The article below is reprinted from the most recent SlavFile. The full issue is available here.
Translating Okudzhava: Turning «Песенка старого шарманщика» into “The Organ-Grinder Ditty”
By Vladimir Kovner
I suspect that I am a generation or two removed from the majority of SlavFile’s current readers. Nevertheless, I hope that they all know the name Bulat Okudzhava and are familiar with at least some of his works. In the late ʾ50s, Okudzhava began to perform his poems/songs—basically, poetry set to music accompanied by guitar—for his friends. Thus began the highly influential era of the Russian “bards,” of which Okudzhava is considered to be progenitor. I got my very first tape recordings of one of his performances in late 1959 and met him in person in 1962 at a home concert in Leningrad. Later I had the pleasure of recording his performances in Leningrad, Moscow, Detroit, and Oberlin, Ohio.
I’d like to start by saying a few words about the uniqueness of his poetry. In 2011, A.V. Sycheva (a professor at the University of Magadan and a protégé of the outstanding scholar Professor Roman Tchaikovsky) remarked in her dissertation “About Translations of Okudzhava’s Poetry into English” that the majority of the bard’s translators recreate only the basic sense of his poetry, their translations being interlinear or free, not even rhymed. In her opinion, only slightly more than 16 percent can be considered adequate. Later, explaining why even some decent renderings cannot be considered adequate, she explains: “In most cases, the completed translations of Okudzhava’s lyrics do not comply with all the criteria of that genre. Even if the original poetic texts of his songs are reflected quite successfully in the English language versions, some extremely important components of his poetry, such as its folkloristic character and musicality, are quite often completely absent in translation.” Later, we’ll come back to the discussion of that problem.
Before his first performance in the Leningrad House of Art in 1960, Okudzhava said to Alexander Volodin, a well-known playwright and poet who was tasked with introducing Bulat to the audience: “Don’t call my works songs. I am a poet. They are poems.” But later Volodin added to that story: “Long ago poets were called singers. They composed verses and melodies, and performed them with their own zither accompaniment… In our time, in our country, the first one to accomplish this was Okudzhava. Every word of his poetry is a word of a song that is supposed to soar over this vast country.”
The uniqueness of Bulat’s poetry is in his incredible musicality. We translators have to understand that more often than not his poetry is not simply verses. Even his poems that for some reason were not set to music beg to be sung. According to Vladimir Frumkin, a musicologist, one of the founders of the “bard” movement, and one of the best if not the best performer of Okudzhava’s songs, his verse-songs are unique because they have been created/composed as a cohesive whole that comprises not only lyrics and music but also the author’s own performance, his unique, somewhat restrained voice, a subtly ironic manner, a deeply individual cadence, and his guitar accompaniment. Together, these elements give us a unique genre known as “guitar poetry.” In his song «Главная песенка»/“The Paramount Song” (the version below is translated by Lydia Razran Stone and myself and was published in the journal Readings, no. 31, summer 2015). Bulat demonstrates how to create a song (music and lyrics) as a single whole:
“Okudzhava’s songs are more a phenomenon of oral than of written poetry, like folksongs” (Vladimir Frumkin). Let’s add that Okudzhava heard music emanating from everywhere (e.g., from Moscow streets, from architecture), then he constantly and naturally incorporated the most diverse musical instruments and genres into his poetry: guitars, horns, drums, flutes, clarinets, waltzes, marches, and so on. Furthermore, as he described it: “I write when I feel like it, under the influence of various moods and impulses that are sometimes not even clear to me…” And finally, he possessed a remarkable musical ear. This is why I believe it is essential for translators of Okudzhava’s songs to spend time listening to how he performs them to be sure that not only their translation adheres to the original meter and rhyme pattern (that is relatively simple), but that it is singable to the original melody, with the rhythm pattern of the translated song matching the pattern in the original.
|Наверное, самую лучшую
На этой земной стороне
Хожу я и песенку слушаю –
Она шевельнулась во мне.
Она еще очень неспетая.
Она зелена как трава.
Но чудится музыка светлая,
И строго ложатся слова…
|The best thing that life on Earth brings to me,
That causes most joy in my heart,
I walk, and from nowhere it sings to me,
A song that is longing to start.
Not yet a true song, but developing;
Unripe, like green fruit on the vine.
The melody’s splendid, enveloping,
And words fall precisely in line…
Returning to A.V. Sycheva’s analysis, obviously the majority of translators were either tone-deaf or failed to consider the melodical component important and based their renderings on his written poetry.
Let’s come back, at last, to the subject of our discussion: a very unusual poem-song, «Песенка старого шарманщика». Before I describe the very interesting and complex process of translating that song into English, I’d like to say that the following translation represents my efforts to match the brilliance of Okudzhava’s original lyrics and my very useful and important periodic discussions with Nora Favorov, who critiqued some of my early versions and suggested a few interesting alternatives that I gratefully accepted.
Песенка старого шарманщика. Булат Окуджава.
Шарманка-шарлатанка, как сладко ты поешь!
