In 1996, the Mexican historian Jean Meyer asked me to translate a poem by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (born in Warsaw in 1891; died in the Vtoraya Rechka transit camp, near Vladivostok, in 1938). The poem was the celebrated “Epigram Against Stalin,” which begins with the line “My zhivem pod soboiu ne chuia strany” (“We live without feeling the country beneath our feet”). In 1980, I’d moved from Havana, my birthplace, to Siberia to study engineering at the University of Novosibirsk, and like anyone else who lived in Russia through the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, I knew the poem well. I had often recited it aloud in admiration of its formal qualities, in particular that first line, whose words have an almost magical force.
No version of the poem then existed in Spanish; the French translation that had just appeared in Vitaly Shentalinsky’s La parole ressuscitée made so impoverished a contrast to the extraordinary beauty of the original that I immediately began translating a more satisfactory variant, trying to capture the poem’s charm while preserving its severe gravity. I worked on it for several days and came up with a translation that Jean Meyer included in his history of Russia and its empires, and that I posted on the wall over my desk.
The poem had cost Mandelstam his life; writing it was an act of incredible recklessness, bravery, or artistic integrity. In the years since, I’ve never stopped thinking about it, and one thought has never left me in peace: though I labored long and patiently over my translation, I wasn’t at all satisfied with the results. The poem simply would not take; the translation felt like a pallid copy of the original Russian, which is as beautiful and powerful as if it had been carved in stone. Unlike the work of Joseph Brodsky, whom I’ve also translated extensively, Osip Mandelstam’s poetry is amazingly concentrated and not particularly discursive. It was virtually impossible to translate its sonorities, or the richness of many images that don’t come through or resonate in the target language—in my case, Spanish. As the poem moves from one language into another, the aura of meaning and allusion that was absolutely transparent to the Russian listeners is lost. It’s as if the poem were a tree and we could only manage to transplant its trunk and thickest limbs, while leaving all its green and shimmering foliage in the territory of the other language.
In any case, my translation of Mandelstam’s poem was well received. Years passed without my looking at the translation again until recently, when I had the idea of including it in a personal anthology of Russian poetry I’m working on. After an attentive rereading I didn’t think it was possible to change any of the solutions that in their moment I had hit upon, but I decided it would be fitting to add some commentary, as another way of transmitting that halo of meaning.
In Russia, the poem is known as the “Epigram Against Stalin,” a title some consider inadequate and belittling. Others say the title resulted from a maneuver by Mandelstam’s friends (among them Boris Pasternak) to make the poem seem nothing more than a kind of pithy, off-the-cuff quip meant to sting or satirize, in the genre that found its highest expression in Martial, the Latin poet of the first century AD.
Described by one critic as the sixteen lines of a death sentence, this is perhaps the twentieth century’s most important political poem, written by one of its greatest poets against the man who may well be said to have been the cruelest of its tyrants.
Мы живем, под собою не чуя cтраны, Наши речи за десять шагов не слышны, А где хватит на полразговорца, Там припомнят кремлёвского горца. Его толстые пальцы, как черви, жирны, А слова, как пудовые гири, верны, Тараканьи смеются усища, И сияют его голенища.
А вокруг него сброд тонкошеих воҗдей, Он играет услугами полулюдей. Кто свистит, кто мяучит, кто хнычет, Он один лишь бабачит и тычет, Как подкову, кует за указом указ: Кому в пах, кому в лоб, кому в бровь, кому в глаз.
Что ни казнь у него—то малина И широкая грудь осетина.
EPIGRAMA CONTRA STALIN
Vivimos sin sentir el país a nuestros pies, nuestras palabras no se escuchan a diez pasos. La más breve de las pláicas gravita, quejosa, al montañes del Kremlin. Sus dedos gruesos como gusanos, grasientos, y sus palabras como pesados martillos, certeras. Sus bigotes de cucaracha parecen reír y relumbran las cañas de sus botas.
Entre una chusma de caciques de cuello extrafino él juega con los favores de estas cuasipersonas. Uno silba, otro maúlla, aquel gime, el otro llora; sólo él campea tonante y los tutea. Como herraduras forja un decreto tras otro: A uno al bajo vientre, al otro en la frente, al tercero en la ceja, al cuarto en el ojo.
Toda ejecución es para él un festejo que alegra su amplio pecho de oseta.
—Translated from the Russian José Manuel Prieto
EPIGRAM AGAINST STALIN
We live without feeling the country beneath our feet, our words are inaudible from ten steps away. Any conversation, however brief, gravitates, gratingly, toward the Kremlin’s mountain man. His greasy fingers are thick as worms, his words weighty hammers slamming their target. His cockroach moustache seems to snicker, and the shafts of his high-topped boots gleam.
Amid a rabble of scrawny-necked chieftains, he toys with the favors of such homunculi. One hisses, the other mewls, one groans, the other weeps; he prowls thunderously among them, showering them with scorn. Forging decree after decree, like horseshoes, he pitches one to the belly, another to the forehead, a third to the eyebrow, a fourth in the eye.
Every execution is a carnival that fills his broad Ossetian chest with delight.
—Translated by Esther Allen from José Manuel Prieto’s Spanish version
We live without feeling the country beneath our feet,
Мы живем, под собою не чуя cтраны
The first line seems to present no particular difficulty other than conveying with absolute clarity how hazardous the life of the citizens has become, the sharp danger everyone takes in with every breath. The image is amplified by the verb Mandelstam uses, which I translated into Spanish as sentir (to feel or to smell),but which in the original is chuyat’, a word whose first meaning, to sniff out or to scent, has a dimension of the hunt, the vague, peripheral perception of a wild beast detecting a predator. The entire line projects an image of a people adrift in apprehension, an existence that has lost every point of reference, even the ground beneath it; the words transmit a sensation of urgency and danger, of pursuit.
our words are inaudible from ten steps away.
Наши речи за десять шагов не слышны,
The citizens of Soviet Russia had acquired the habit of speaking in low voices for fear of being overheard; parents avoided talking about any delicate matter in front of their children; lovers feared the ear of every passing stranger. Informers such as the one who told the authorities about the epigram were a standard feature of the time. It became habitual to simply go out into the street to talk about anything, even matters of little importance.
When Isaiah Berlin visits Anna Akhmatova in postwar Leningrad, the poet points to the ceiling at the beginning of the interview to signal that someone might be listening. In Against All Hope, the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam, Osip’s widow, the poet speaks of returning from a trip to the countryside to discover that telephones in Moscow had been smothered in pillows; a rumor had gone around that they were all bugged (which in fact would not have been possible with the technology of that era).