand — the other side of any conflict.

The Bandit Woman

I led a bandit out, to shoot her.
She didn’t beg, she didn’t plead —
Just glared at me with pride and anger.
Her pain was bad. She clenched her teeth.

And then she said: “Now listen, fella,
You’re gonna shoot me anyway.
Before you lay me down forever,
Just let me look at my Ukraine.

Across Ukraine our horses gallop
Under the banner of Bandera.
Across Ukraine we’re stashing weapons,
Searching for a faith to honor.

Green moonshine boils in whitewashed huts
Around Berezne, in the woods —
We grin and press our sawed-off guns
Against the Russkies’ drunken heads.

Time for the Pechenegs to raid!
High time that Russian women sobbed!
There’ll be no more Ukrainian bread
For the damned Russkies and the Swabs!

Don’t want them gorging on our lard,
Drinking our vodka, getting merry!
Your scribes, however hard they try,
Cannot co-opt our nation’s story!

Bulba’s men ride across the fields,
Their bridles jangling loud, like coins!
Let Commies realize their ideals
The way they want to back at home…

It’s them that came up with the kolkhoz
Where any bum can eat for free.
For us Ukrainians, what’s the difference —
Gestapo or NKVD?”

And then I said: “Come on, you fiend,
It’s time you got what you deserved.
Wasn’t it you who killed my friend,
Who knifed him dead without a word?

The world is full of scum like you.
There aren’t enough like him around.
No sense in waiting for tribunals —
You’ll soon be rotting in the ground.”

And on we went. The land was brutal.
A bird was crying in the trees.
I led a bandit out, to shoot her.
She didn’t beg, she didn’t plead.



Я вел расстреливать бандитку.
Она пощады не просила.
Смотрела гордо и сердито.
Платок от боли закусила.

Потом сказала: «Слушай, хлопец,
Я все равно от пули сгину.
Дай перед тем, как будешь хлопать,
Дай поглядеть на Украину.

На Украине кони скачут
Под стягом с именем Бандеры.
На Украине ружья прячут,
На Украине ищут веры.

Кипит зеленая горилка
В белёных хатах под Березно,
И пьяным москалям с ухмылкой
В затылки тычутся обрезы.

Пора пограбить печенегам!
Пора поплакать русским бабам!
Довольно украинским хлебом
Кормиться москалям и швабам!

Им не жиреть на нашем сале
И нашей водкой не обпиться!
Еще не начисто вписали
Хохлов в Россию летописцы!

Пускай уздечкой, как монистом,
Позвякает бульбаш по полю!
Нехай як хочут коммунисты
В своей Руси будуют волю…

Придуманы колхозы ими
Для ротозея и растяпы.
Нам все равно на Украине,
НКВД или гестапо».

И я сказал: «Пошли, гадюка,
Получишь то, что заслужила.
Не ты ль вчера ножом без звука
Дружка навеки уложила.

Таких, как ты, полно по свету,
Таких, как он, на свете мало.
Так помирать тебе в кювете,
Не ожидая трибунала».

Мы шли. А поле было дико.
В дубраве птица голосила.
Я вел расстреливать бандитку.
Она пощады не просила.


Cardinal Points, vol. 7


The latest volume of Cardinal Points is now available for sale. I’m very proud of the range of selections, which you can sample on Amazon. Below is the full table of contents, including this year’s winning entries in the annual Compass Translation Award, which was dedicated to Bella Akhmadulina (1937-2010). I want to thank my heroic co-editor, Irina Mashinski, as well as Brown University’s Department of Slavic Studies.


