Saturday, December 31, 2011

A tribute to Vikram Seth

The enchanted bookstore, vast, rectangular,
Fluorescent-lit, with Bach piped through
The glamorous alleys of its angular
Warren of bookshelves, the dark brew
Of French roast or Sumatra rousing
One's weak papillae as one's browsing
Lead to the famed cups, soon or late,
That cheer but don't inebriate.
Magical shoe box! Skilled extractor
Of my last dime on print or drink,
Mini-Montmartre, Printers Inc!
Haven of book freaks, benefactor
Of haggard hacks like me, who've been
Quivering for years to your caffeine.
The Golden Gate 8.14

The books at Printers Inc. are gone now.
A wall blots out the view from where
My bitter-rich americano
Scrawls steam upon the winter air
Of recesses where they once spangled
The rows of shelves, black, stately-angled;
Where once you glimpsed that ordered world
A sandwich menu is unfurled,
Whose jagged letters've condescended
To spell endless ingredient lists.
For baffling onomasticists,
They've kept the name, "Cafe" appended,
For — now — just one more place to have
Coffee on California Ave.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

In the holiday spirit

[Thanks to DM and AMB on G+ for corrections on this post.] My family wanted to bring their own song to a potluck carol singalong, so they asked me to translate "В лесу родилась ёлочка".  There are some English versions already on the Internet, including two on Wikipedia, one of which is fairly loose and the other truly atrocious, though even the first assigns considerably more agency to the forest than I'm comfortable doing.

Raisa Kudasheva.  [Wikipedia, fair use.]
It turns out that this most Soviet and religion-free of holiday songs was actually written in 1903 for a children's magazine.  The author was Raisa Adamovna Kudasheva, a schoolteacher and librarian who also wrote a number of other children's poems and stories, largely published under pseudonyms and now for better or worse mostly forgotten -- even the parts of "Elochka" which didn't make it into the song, though they're on the Russian Wikipedia page.  Two years later the agronomist and amateur musician Leonid Karlovich Bekman came up with the melody.

The song embedded itself thoroughly in Soviet tradition, and no one remembers that it has an author any more than we remember the author of, say, "Jingle Bells" or "The Lion Sleeps Tonight".  Since Kudasheva wrote under a pseudonym, her authorship was not even publicized until an anthologist tracked her down around 1940.

A version of the song from
В лесу родилась ёлочка,
В лесу она росла.
Зимой и летом стройная,
Зелёная была.

Метель ей пела песенку:
«Спи, ёлочка, бай-бай!»
Мороз снежком укутывал:
«Смотри, не замерзай!»

Трусишка зайка серенький
Под ёлочкой скакал.
Порою волк, сердитый волк,
Рысцою пробегал.

Чу! Снег по лесу частому
Под полозом скрипит.
Лошадка мохноногая
Торопится, бежит.

Везёт лошадка дровенки,
На дровнях мужичок.
Срубил он нашу ёлочку
Под самый корешок.

И вот она, нарядная,
На праздник к нам пришла
И много, много радости
Детишкам принесла.
One day a Christmas tree was born.
It grew deep in the wood.
In summer and in wintertime
How slim and green it stood!

The blizzard sang it lullabies:
"My little tree, sleep tight!"
Frost tucked its snowy blanket in:
"Now, don't you freeze tonight!"

Sometimes the timid little hare
Came hopping underneath.
Sometimes the wolf, the hungry wolf,
Ran by and bared his teeth.

Hark! in the woods the crunch of snow
Hangs in the quiet air.
A sturdy shaggy-legged horse
Is hurrying somewhere.

The horse is pulling on a sleigh.
A man is in the sleigh.
He's chopping down our Christmas tree
And driving it away.

And now it's come to stay with us,
Decked out in pretty toys,
To bring great joy and happiness
To all the girls and boys.
This is certainly not the best of possible translations: I didn't spend that much time on it. But I did come away with a couple of translation-related notes. Compared to translating a "real" poem I was less willing to shift stresses in ways that are usually accepted in English poetry ("Slénder and gréen it stóod", which is a better line content-wise) but more willing to accept the sort of wrong stresses that are customary but which I usually find irksome ("somewhére", "sometímes").   This is not a mystery: partly it's because the latter is easier to sing, at least to an English ear (the French and Spanish are surprisingly adept at singing syllabic poetry) and partly because a genre grounded in tradition like the Christmas carol is likely to preserve older pronunciations if that's actually what these are.  But I don't think previously I would have come up with this as a difference between literary and Christmas carol poetry.

And another thing: how much transculturation is in order when translating a song like this?  The Wikipedia translation by Durando and Popov changes the hare into a bunny, which makes it more familiar.  But rabbits aren't really associated with timidity in English-language folklore [edit: or not] -- does it help or instead obscure the image by bringing in irrelevant associations?  What about the sleigh bells that we're supposed to hark to instead of the crunching snow?

On the other hand some details inevitably get lost, both in translation and in kids' understanding of the song.  Not only is there no word in English for дровни, a kind of rough wooden sleigh, but surely most of the kids singing the song in Russia this month don't know what it is either.