Osip Mandelstam: Ode to Stalin translation by Ilya Bernstein

"Any unit of poetic speech," wrote Osip Mandelstam, "be it a line, a stanza, or an entire lyrical composition, must be regarded as a single word." And in the 1930s he wrote poems each of which reads like one long word, all of its parts held together by some mysterious force. The one exception to this rule is his Ode to Stalin, written in 1937, which is held together by no force at all, but is composed heterogeneously of great lines that are completely Mandelstam's own and expressions that are completely alien to the rest of his work. The result is "a combination of poetry and untruth," as the poet Vladimir Gandelsman has called it, which is impossible to forget because of the seriousness of the poetry and impossible to like because of the loathsomeness of the untruth.

My translation belongs to the genre of "simultaneous translation of poetry," which involves translating a poem as quickly as possible—come what may—while sticking as closely as possible to the rhyme and meter scheme of the original.

—Ilya Bernstein

Ode to Stalin

If I were to employ charcoal for highest praise —
For the unalloyed gladness of a picture —
I’d cut up the thin air with the most subtle rays,
Feeling of care and of alarm a mixture.
So that the features might reflect the Real,
In art that would be bordering on daring
I’d speak of him who shifted the world’s wheel,
While for the customs of a hundred peoples caring.
I’d raise the eyebrow’s corner up a bit,
And raise it once again, and keep on trying:
Look how Prometheus has got his charcoal lit ­—
Look, Aeschylus, at how I’m drawing and crying!

I’d make a handful of resounding lines
To capture his millennium’s early springtime,
And I would tie his courage in a smile
And then untie it in the gentle sunshine;
And in the wise eyes’ friendship for the twin,
Who shall remain unnamed, I’ll find the right expression,
Approaching which, you’ll recognize the father — him —
And lose your breath, feeling the world’s compression.
And I would like to thank the very hills
Which bred his hand and bone and gave them feeling:
Born in the mountains, he knew too the prison’s ills.
I want to call him — no, not Stalin — Dzhugashvili!

Painter, guard and preserve the warrior with your paint:
Surround him with a blue and humid forest
Of damp attention. Not to disappoint
The father with images that are unwholesome, thoughtless.
Painter, help him who’s everywhere with you,
Reasoning; feeling; always, always building.
Nor I nor anyone else, but all mankind, that’s who —
Homer-Mankind will raise his praise’s ceiling.
Painter, guard and preserve the warrior with your paint;
The woods of humanity sing after him, growing thicker —
The very future itself, the army of the sage —
They listen to him ever closer, ever quicker.

He leans over from the stage, as from a mount on high,
Into the mounds of heads. The debtor far surpasses
The suit against him: strictly kind the mighty eyes;
The thick eyebrow at someone nearby flashing;
And I would draw an arrow to point out
The firmness of the mouth — father of stubborn speeches;
The plastic, detailed eyelid, and about
Its outline, framing it, a million ridges;
He is all frankness, recognition, copper, and
A piercing earshot, which won’t tolerate a whisper;
At everyone prepared to live and die like men
Come running playful somber little wrinkles.

Squeezing the charcoal in which all has converged,
And with a greedy hand seeking only a resemblance —
Trying to find only the resemblance’s hinge —
I’ll crumble up the coal, pursuing his appearance.
I learn from him, not learning for myself.
I learn from him to show myself no mercy.
And if unhappiness conceals the plan’s great wealth,
I will discover it amid chaos and cursing.
Let me remain as yet unworthy to have friends,
Let me remain unfilled with tears and with resentment;
I still keep seeing him in a greatcoat, as he stands
In an enchanted square, with eyes full of contentment.

With Stalin’s eyes a mountain is pushed apart.
The squinting plain looks far into the distance:
Like a sea without seams, the future from the past —
From a giant plow to where the sun’s furrow glistens.
He smiles a reaper’s smile, the smiling friend,
Reaper of handshakes in a conversation
Which has begun and which will never end
Smack in the middle of all of Creation.
And every single haystack, every barn
Is strong and clean and smart — a living chattel,
A mankind miracle! May life be large.
Listen to happiness’s axis roll and rattle.

And six times over in my consciousness I keep,
Slow witness to the labor, struggle, and harvest,
His whole enormous path — across the steppe,
Across Lenin’s October — to its kept promise.
Into the distance stretch the mounds of people’s heads:
I become small up there, where no one will espy me;
But in kindhearted books and children’s games, instead,
I’ll rise again to say the sun is shining.
The warrior’s frankness: there exists no truer truth.
For air and steel, for love and honor,
One glorious name takes shape on reader’s tongue and tooth,
And we have caught it and have heard its thunder.

January-March 1937

The Wagging Tongues, Vol. 1

Lost in...oh, you know

There's an international baseball tournament going on right now. Called "The World Baseball Classic," it's basically a marketing device for Major League Baseball. Like most of Bud Selig's ideas, the WBC is basically a good idea that's slightly marred by poor planning, but saved by ball players. The games have been great. Japan and Korea in particular are playing at a very high level. Cuba, however, has been eliminated, the first time since the Revolution that they haven't placed either first or second in an international competition. I mention this at all because translation, or the lack of it, played a role in the Cuban failure.