Yuri Felsen, “A Miracle” (trans. from the Russian by Bryan Karetnyk)
Viktor Ivaniv, “Daydream Insurrection” (trans. from the Russian by Ainsley Morse)
Valery Zalotukha, “My Father, the Miner” (trans. from the Russian by Raisa Shapiro)

Special Focus: The Prose of Elena Shvarts

Thomas Epstein, “A Few Words on Elena Shvarts”
Elena Shvarts, “From Face of the Visible World” (trans. from the Russian by Thomas Epstein)
Elena Shvarts, “An Odd One” (trans. from the Russian by Thomas Epstein)
Elena Shvarts, “Concerto for Literary Assistant” (trans. from the Russian by Thomas Epstein)


Marina Tsvetaeva, “The Wires” (trans. from the Russian by Angela Livingstone)
Leonid Kannegiesser, “From a Review of Anna Akhmatova’s Rosary” and “On Review” (trans. from Russian by James Manteith)
Eduard Bagritsky, “February” (trans. from the Russian by Roman Turovsky)
Sergey Yesenin, “Low-set house with the pale blue shutters” and “Returning to My Birthplace” (trans. from the Russian by Max Thompson)
Bertolt Brecht, “Memory of Marie A.” (trans. from the German by Zachary Murphy King)
Arseny Tarkovsky, “It was my mother taught me walking” (trans. from the Russian by Zachary Murphy King)
Volha Hapeyeva, Three Poems (trans. from the Belarusian by Volha Hapeyeva with Forrest Gander)
Dzvinia Orlowsky, “Kalendar” and “Ivan the Fly Eater”
Tatiana Shcherbina, “Russia and Europe” and “Jerusalem” (trans. from the Russian by J. Kates)

The Art of Translation

Peter France, “Evgeny Baratynsky’s ‘Feasts’ (1820)”
Antony Wood, “Reading the Meter: Translating Two Lyric Poems by Pushkin”
Yefim Somin, “Mikhail Lermontov’s French Epigram”
Donald Rayfield, “Four Poems by Uvaysiy”
Ainsley Morse, “Sterligov in the Blockade”

Alexander Veytsman, Compass Competition Director

Bella Akhmadulina, in translation by Paul Hopper, Glen Worthey, Sasha Palmer, and Peter Oram

Eduard Bagritsky and The Odessa Review

The Odessa Review has been as generous to me as Benya Krik was to the guests at his sister’s wedding! This past July the journal’s multitalented Senior Editor, Katya Michaels, invited me to talk about Babel, Odessa, and my approach to translation. I babbled and babbled, then Katya picked through the wreckage and assembled a proper interview.

In it I mention the poet Eduard Bagritsky (1895-1934), who is as close to Odessa’s heart as Babel himself. And the two were great friends. Here is how Babel described Bagritsky: “He’s just like his poems… He loves the sea, a sailor’s salty speech, and a fisherman’s boat on the horizon.”

Below is one of Bagritsky’s earliest poems, in the “futurist” manner (boy, is it ever mannered!), published under a female pseudonym — Nina Voskresenskaya — in an Odessan anthology titled Automobile in the Clouds (Avto v oblakakh, 1915). In it, the young poet marvels at the strange aspect of Odessa’s beloved pedestrian walkway, Deribasovskaya Street (Rue Déribas), after sundown.

Deribasovskaya at Night


Across the dirty sky, words etched with rays
of greenish light: “Chocolate and Cocoa.”
And cars, like cats with trampled tails,
wail frantically: “Meow! Meow!”

Black trees, like scraggly brooms,
have swept the rouged stars from the sky,
and red-haired, loud-mouthed trams
creep over cobble-skulls — done for the night.

Dolphins of granite, looking like fat pugs,
drink from a grimy fountain’s spout,
while Pushkin’s statue reaches for a smoke
and asks a lantern: “Have you got a light?”

Decadent clouds go floating overhead,
and women’s lips all smell like cheap cigars.
The crescent moon — an orange sausage link —
dangles above the roadway’s parted hair.

A seven-story house, arms full of signs,
smokes coal like dandies smoke cigars,
and a red-nosed lantern in a schoolboy’s cap
winks at a sign — he’s doing great so far!

Atop the lakes of oily asphalt, ruddy stars
worship the night in a black mass…
O pimps, rejoice, raise chimneys from the rooftops —
Rue Déribas has found its poetess!


Дерибасовская ночью


На грязном небе выбиты лучами
Зеленые буквы: «Шоколад и какао»,
И автомобили, как коты с придавленными хвостами,
Неистово визжат: «Ах, мяу! мяу!»

