The King Strikes Again

Charles King, whose Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams (2011) provides a fabulous introduction to my fabled hometown, contributed a generous (to say the least!) review of Odessa Stories to the latest TLS (31 March):

Sparkling, wily and loose-tongued, with characters interrupting each other midsentence or slapping away someone else’s idiotic opinion as if it were a horsefly, Babel’s dialogue calls out for a daring translator — someone who will at last do away with “Devil take you!” as an English rendering of the catch-all Russian curse. Boris Dralyuk delivers brilliantly. It helps that he grew up in Odessa himself and has a feel for native pacing and conversational form — not least how to tell a zinger of a joke without overplaying the set-up, or how to lob an insult so that you’re halfway down the street before the target realizes it has been hit.

The result is a fresh and newly accessible version of Babel, a work that is Russian, Jewish, Odessan and idiomatically English all at the same time. Even the violence — and there is plenty of it, described with a cinematic absurdity that calls for a director like Quentin Tarantino — is by turns funny and heartbreaking. Gangsters accidentally shoot one another, women beat their lay-about husbands and, in “The Story of My Dovecote”, the 1905 pogrom is sealed in a single, ghastly image: the corpse of the storyteller’s great-uncle lying on the ground with a live perch wriggling in the crotch of his trousers, a parting joke from his murderers.

The illustration for the piece is a striking poster for Benya Krik (1926), the Soviet film based on the stories and scripted by Babel himself. It’s a silent film, but, as we know, Benya doesn’t talk much anyway. Actions speak louder than words. A few title cards will do. You can watch the whole thing here. Bitten by the Benya bug, I kept on reveling in the sights and sounds of Old Odessa. Here is Leonid Utyosov (born Leyzer Vaysbeyn, 1895-1982) — Odessa’s bard and, for decades, the most popular performer in the Soviet Union — singing “Gop so smykom,” one of the great criminal ballads (blatnye pesni) of the 1920s:

“Gop so smykom” could mean “Hood with a Fiddle Bow,” “Hood with a Gang,” or “Hood Who Grabs and Runs.” The ambiguity of the slang only adds to the song’s charm, burnishing its myth. (Think “Stagger Lee,” or “Stagolee,” or “Stack-o-Lee.”) And the footage is of Utyosov himself, playing the lead in The Career of Spirka Shpandyr (1926). Russian speakers can explore the variants of “Gop” and of many other criminal ballads at the impeccably curated site a-pesni. My favorites include “S odesskogo kichmana” (“From an Odessan Hoosegow”), which is based, believe it or not, on a translation of Heine’s “Die Grenadiere,” and the immortal “Murka” (“Moll”), with its murky history.

One day I’ll write about Yakov Yadov (1873-1940), the Odessan poet who might have written “Murka” and “Gop.” For now, I’ll leave you with a bonafide Yadov number, “Bubliki” or “Bublichki” (“Bagels”), the sob story of a girl forced to sell bagels on the street corner. Her father’s a drunk, her mother’s a scrubwoman (at death’s door, according to some versions)… It’s the early Soviet “House of the Rising Song.” Utyosov performs:

Vice-ridden Babel, Romantic Mickiewicz, and Ainsley Morse on “The Fire Horse”

The March issue of Vice magazine features a review of my translation of Babel’s Odessa Stories — and what a crackerjack review it is!

The salty speech of the city’s inhabitants is wonderfully rendered in a new translation by Boris Dralyuk, who preserves the characters’ Yiddishisms (“He doesn’t talk much, but when he talks, you want he should keep talking”) and imbues the dialogue with hard-boiled language reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett (“Buzz off, coppers… or we’ll flatten you”). Although Babel mostly lets characters speak for themselves, the narrators’ descriptions can be as luxurious as the stolen jewels given to Benya’s sister on her wedding night, or as surprising as a slap in the face.

I owe Andrew Katzenstein a tray of stolen jewels and a bottle of Bessarabian wine. L’chaim!

Last week’s TLS (17 March) carried my own review of a new translation of Adam Mickiewicz’s Forefathers’ Eve, “the most thoroughly romantic work by the bard of Poland, that most thoroughly romantic of nations.”

And I’m very proud to share Ainsley Morse’s review of Eugene Ostashevsky’s The Fire Horse: Children’s Poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Osip Mandelstam and Daniil Kharms (NYR Children’s Collection), which appeared in LARB exactly a week ago. Ainsley contextualizes this vibrant collection beautifully.