There were 16 countries competing in the first round, speaking perhaps ten or twelve different languages between them. The WBC has a number of odd rules governing the way players can be used. These rules exist basically to placate big league teams, most of which would prefer that their players not participate. They are fairly complicated and asinine rules. So you'd think that MLB would have made an effort to communicate these rules clearly. Not so much. Apparently they just gave every team a copy of the rules in English and left it up to the teams to take care of getting whatever translations they needed.

So Cuban manager Higinio Velez (arguing above) thought, based on a poor translation, thought that the rule said: If a pitcher throws more than thirty pitches he is ineligible the following day. So he pulled his two best relievers from an important game against Japan when they got to thirty pitches, to keep them available to pitch the following day. That night someone told him he was mistaken. A pitcher was ineligible if he threw thirty pitches or more. So Cuba's two best relievers were not available the following day, and had also been removed from a game that Cuba needed badly to win, which they lost. This translation hiccup was typical of the Cuban team's general bad luck this time around. It's not why they lost, but it did screw Velez's bullpen up, which had a lasting effect. They went on to lose to Japan again a few days later, and are now back in Cuba, where Fidel thinks he knows why his team was made to play against Japan and Korea so often in this American-planned tournament.

What was important to the organizers was eliminating Cuba, a revolutionary country that has heroically resisted and has not been defeated in the battle of ideas. Nevertheless, we shall one day again be a dominant power in the sport.

Which is only the second most incredible, poetic thing that's been said so far in the tournament. First prize goes Japanese outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, who failed to get a bunt down against Cuba, and didn't feel very good about it.
That failed bunt put another crack in my already tattered heart. It was as though I was the only person on our side wearing a Cuba jersey.

In other news

Garfield finally carried through on his threats to mail Chad Post to Abu Dhabi.

Monica Carter at Salonica is thinking a lot about WWII.

Will at A Journey Around My Skull has some amazing illustrations from Iranian children's books.

Javier Cercas has a new novel coming out.

Rose Mary Salum's interview with a handful of editors rolls on, nearing the end.

And I've got a new blog focusing on literature, not necessarily in translation.


The Plan

Many of you will by now have heard that Calque is ceasing publication. This is both true and not strictly accurate. What we're doing is ceasing publication of our journal. We're doing this for the following reasons.

1.It's too expensive.
2.It's a hell of a lot of work. We've been in production every day for more than two years.
3.We've begun to feel somewhat constricted by the journal format.
4.We feel like it.
5.We think we can do what we do better, faster and cheaper in another way.

Which brings us to the question of what we plan to do. We've gotten fond of these lists, so here's another one:

1.All of the critical functions of our journal, the book reviews, essays, interviews, and whatever else, will be moved to our website, which will continue to host stories and poems, etc. The website will therefore function more or less as a blog. This development is sure to please Adam Sorkin, who's always called it a blog. Hi, Adam!
2.Starting this summer, we will commence publication of chapbooks, with trade paperbacks to follow not long after. We figure on doing one of each the first year, then ramping that up to the point where we'll be doing five or six chapbooks and one or two trade books every year.

So much for what. Now for the why. ANOTHER LIST!!!

1.A blog is, by it's very nature, much faster than a journal. Moving our criticism onto the web will make it much more responsive to events as they happen. This will eliminate such unfortunate events as our having to pass on a book review because, by the time our next issue's ready, the book will have been out for months. It will also enable us to do smaller projects that might not have made it into a print issue for whatever reason.
2.As for the chapbooks and trade editions, they'll enable us to go into greater depth with each thing we publish. Rather than one story, four or five. Rather than ten poems, thirty. Longer introductions.
3.The hope is that this will allow us to apportion our resources where they're actually needed. Rather than spending money printing excerpts of books that are already being published by other houses, we can spend that same money finding new writers and translators. Hopefully, some of these will go on to work with the larger houses, who first heard about them through us. Call this the Farm System Theory.

So that's the plan. Eminently sensible, don't you think? We certainly do, though it's going to fail dismally if we're the only people writing for the blog, so we'd like to take this opportunity to issue a formal call for submissions: SEND US WORK!!!! Seriously: reviews, essays, interviews, criticism of any kind, translations, etc. etc. The crazier the better. We'll put it up, people will read it, you'll get famous, we'll all die happy. It's win-win, really.

We'd also like to take this opportunity to thank every single person who worked with us over the life of our journal. Seriously. All the translators, the poets and writers, the people we interviewed and who wrote reviews for us, the publishers and publicity reps, our subscribers and the people who gave us money and encouragement, and the people who put up with us day-to-day throughout the last few years. To all of you: thank you. We'd have been bussing tables and feeling like shit this whole time if it wasn't for you.

Alright, enough sentiment. Back to work.

—Steve Dolph and Brandon Holmquest