Черные деревья растрепанными метлами
Вымели с неба нарумяненные звезды,
И краснорыжие трамваи, погромыхивая мордами,
По черепам булыжников ползут на роздых.

Гранитные дельфины — разжиревшие мопсы —
У грязного фонтана захотели пить,
И памятник Пушкина1, всунувши в рот папиросу,
Просит у фонаря: «Позвольте закурить!»

Дегенеративные тучи проносятся низко,
От женских губ несет копеечными сигарами,
И месяц повис, как оранжевая сосиска,
Над мостовой, расчесавшей пробор тротуарами.

Семиэтажный дом с вывесками в охапке,
Курит уголь, как денди сигару,
И красноносый фонарь в гимназической шапке
Подмигивает вывеске — он сегодня в ударе.

На черных озерах маслянистого асфальта
Рыжие звезды служат ночи мессу…
Радуйтесь, сутенеры, трубы дома подымайте —
И у Дерибасовской есть поэтесса!


Poets Café with Lois P. Jones, and Cardinal Points

It’s always a pleasure to speak to the poet and radio host Lois P. Jones, on or off the air. She is the perfect interlocutor — warm, curios, enthusiastic, and remarkably sensitive to language. A couple of months ago we sat down at the KPFK studio to discuss 1917 and The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, touching on some of my favorite poets, including Anna Prismanova, Arseny Tarkovsky, and Irina Mashinski.

I was born too late to meet Prismanova or Tarkovsky, but I am lucky enough to count Irina Mashinski among my teachers and friends. This month, she and I are putting the finishing touches on volume 7 of Cardinal Points, the annual journal of Slavic literature in translation that she cofounded with her late husband, the brilliant Oleg Woolf, and Robert Chandler. Cardinal Points is now sponsored by Brown University’s Department of Slavic Studies, and our new volume is due out in October.

BBC Radio 4: The Cultural Front

The latest episode of the excellent BBC Radio 4 program(me) The Cultural Front, “Reality and Reconstruction,” focuses on “the meeting of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart hospital in Edinburgh”; Pablo Picasso’s “collaboration with The Ballet Russe and the creation of his biggest ever piece of work — The Parade Curtain”; sculptor Francis Derwent Wood’s tin masks, which were meant to make patients who had suffered facial injuries “look as close as possible to how [they] had been before [they were] wounded”; and the art that arose from the Russian Revolution. I speak to host Francine Stock about the poetry of 1917 at 6:55.

On a related note, this week LARB presented an excerpt from historian Yuri Slezkine’s monumental new book The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, alongside a review of the volume by Max Holleran.

Four by Alexander Tinyakov (1886-1934)

The final issue of the wonderful and always surprising online journal Numéro Cinq features four poems by the terrible and downright shocking Alexander Tinyakov (1886-1934) in my translation. It’s somehow appropriate that Tinyakov, who was perpetually late to the party — releasing his first book of Symbolist verse in 1912, two years after the “crisis of Russian Symbolism” — should make it into Numéro Cinq by the skin of his gritted teeth.

I want to express my gratitude to Melissa Considine Beck, one of the literary blogosphere’s most distinguished citizens, for soliciting this selection, and to Douglas Glover, the journal’s founding editor, for cheerfully accepting poems he rightly calls “blackly cynical and exuberantly negative.”

You’ll find the Russian texts below the fold.


Любо мне, плевку-плевочку,
По канавке грязной мчаться,
То к окурку, то к пушинке
Скользким боком прижиматься.

Пусть с печалью или с гневом
Человеком был я плюнут,
Небо ясно, ветры свежи,
Ветры радость в меня вдунут.

В голубом речном просторе
С волей жажду я обняться,
А пока мне любо — быстро
По канавке грязной мчаться.

Март 1907

Поздний грач

Подморозило — и лужи
Спят под матовым стеклом.
Тяжело и неуклюже
Старый грач взмахнул крылом.

Дожил здесь он до морозов,
Дотянул почти до вьюг
И теперь почуял позыв
Улететь на светлый юг.