Шарманка-шарлатанка, куда меня зовешь?
Шагаю еле-еле – вершок за пять минут.
Ну как дойти до цели, когда ботинки жмут?..
Работа есть работа, работа есть всегда,
Хватилo б только пота на все мои года.
Расплата за ошибки – ведь это тоже труд.
Хватило бы улыбки, когда под ребра бьют.
Работа – есть работа…
Composed circa 1960–62
The melody follows a waltz rhythm (one-two-three, one-two-three), a naïve charming waltz for a street-organ. (The standard rhythms for street-organ music were older forms of dances such as the waltz, two-step, polka, etc.)
“The Organ-Grinder Ditty” by Bulat Okudzhava
dedicated to Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Oh, charlatan, street organ! Your singing is so sweet.
You devious street organ! Where do you summon me?
I trudge on, legs feel heavy, five minutes – just one inch.
How can I reach my haven in boots that cramp and pinch?
What’s work? Just work I get. Jobs – plenty, good and bad.
God, help me toil in blood-n-sweat through years that lay ahead.
A payback for my blunders – that’s also labor, but…
Can I still smile, I wonder, when punched straight in the gut?
What’s work? Just work I get…
There are eight lines in this short song; each one is six poetic feet long—hexameter, consisting naturally (remember, it’s a waltz) of two iambic trimeters. Every two consecutive lines (1-2, 3-4 and so on) are rhymed at the end and in the middle of lines. All the rhymes are perfect (exact). It’s a straightforward pattern for a translator.
Let’s begin with the title of that song: Песенка старого шарманщика. Why did Okudzhava call it “песенка” rather than “песня?” Actually, he used both titles many times. Possibly through this choice Okudzhava was trying to underline the idea that «песенка» (“ditty” in English or chansonette in the French manner) brings an element of intimacy between a performer and listeners. Also, it is possible that while he often repeated that his songs were foremost poems and he was basically performing guitar poetry, he underestimated his exceptional musical gift and incredible merits and the value of his songs’ melodical aspect, meaning for him his songs really were just ditties. It is interesting that in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Ada the author refers to Okudzhava’s “Sentimental March” as a “…soldier dit[ty] of singular genius…” Based on all that, we will render the English title of this work as: “The Organ-Grinder Ditty.”
We have to repeat that this poem is very unusual: the whole poem, including its title, is written as a witty satire in the best traditions of Aesop. (Okudzhava wrote two more poem-songs of this type.)
Before singing this song for Western audiences, Vladimir Frumkin used to tell them that the old organ-grinder in this song by Bulat Okudzhava is not really an organ-grinder. Soviet listeners understood this perfectly well: the author was hinting at what the creative intelligentsia—poets, writers, composers, and artists—had to endure working under the pressures of total censorship. As Fyodor Raskolnikov wrote in an open letter to Stalin in 1938: “You have forced art into a straitjacket in which it suffocates, withers and dies.” By using an organ-grinder as camouflage, Okudzhava was trying to disguise the true meaning of the song from the censors, the literary gendarmes, Soviet cultural authorities, and, of course, the communist media. There is a curious story about this song connected with Professor Charles Gribble of Ohio State University, who in 1966 founded Slavica Publishers. In 1976, Frumkin suggested that he publish an encyclopedia of Russian bards and sang him several songs. After hearing “The Organ-Grinder Ditty,” Professor Gribble, who at the time was making frequent trips to the Soviet Union, replied: “No way. I cannot publish anti-Soviet poems. The Russians will never let me in again.” Obviously, Professor Gribble saw through the Aesopian language, and of course Okudzhava’s audience in the Soviet Union (both his fans and the authorities) were even less likely to miss the song’s true meaning.
The song was composed circa 1960–62, performed at home concerts and, like the rest of his songs, widely distributed by way of “magnitizdat” tape recordings. It was not officially published until 1983.
What pushed Bulat Okudzhava over the edge and made him compose a song in which a lilting melody and the quaint image of a street-grinder are paired with a series of much darker images: the singer is too hobbled by painful shoes to walk more than an inch in five minutes, has to pay for his blunders, and is punched in the gut: шагаю еле-еле, ботинки жмут; расплата за ошибки, под ребра бьют.
We have to recall what the situation was at the time this song was written.
It was composed around the same time as the 22nd Communist Party Congress. The brightest prospects for the country within the next twenty years were heralded from the podium, along with confident assurances that it would attain communism, that all socioeconomic differences between the city and the countryside and between toilers of the body and the mind would disappear, and so on and so forth. In short, universal rejoicing was in order.