Translation Review, vol. 97

Some months ago I was asked to introduce a special ‘Russian-to-English’ issue of Translation Review. That issue (vol. 97) has just appeared. Unfortunately, the full contents are only available to subscribers — but there are previews for each article, translation, and review.  Aside from the introduction (“The Silver Age of Russian-to-English Translation”),  I contributed an essay on Dmitry Usov (“‘Reflection in a Hanging Mirror’: Identifying with Dmitry Usov’s ‘The Translator’”) and a translation of Lev Ozerov’s verse ‘portrait’ of the great Soviet translator and children’s poet Korney Chukovsky. The Ozerov poem appears alongside two others, translated by Robert Chandler. All three are drawn from Ozerov’s posthumous Portraits Without Frames (1996), a kind of mini-encyclopedia of Soviet culture. You can learn more about the poet and his portraits at the Literary Encyclopedia; the entry features links to a number of poems in English translation, and the whole of Portraits Without Frames is forthcoming from NYRB Classics and Granta in 2018 (translated by Maria Bloshteyn, Robert Chandler, Irina Mashinski, and myself).

This issue of Translation Review was compiled by Will Evans, the publisher of Deep Vellum Books, who is himself a Russian translator. It features work by Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich, Adrian Wanner, Shelley Fairweather-Vega, Jamie Olson, Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky, Katherine E. Young, and James Womack.

Georgy Ivanov in Inventory

I’ve written about Georgy Ivanov (1894-1958), my favorite poet of the Russian emigration, elsewhere. Robert Chandler, Irina Mashinski, and I included a number of his poems in The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. Now I’d like to share another of his elegant, despairing poems of exile. This one appears in the latest issue of Inventory (no. 7), a journal of translation associated with Princeton University, and is embedded in a little essay I titled “‘The Perpetual Triumph of Sacrifice’: Translating Georgy Ivanov,” borrowing a phrase from Paul Valéry:

Ivanov’s last poems were written in an almshouse for stateless persons in Hyères, in a kind of second exile from Paris and Biarritz, where he had made his homes away from home. This final irony was exacerbated by the fact that many of his fellow residents at the almshouse were communist refugees from Franco’s Spain. To his own surprise, Ivanov found that he liked these communists a great deal more than his fellow Russians—aged veterans of the vanquished White Army, with whom he had precious little in common save for the experience of exile and his cherished memories of old Russia. It is these men whom Ivanov describes in a poem of 1955:

Life goes on, defying common sense.
Old men chatter in the southern sun:
“Moscow ballrooms… The weather in Simbirsk…
The War… Kerensky… We had freedom then…”

Before you know it — forty years in France,
a buzzing in the head, chill in the bones.
“Masonic plot… The Jews, all their infernal…
Ah, you were published? Where? Which journal?”

…In the dull sunshine there is peace and grace.
They wait and wait, but hope it won’t be long
before the old Cyrillic script regains its place,
before that age of gold re-dawns.

The magic of Ivanov’s poem lies in his ability at once to empathize and even identify with his subjects — he too is an old man with a buzzing in his head, a chill in his bones, who longs desperately for the golden age eclipsed by the Bolshevik Revolution — and to show his disdain for their foolishness. Ivanov was a monarchist, who had as little time for Alexander Kerensky and the Provisional Government that took charge of Russia in February 1917 as he did for the Bolsheviks who seized power in October of that year, so the “freedom” of which these old men dream at the end of the second stanza is cloaked in heavy irony. That irony prepares us for the despicable anti-Semitism the veterans voice in the second stanza. How far, we are forced to wonder, has blaming Masons and Jews for all of Russia’s ills gotten them? Do they themselves shoulder no responsibility? The empathy of the first stanza and the heavy irony of the second blend in the third: a half-ironic, half-sincere expression of hope that implicates both Ivanov and his subjects — a hope for old Russia’s rebirth that Ivanov can neither fully embrace nor abandon.