Клюв озябшей лапкой чистя,
Он гадает о пути,
А пред ним влекутся листья
И шуршат: «Прощай! Лети!»

Декабрь 1909

Радость жизни

Едут навстречу мне гробики полные,
В каждом — мертвец молодой,
Сердцу от этого весело, радостно,
Словно берёзке весной!

Вы околели, собаки несчастные, —
Я же дышу и хожу.
Крышки над вами забиты тяжёлые, —
Я же на небо гляжу!

Может, — в тех гробиках гении разные,
Может, — поэт Гумилёв…
Я же, презренный и всеми оплёванный,
Жив и здоров!

Скоро, конечно, и я тоже сделаюсь
Падалью, полной червей,
Но пока жив, — я ликую над трупами
Раньше умерших людей.

28 июля 1921

Моление о пищи

Ухо во всю жизнь может не слышать звуков тимпана, лютни
и флейты; зрение обойдется и без созерцания садов; обоняние
легко лишается запаха розы и базилика; а если нет мягкой, полной
подушки, все же хорошо можно заснуть, положивши в изголовье
камень; если не найдется для сна подруги, можешь обнять руками
себя самого – но вот бессовестное чрево, изогнутое кишками,
не выдерживает и не может ни с чем примириться.

Пищи сладкой, пищи вкусной
Даруй мне, судьба моя, —
И любой поступок гнусный
Совершу за пищу я.

Я свернусь бараньим рогом
И на брюхе поползу,
Насмеюсь, как хам, над Богом,
Оскверню свою слезу.

В сердце чистое нагажу,
Крылья мыслям остригу,
Совершу грабёж и кражу,
Пятки вылижу врагу.

За кусок конины с хлебом
Иль за фунт гнилой трески
Я, — порвав все связи с небом, —
В ад полезу, в батраки.

Дайте мне ярмо на шею,
Но дозвольте мне поесть.
Сладко сытому лакею
И горька без пищи честь.

Ноябрь 1921

Igor Golomstock (1929-2017)

The Russian-born art historian Igor Golomstock, one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met, passed away on July 12, 2017, in London. Robert Chandler’s obituary of his late friend appeared in The Guardian today. In it, Robert mentions that Igor’s “last publication, in Russian, was Memoirs of an Old Pessimist (2011). The complete memoir is due to be published in English next year.” Two chapters of this important book, about Igor’s childhood in Kolyma, appeared in Cardinal Points.

In an earlier version of the obituary, Robert had included what I think is a significant and moving passage: “Igor was an Anglophile. He spoke of two moments in his life when he felt overwhelmed, unable to believe he was really in England and not just dreaming. One was in the Senior Common Room at New College, Oxford; the other was in an ordinary London pub. Nevertheless, his inner world, like that of many Russian émigrés, remained deeply Russian, and most of his friends were either Russians or English Russianists.”

I am now in London myself, for an event at the British Library, and feel a measure of Igor’s joy at being here.

“Justice in Quotes”

On July 12th and 13th, Odessa celebrated the 123rd birthday of its beloved myth-maker, Isaac Babel, with a bash that would have pleased the party-loving Kriks: a flashmob! My friend, the intrepid travel and food writer Caroline Eden, was on the scene and tweeted a photo of the festivities — as well as one of her mouthwatering, if “slippery,”  lunch. (Ah, the sprats of my childhood! “And suddenly the memory returns.”)

You can read about the event in the 9th issue of The Odessa Review. And I’m deeply grateful to the journal’s Chief Editor, Vladislav Davidzon, and its Senior Editor, Katya Michaels, for including my translation of what may have been Babel’s earliest Odessa story, “Justice in Quotes,” in the same issue. “Justice,” which is written in the voice of the scheming broker Tsudechkis, was published in an Odessa newspaper in August 1921 and never reprinted in Babel’s lifetime. (July 7 was also my birthday, and I couldn’t have asked for a better gift from my hometown.)

The Odessa Review has been a boon to Odessa — a vibrant, inventive, cosmopolitan publication in the city’s own image. May it prosper!