Contemplating Translation: Kind of a Performance Review… But Mostly About Poetry…

Reposted to reflect author’s name…

On January 28, 2012, Vadim Astrakhan performed his translations of Vladimir Vysotsky’s poetry at the American Council for Teachers of Russian/Russkiy Mir Center offices in Washington, D. C. Mr. Astrakhan has been on a mission to make Vladimir Vysotsky, the beloved Russian semi-official guitar poet, popular in the English speaking world by translating his guitar poetry and performing it wherever anyone is willing to listen. He has a nifty website,, and he has recorded a couple of compact discs.

The performance was held in a small conference room, so the feeling was definitely intimate, which is similar to how most of this music was shared during the Soviet period in Russia. Guitar poetry was a genre of performance poetry that emerged in response to the heavy-handed approach to poetry supported by the Soviet regime. It was definitely unofficial – even though Vysotsky did get some of his songs into a couple of films – and circulated from friend to friend on tapes. Yes, one of the nicest presents you could bring to hosts and friends were empty high quality Maxell tapes, preferably 70 minute or 90 minute ones, because then they could use them to make more copies of this mostly unofficial music.

So, rewind to the early 1980s, when I was starting to study Russian. I just happened to be in one of those high schools in Massachusetts that a lot of the children of Digital Equipment’s executives studied, so they had a fairly robust offering at all levels. Mrs. McNally, officially an English teacher, also taught Russian. One of the first things she taught us was Pushkin’s poem “I Loved You,” and I was hooked. This fascination with Russian poetry was left over from my experience in Puerto Rican elementary schools, where we memorized poems as a regular part of the curriculum, including yearly poetry reading competitions among the different grades. I still remember how we all had to memory Luis Palés Matos’s “Danza Negra,” with its opening line, “Calabó y bambú.” I really missed the different level of learning required when you memorized poetry, and after my arrival in New England I thought I would never encounter another group of people so excited to memorize and recite their poetry – sorry Emily Dickinson, but they just did not make memorizing your poems part of our high school curriculum!

Suffice it to say, I was amazed at how much Russians love their poetry. Your average Russian, at least of the Soviet generation, probably had hundreds of poems memorized. This was not a simple act of aesthetic pleasure – it also came to represent an act of political opposition. Anna Akhmatova’s opus Requiem, for instance, would probably not have survived if her friend Lidiia Chukovskaia had not served as her living tape recorder. It is easy to forget twenty years after the fall that being caught with a copy of the wrong text could lose you your job or even land you in jail. Popular culture, particularly popular forms of art such as guitar poetry, served as an active front in the battle against Soviet censorship.

Knowledge of guitar poetry served as a cultural identifier for those who sided with the Russian intelligentsia in the opposition of cultural censorship. As eager young undergraduates, we took the task of memorizing the right kind of poetry seriously. Our first choice was never the official writers like Evtushenko. Rather, we favored Okudzhava, Dolina, Dol’skii, and Vysotsky, which circulated almost exclusively through underground recordings on those Maxell tapes.

Mr. Astrakhan’s project appeals at one level because of its heavy component of nostalgia. In spite of the fact that he has been dead for almost thirty years, Russians still highly enjoy Vysotsky’s songs. The post-Soviet era has seen the release of really nice compact discs of a lot of these poets’ works. One of my favorites is a two volume set of Bulat Okudzhava’s songs. I have to admit, given the choice of guitar poet, or “bard,” to which I could listen, more often than not I would listen to Okudzhava.

This raises all sorts of interesting questions to scholars of cultural studies. How do you analyze the shift in cultural value that something like guitar poetry has in post-Soviet society? How do you measure its relevance in current day Russia? How do you provide outsiders, such as my traditional American undergraduate students, with anything close to an understanding of their place and cultural meaning?

At the end of his performance, Mr. Astrakhan spent some time describing the challenges of translating text such as Vysotsky’s. He mentioned how he had not tackled some of his most popular songs because he considered them “untranslatable.” I think the issue is not so much that a text is impossible to translate, but how hard it is to convey the cultural meaning of a certain work. The hardest aspect of conveying cultural meaning falls on the reader him/herself – on the challenge of becoming familiar with some of the context and history of the major symbols encountered, be they the fairly open reference to Stalin’s purges in Master and Margarita, or the communal grief displayed by Akhamtova’s narrator’s line in Requiem. Translators face new and unexpected challenges with a new generation of readers who are faster to ask “Is there an app for that?” than to look at hard copies of novels from the first half of the century.