One of the lessons this poem offers to a translator is that some things are doomed to be lost even when they are preserved. For instance, in the original Russian, the meter demands that the stress in “Kerensky” fall on the second syllable; I’ve reproduced the accenting in English, but not the effect. In Russian, the proper pronunciation of the man’s name is Kérensky, with the accent on the first syllable. By placing the accent on the second, Ivanov both hints at the old veterans’ ignorance and, as scholar Andrey Aryev points out, alludes to a pair of lines by Leonid Kannegisser (1896-1918), a minor poet and the assassin of the head of the Petrograd Cheka: “I will remember — Russia, freedom, / Kerensky on a snow-white steed.” Needless to say, the allusion to Kannegisser is lost even on most Russian readers. A larger number may pick up on the improper accenting of Kerensky’s name. Anglophone readers, however, would never regard the pronunciation as improper. If they know of Kerensky at all, it is precisely as Kerénsky, with the accent on the second syllable. Had I tried to reproduce the effect of the improper pronunciation — say, by switching the accent to its proper location, the first syllable — the results would not have reflected poorly on the old veterans, but rather on my ability to scan.

And all this — if they know of Kerensky at all… So why keep Kerensky? Just how many of an original poem’s explicit references can a translator afford to lose? It depends on one’s intended audience. The ideal Anglophone reader I posit when translating expects an effective English poem, but has some interest in Russian culture and history; otherwise, why would she or he even bother reading the work of a Russian poet? This reader may know of Kerensky as the head of the Provisional Government, but not know the correct pronunciation of the man’s name; this reader may also know that Russians used an “old Cyrillic script” before the Soviet regime’s spelling reform of 1918, but not know the names of the eliminated letters yat and fita, which occur in the original poem. If the reader is unaware of Kerensky or of the “old Cyrillic script,” she or he can gather the general burden of these references from the context, and can easily look up more information after reading the poem. Kerensky and the script are important to the poem’s effect and pull their weight in English, whereas the improper accenting of Kerensky’s name and the letters yat and fita are decidedly secondary elements; reproducing these elements in English would only erect unnecessary obstacles for the reader.

Another element I sacrificed was the specific name of the journal mentioned at the end of the second stanza. A literal translation of the original line would read: “You were published? Where? Which issue of Hyperborean?” Founded in 1912 by [Nikolay] Gumilyov and Sergey Gorodetsky (1884-1967), Hyperborean (Giperborey) was the short-lived literary organ of the Acmeist movement. Ivanov had appeared in its pages alongside [Anna] Akhmatova and [Osip] Mandelstam. The line might have been inspired by a poem that one of Ivanov’s old acquaintances, Vasily Sumbatov, had published in an émigré journal in 1954; it begins, “Akhmatova, Ivanov, Mandelstam — / a long-forgotten Hyperborean…” The question, then, is likely posed by one of the old men to Ivanov himself; and yet, without knowledge of the Sumbatov subtext, the reader could easily assume that it is addressed to any one of the old men in the almshouse. Is there really much difference? By placing the question about his appearance in the journal on the lips of his pathetic countrymen — bundling it with their misguided reveries — Ivanov ironizes his own past, underscoring just how little it matters here, in Hyères, among these exiled military relics. He is, in the end, just another decrepit exile.

The veiled allusion behind the journal’s name is to the mythical Hyperboreans, giants who dwell in a northern land of everlasting sunshine; it adds another ironic hue to the depiction of these “old men chatter[ing] in the southern sun.” But this faint irony is likely to be missed even by Russian readers of the original, and in the English poem it would be far outweighed by the distracting specificity of the journal’s name. Interpreting the reference to an Acmeist publication would require specialized knowledge that I simply could not expect of my ideal reader. Furthermore, as I see it, the generalized questions — “Ah, you were published? Where? Which journal?” — only amplify the original’s effect. If the reader surmises that the questions are addressed to Ivanov, then it appears that the old veterans are not only unaware of Ivanov’s appearance in a particular issue of Hyperborean, they simply have no idea of where he published — or, for that matter, of whether he published poems or articles on Masonic plots.

Жизнь продолжается рассудку вопреки.
На южном солнышке болтают старики:
— Московские балы… Симбирская погода…
Великая война… Керенская свобода…

И — скоро сорок лет у Франции в гостях.
Жужжанье в черепах и холодок в костях.
— Масонский заговор… Особенно евреи…
Печатались? А где? В каком Гиперборее?

…На мутном солнышке покой и благодать,
Они надеются, уже недолго ждать —
Воскреснет твердый знак, вернутся ять с фитою
И засияет жизнь эпохой золотою.


1917 in the TLS

This week’s issue of the Times Literary Supplement (17 February 2017, hot off the presses!) brings us a wealth of reviews and articles marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution(s), including a superb piece on my 1917 anthology by Caryl Emerson. Emerson’s writing is, as always, dazzling.

