What’s it all about?
This is an anthology of poems for the year 2010; it contains from one to three poems by each of 129 authors. I have translated the poems here. Those rewarded with three entries are Natalya Gorbanyevskaya, Evgeny Karasev, Kirill Koval’dzhi, Aleksandr Kushner, Vadim Muratkhanov, Vera Pavlova, Vladimir Salimon, Sergei Stratanovsky, and Oleg Chukhontsev. As far as I can see, however, Timur Kibirov wins first prize for the amount of space occupied with four pages when nobody else has more than three. I think I agree with this assessment of Kibirov’s stature as a poet.
That immediately leads me to ask whether these can really be the best poems of 2010, with a maximum of three per author. Surely the fourth best poem of the best author is likely to be better than the best poem of the 129th best one, assuming that ‘best’ means something unequivocal here? On general principles, one would expect something like Zapf’s law to apply, so that the best poet had N poems of the required standard, the second best had N/2, the third best had N/3 and so on. Maybe it’s something more like ‘A selection of poems produced by the best poets of 2010’. In his preface, editor Maksim Amelin says that he wants to present not so much the poets themselves, more their works…
Why did I decide to do it?
It certainly seemed at the time that I was giving something back to the community, since trying to find a translation for poems in foreign languages is something that I use the Internet for. It also made sure that I read every item in a book of poems with some care and attention, probably for the first time since George MacBeth’s Poetry 1900 to 1965 some 40-odd years ago.
What have I learned from doing it?
The overall impression was like one of those holidays where your coach drives into the next town, you get off, look round the points of interest (as we have seen, between one and three in number and of varying magnitudes), and then drive on to the next stopping-place.
I was struck by the wide range of forms, from the strictly traditional to free verse and poésie concrète. Indeed, there were some poems that both in form and content could I thought have been dated to 1910, if not 1810.
As against that, it was good to see that a wide range of subjects were tackled: mathematics, for instance, appeared three times, in connection with Grigory Perel’man, St Ursula, and Lili Brik. There was also an engagement with public affairs if for instance Geopolitics of clothing, which seems to have been taken as a call to action in the Kremlin and elsewhere:
A torn-off sleeve got to call itself Ukraine
Forgetting about discipline, Russia once again
Didn’t mend that vexing tear–it was left undone
And continued her enjoyment, about the field to run.
You need a thread, a needle, and also dark of night
Close the gate and window, and sew that hole up tight.
As for translating the poems, those that are most fun are the ones that seem to be impossible at first sight, such as MRÓTS! SKAÉR BNOÓS MRÓTS!. Otherwise, the main question is what to do about various kinds of closed forms. If you more-or-less reproduce them…well, to start off with, there are fewer rhymes in English than in Russian and feminine rhymes can easily sound very silly. A more principled argument is that if you conserve traditional forms, you are mapping the original onto a point that does not exist in contemporary English poetry, and perhaps thus making it an object of purely antiquarian interest.
As Vladimir Nabokov famously observed:
What is translation? On a platter
A poet’s pale and glaring head,
A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter,
And profanation of the dead.
He was perhaps being overly charitable, something that did not happen very often.
Which are the best poems (and translations)?
The word ‘best’ is fraught with difficulties here, as we have seen above. As regarding the original poems, I would go for Death of an old woman, which contains more than one kingdom of Russianness in a very small space, as a favourite. I also liked From five to seven a lot, and ‘Do not be ill…’ is lovely as well. ‘That which comes apart…’ and Sky are bloody good, and I was also impressed by ‘No canteen, and no shop…’ and ‘….to learn to react to the world’ . I have to say that ‘Blessed is he…’ really is very very good, and thanks to some help from Erik McDonald the translation’s not bad either.
Among the translations, I think that ‘Love does not pass…’ has the ring of a genuine poem. At night is pretty good as a translation, and I think that the English version of ‘Behind the curtain there hides a local god…’ is quite pleasingly Audenesque.
Judging by the number of ‘likes’ left on the various postings by users of wordpress, the most popular poems would be Pan Ch_sky, followed by ‘Without us, the critics will decide….’ and then After the storm. The statistics for visits to individual postings would give first place to ‘The blind man’s getting bills for light’, followed in second place by ‘Along the fence…’ and in third ‘this city is flooded by glowing beams of light…’. This last would also be in joint fourth place for ‘likes’, so may be the overall popular favourite.
Do feel free to leave a comment or to email me about any of this. I would also like to thank Erik McDonald of xixvek for his encouragement and helpful suggestions, especially in being so diplomatic in cases where where I’d just misunderstood the original.