Ivan Elagin and Vladimir Markov

The final print issue of the excellent literary journal The Los Angeles Review, vol. 21 (not to be confused with The Los Angeles Review of Books) carries two poems, in my translation, by Ivan Elagin (1918-1987) and Vladimir Markov (1920-2013), who were associated with the Second Wave of Russian emigration — a group cast adrift during the Second World War. Both Elagin and Markov were children of families torn apart by Stalin’s “Great Terror” in the late 1930s. Their fathers were arrested and executed; Markov’s mother was sent to the Gulag, while Elagin’s was committed to a psychiatric hospital. Both men left the Soviet Union during the war and spent time in DP camps before immigrating to the United States. Elagin earned his PhD from NYU and took a post teaching Russian literature at the University of Pittsburgh. Markov earned his PhD at Berkeley and went on to teach at UCLA, where he established himself as one of his generation’s most perceptive and influential scholars of Russian modernist poetry. Both men were also gifted poets in their own right. As one might expect, many of their lyrics touch on the usual themes — and are touched by the usual moods — of emigration: the sense of displacement, stagnation, and loneliness, the temptations of nostalgia and the threat of oblivion. These two poems — one written in transit, the other in a new home the poet still finds foreign — articulate, quietly but powerfully, the experience of exile.

Vladimir Markov

Мy life slips from my mind —
days, objects, faces, towns.
All I remember now
are rattling, wailing trains.

Look round, nothing has changed:
I’m in third class once more,
with eggshells on the floor…
Seats shine like greasy skin.

Tomorrow is a pond
obscured by scum, while my
whole life lies on my palm,
weblike, in some strange tongue.


Ivan Elagin

My neighbors hang on walls facing my flat,
in heavy frames, behind thick glass:
a woman dressed in plaid sits deep in thought,
a student stoops above his writing desk.
While farther off, two girls, bored and alone,
have pressed their foreheads up against their panes.
A year will pass, I’ll stare out at the same
old page in this, my album made of stone.


Владимир Марков

Я жизнь свою позабываю —
Дни, вещи, лица, города —
И помню только поезда,
Что мчат, стучат и завывают.

И до сих пор кругом все то же:
С дощечкой «третий класс» купэ,
Где пол в яичной скорлупе…
И лоснятся скамьи, как рожи.

День завтрашний тягучей тиной,
Как пруд, покрыт, лишь на руке,
На непонятном языке, —
Вся жизнь — гравюрой-паутиной.


Иван Елагин

Напротив, на стене, мои соседи
Висят в тяжёлых рамах под стеклом.
Вот женщина задумчивая в пледе,
А вот студент за письменным столом.
Поодаль две скучающих девицы
Бессмысленно в стекло уткнулись лбом.
И через год мой каменный альбом
Открою я на этой же странице.



Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1932-2017)

Just over a month ago, on April 1, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the last of the major Soviet poets, passed away in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he had been living for two decades. In 1964 he famously declared that in Russia a poet is more than a poet; his own life bore out the truth of those words. A handsome, charismatic man with a stentorian voice, he came to embody the spirit of “The Thaw,” a period of relative liberalization in Soviet cultural policy after Stalin’s death. His poems “Babi Yar,” on the massacre of Jews outside Kyiv during the Second World War, and “Stalin’s Heirs,” on the General Secretary’s lingering legacy, tested the limits of that liberalization.

He became a celebrity at home, reciting his verse to stadiums packed with adoring fans, and was sent abroad as an ambassador of the new USSR. Like any star, he had his detractors. In the eyes of some unofficial Soviet-era poets and dissidents — Joseph Brodsky among them — Yevtushenko’s semi-official status was evidence of a Faustian bargain with an evil regime. And those whose tastes run to the sophisticated often dismissed his verse for its accessibility and popularity. I myself find “Babi Yar” and his poems on civic themes unappealing. But Yevtushenko was, undeniably, a poet of great gifts. And just as importantly, in the words of Irina Mashinski, “he cared more about poetry than about himself in poetry.”

Yevtushenko’s anthology of 20th-century Russian verse, Stanzas of the Era (Strofy veka, 1995), published in English as Silver and Steel, features the work of 875 poets. It was attacked by critics and competitors both for its size and its arbitrariness, but a student of Russian poetry would be hard-pressed to find a more useful resource. Every time I think I’ve discovered a completely forgotten poet — Anna Prismanova, Aleksandr Tinyakov, Yuri Kazarnovsky — there he or she is, in Yevtushenko’s pages. His Stanzas is the fruit of a lifetime in the service of poetry.

And that lifetime of service also produced strikingly beautiful poems. On the day of Yevtushenko’s death, Jennifer Croft — a writer and translator who had been a student of his at the University of Tulsa — sent me one such poem, “Людей неинтересных в мире нет” (“There are no boring people in this world,” 1961). This lyric, which sits at the heart of Jennifer’s brilliant novel Homesick, is a moving affirmation of Yevtushenko’s deep-rooted humanism, of his genuine interest in the experience of others. I couldn’t help translating it — or part of it.

Today The Guardian published my translation, which condenses the original’s fifth and sixth stanzas into one, ending the poem with the quietly devastating line, “it isn’t people but whole worlds that perish.” The publication functions as an epitaph, and I felt that this line — solemn and cosmic — struck the right concluding note.

But the Russian poem does go on, rising to a half-stifled cry of agony, which Jennifer captured, better than I ever could, in her translation of the final stanza. Below is our joint translation.

There are no boring people in this world.
Each fate is like the history of a planet.
And no two planets are alike at all.
Each is distinct — you simply can’t compare it.

If someone lived without attracting notice
and made a friend of their obscurity —
then their uniqueness was precisely this.
Their very plainness made them interesting.

Each person has a world that’s all their own.
Each of those worlds must have its finest moment
and each must have its hour of bitter torment —
and yet, to us, both hours remain unknown.

When people die, they do not die alone.
They die along with their first kiss, first combat.
They take away their first day in the snow…
All gone, all gone — there’s just no way to stop it.

There may be much that’s fated to remain,
but something — something leaves us all the same.
The rules are cruel, the game nightmarish —
it isn’t people but whole worlds that perish.

People die. Their deaths can’t be reversed.
Their secret worlds won’t be traversed
again. And all that’s ever left for me to do
is cry, How can we lose you, too?


Leopold Staff (1878-1957)

Looking over some of my quaint and curious attempts at translation, I found a version of a nostalgic sonnet by the Polish poet Leopold Staff (1878-1957). It seems to have been inspired by Baudelaire’s “Le Voyage,” with that beautiful opening stanza:

Pour l’enfant, amoureux de cartes et d’estampes,
L’univers est égal à son vaste appétit.
Ah! que le monde est grand à la clarté des lampes!
Aux yeux du souvenir que le monde est petit!

Staff’s poem is called “Childhood” (“Dzieciństwo”):

The poetry of ancient wells, of broken clocks;
the attic; cracked, mute violins without a fiddler;
a yellow book, where dried foget-me-nots
still sleep – were to my childhood an enchanted woodland…

First I collected rusty keys… A tale
whispered that one key was a wondrous gift of gifts,
which opened castles hidden in a mist
where I would go – pale prince out of a Van Dyck oil.

Then I collected butterflies, a magic lamp’s
charmed marvels that appeared upon a papered wall,
and also, for a long time, postage stamps…

For they were like a crazy journey through the world,
full of departures to the earth’s four corners…
Sweet dream, ridiculous, like happiness… like happiness…


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 Sun.” 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!