The issue also features Stephen Lovell’s piece on Douglas Smith’s Rasputin, Robert Service’s omnibus review of S. A. Smith’s Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890–1928, Mark D. Steinberg’s The Russian Revolution, 1905–1921, and Jonathan D. Smele’s The ‘Russian’ Civil Wars, 1916–1926: Ten Years that Shook the World, and Wendy Slater on Robert Service’s own The Last of the Tsars: Nicholas II and the Russian Revolution.

Balmont’s Parable of the Small Sultan

I’d like to share another poem from the “Freedom Anthology.” In March 1901, Konstantin Balmont (1867-1942) — then one of the most popular poets in Russia — was sentenced to three years’ internal exile for reciting a treasonous poem in public. This poem was, ostensibly, about a “small sultan” in Turkey. But neither the audience nor the Tsarist spies were fooled. It clearly referred to events in Russia — namely, the violent suppression of a student protest in front of the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg earlier that month. Here is Balmont’s parable, in my translation:

This was in Turkey, where there is no conscience.
What reigns there is the fist, the lash, the scimitar,
Two-three nonentities, four villains,
And one small sultan, who is none too smart.

Once, in the name of liberty, and faith, and science,
Thinkers assembled — a small, zealous group.
Bashi-bazouks descended on them like a pride of lions,
Each one only as strong as his coarse whip.

The thinkers scattered… Now they’re gone, all fled.
But, secretly, the exiles gathered round a poet.
‘How can we overcome,’ they asked, ‘this evil fate?
Answer us, bard — spare not your wisdom — share it!’

He thought and thought, and then addressed the crowd:
‘Speak words, if you can speak, inspired by the spirit’s breath.
All those who are not deaf must hear those words.
And if they don’t — the knife.’

Between 4th and 14th March 1901

То было в Турции, где совесть — вещь пустая,
Там царствуют кулак, нагайка, ятаган,
Два-три нуля, четыре негодяя
И глупый маленький султан.

Во имя вольности, и веры, и науки
Там как-то собрались ревнители идей,
Но сильных грубостью размашистых плетей
На них нахлынули толпы башибузуков.

Они рассеялись… И вот их больше нет;
Но тайно собрались изгнанники с поэтом.
«Как выйти, — говорят, — из этих темных бед, —
Ответствуй нам, певец, не поскупись советом!»

И он собравшимся, подумав, так сказал:
«Кто может говорить, пусть дух в нем словом дышит,
И если кто не глух, пускай то слово слышит,
А если нет — кинжал».

Между 4 и 14 марта 1901

An Open Book

I’ve just returned from a wonderful trip to London, where two inexplicably kind crowds allowed me to ramble on about 1917 and Babel. More importantly, I made good headway on my next project, Soviet satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko’s devastating Sentimental Tales. I’ll have much more to say about the Tales in later posts.

In the meantime, here I am on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book, discussing 1917 with host Mariella Frostrup and historical novelist Kate Furnivall (starting at 19:03). What an honor that was! And here is the ever-perceptive Phoebe Taplin’s fantastic review of 1917 for Russia Beyond the Headlines.

Busy as I was last week, I found time for a strenuous book hunt on Charing Cross. The catch of the day was a British edition of Proletarian Literature in the United States: An American Book Union Selection (1935), full of first-rate socially conscious writing from the 1920s and ‘30s, including prose by Erskine Caldwell, Josephine Herbst, John Dos Passos, Grace Lumpkin, and James T. Farrell, poetry by Muriel Rukeyser, Langston Hughes, Genevieve Taggard, and Maxwell Bodenheim, and drama by Albert Maltz and Clifford Odets. Here are two of my favorite poems from the volume — Kenneth Fearing’s “Dirge” and Alfred Hayes’s “In a Coffee Pot.” As Suzanne Churchill points out, the latter is a kind of working-class take on “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The scene Hayes describes calls to mind James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) — and, of course, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942).


The basement at Any Amount of Books never disappoints!

Presently in London

I’m in London this week, giving two talks on 1917 and spending as much time as possible with some of my dearest friends. If you live in town or happen to be passing through, the talks are at Pushkin House (Tuesday, Jan. 17 — appropriately enough) and Sands Film Studios (Friday, Jan. 20).

And for those of you who enjoy fixed forms, here’s a (modified) Onegin stanza, titled “Absentee Ballet,” which just appeared in the January 2017 issue of The Yale Review.

Radio Days and Irina Mashinski’s “The Room, January 1”

A few days before we bid farewell to 2016, my friends and colleagues Sasha Razor and David MacFadyen joined me for a LARB Radio Hour on Soviet New Year’s celebrations. Around the same time, I was given the opportunity to discuss 1917 on the RTÉ radio show Arena, hosted by Seán Rocks.

2017 is now with us, and in the spirit of new beginnings, I’d like to share Irina Mashinski’s beautiful poem “The Room, January 1,” which she and I translated together some years ago.

I’ll get it — just a little more and …
I’ll stand on tiptoe in the morning,
and then, come evening, I will reach
the tender fir tree’s ticklish withers,
forget about myself beneath it,
and feel the topmost needle’s touch.

All morning, the accordion’s
complaints were heard, the worrying
over my palm’s unlengthy line.
But toward evening, you are higher
than yourself — look, from the spire:
the tree, the winding road, the moon.

As if you’re on the downward slope of
your own years — so bright and hopeless,
alone, inside a rocking tram.
The view’s the same — and yet it’s altered.
Whom will you tell that you’ve just started,
a new force pulses through your palm?

Комната 1 января

Еще чуть-чуть — и я достану:
с утра нацыпочки привстану,
а к вечеру и дотянусь
до чуткой холки нежной елки,
иголки самой верхней, колкой,
себя внизу забыв, коснусь.

Все утро жалобы гармони,
и волновала на ладони
недлинной линии длина.
А к вечеру — как будто выше
себя самой, как будто в крыши —
дорога, дерево, луна.

Как будто ты уже на склоне
лет собственных. В пустом вагоне
остался, умный, в дураках.
В окне все также — но иначе
Кому сказать, что путь не начат
и силы прибыло в руках?

Zinaida Gippius (1869-1945)

While translating a small anthology of Russian poems on the theme of freedom, I was struck once again by the rhetorical power of Zinaida Gippius’s verse. Robert Chandler, Irina Mashinski, and I included three of her poems in The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, and I feature one of these, as well as two others, in my 1917. Below are another two. The first is drawn from the “freedom” anthology, and the second appeared in a special issue of Chtenia: Readings from Russia (Summer 2014) dedicated to Russian writing about World War I.


I can’t submit myself to man.
Who’d choose to be a slave?
We judge each other all life long —
and then? A lonely grave.

I can’t submit myself to God,
because I love Him so.
For God has set me on this road —
where else am I to go?

I tear the nets that bind mankind —
happiness, sadness, dreams.
We aren’t slaves — we are Divine —
His children, free as He.

I only plead, in the Son’s name,
with God, the Creator of All,
‘Father, for ever may they remain
as one — Your will and mine!’



Without Justification

No, I will never make my peace.
There’s truth in all my curses.
I won’t forgive, won’t throw myself
into the iron embraces.

Like everyone, I’ll die, I’ll kill —
ruin myself, like everyone —
but I refuse to stain my soul
by justifying what goes on.

When death is near, in darkness, fire,
let my heart not forget:
One cannot justify the war!
One can’t, one simply can’t.

And if this is God’s Hand at work —
this awful, bloody road —
my spirit will not shrink or shirk,
but rise against the Lord.

April 1916, SPB


Я не могу покоряться людям.
Можно ли рабства хотеть?
Целую жизнь мы друг друга судим, —
Чтобы затем — умереть.

Я не могу покоряться Богу,
Если я Бога люблю.
Он указал мне мою дорогу,
Как от нее отступлю?

Я разрываю людские сети —
Счастье, унынье и сон.
Мы не рабы, — но мы Божьи дети,
Дети свободны, как Он.

Только взываю, именем Сына,
К Богу, Творцу Бытия:
Отче, вовек да будут едино
Воля Твоя и моя!



Без оправданья

Нет, никогда не примирюсь.
Верны мои проклятья.
Я не прощу, я не сорвусь
В железные объятья.

Как все, пойду, умру, убью,
Как все — себя разрушу,
Но оправданием — свою
Не запятнаю душу.

В последний час, во тьме, в огне,
Пусть сердце не забудет:
Нет оправдания войне!
И никогда не будет.

И если это Божья длань —
Кровавая дорога —
Мой дух пойдет и с Ним на брань,
Восстанет и на Бога.

Апрель 1916, СПБ