What about Bulat at that time? According to Professor Anatoly Kulagin, Okudzhava’s name always sounded suspicious to the Soviet regime. They sensed covert, if not overt, opposition, an unwillingness to “play along” by performing ritual displays of loyalty and producing art with the required slant in exchange for the ability to publish, to be granted a government apartment, summer dacha, or sanatorium stay, etc. In spite of the fact that at that time Okudzhava was the head of the poetry division at the most prominent national literary weekly in the former Soviet Union, Literaturnaya Gazeta, authorization for release of his first recording was blocked, Kiev TV cut all of Okudzhava’s poetry from a TV program based on the contents of Literaturnaya Gazeta, and, in a May 1961 speech, the secretary of the Komsomol’s Central Committee characterized Okudzhava’s songs as fit only for a boudoir, a remark intended as a huge insult for a Soviet poet.
Here is Okudzhava’s reaction in his own words: “I started to sing my poems, not imagining what a scandal was to break out in a short time. Guitarists accused me of lack of talent…composers of lack of professionalism… singers of having no voice at all, and all of them together of impudence and banality…The officials accused me of pessimism, anti-patriotism, pacifism, and the press backed them up” (from the book ОКУДЖАВА 65 песен, by Vladimir Frumkin, English translation by Eve Shapiro). Already a member of the Union of Writers, after working at Literaturnaya Gazeta for less than four years, in early 1962 Okudzhava left the newspaper. Obviously Bulat was sick and tired of all the government’s “sweet promises”—actually endless lies, and the belittling criticism of so-called cultural workers and “brother-writers” organized “from the bureaucratic top.” Fed up, he composed and began performing “The Organ-Grinder Ditty.”
Translating “The Organ-Grinder Ditty”: A Couplet-by-Couplet Annotation
My goal in translating this poem-song was to accurately reflect the underlying Aesopian meaning while maintaining the formal metrical structure.
The sweet (сладко) singing of the organ-grinder represents the temptations the Soviet government put before people aspiring to work in the arts. For the Russian word “звать” (to call), we chose a stronger word, “summon,” specifically implying the exercise of authority.
The first line of this couplet alludes to the constraints placed on Okudzhava. In 1962, despite being a very popular bard, he had only been allowed to publish two tiny books of poetry—Lyrica, 63 pages, and Islands, 91 pages—and not a single record had been released. A вершок is an antiquated Russian unit of measurement just under 2 inches. Next, the image of painfully tight shoes is an obvious reference to the straitjacket of literary censorship (ботинки жмут). Цель (goal) is a polysemantic word. For a writer it could be to publish a novel, for a composer, to hear his new symphony in a concert hall, for Bulat, say, to see The Complete Poetry of Bulat Okudzhava in print. While “haven” and “goal” are not exact equivalents, given the constraints of meter, we felt this word fit with the underlying meaning: the ability to freely exercise his art was, for Okudzhava, a sort of haven, both a place of refuge and a desired goal.
As Nikolai Bogomolov, a professor at Moscow State University has observed: “Projecting the real situation in Russia onto this song, we see an obvious clash between the dulcet tones of the street-organ and social and political reality, and the only solution that crosses the minds of many people is that there is nothing left for them but work. Работа есть работа, работа есть всегда…” (In fact, work—as in paid work—was not always available, since when a writer was expelled from the Writers Union or other analogous professional organizations, he/she was deprived of any possibility of making a living in that field, as was the case with Boris Pasternak in 1958 and with Alexander Galich in 1971.)
Regarding the phrase “Хватилo б только пота…” in 1986, when asked how young writers and poets were able to establish themselves in the field of literature, Okudzhava replied: “One’s talent has to fight its way through sweat, blood and toil. And this is fair!” I assume that Okudzhava knew the Speech of Winston Churchill at the beginning of the war in May of 1940: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” We draw on this phrase in translating the second line of this couplet.
Of course, as for “ошибки/blunders,” we have to acknowledge the note of irony: Okudzhava’s uncompromising stances vis-à-vis the behavior expected from Soviet writers were blunders from their point of view, but not his own, of course. Being forced to openly admit “blunders” was worse than hard physical labor for many.
The last line, “Хватило бы улыбки, когда под ребра бьют”, reflects a slight exaggeration in regard to the Khrushchev era. Although Stalin’s torture and merciless executions of the most talented people of all persuasions and professions, including writers, were over, the persecution and harassment of dissenting writers under Nikita Khrushchev (and later Brezhnev) continued.
Alas, throughout Russian history, punches in the gut, whether literal or figurative, have been a fact of life for centuries.
Vladimir Kovner is an engineer, journalist, and English<>Russian translator and editor specializing in poetry, bard songs, ballet, and idioms. He participated in the edition «Песни Русских Бардов» (The Songs of Russian Bards, Paris, 1976), a collection comprising four volumes and 40 cassette tapes, and has published two books of poetic translation from English into Russian: «Приласкайте Льва» (Pet the Lion; 2010), and a bilingual edition titled Edward Lear: The Complete Limericks with Lear’s Own Drawings (2015). He also translated (in collaboration with Nora Seligman Favorov), Sergey Baimukhametov’s Magic Dreams: Confessions of Drug Addicts. His memoirs, «Золотой век Магнитиздата» (The Golden Age of “Magnitizdat,” were published in the United States, Russia and Germany. He enjoyed a long-term collaboration with Lydia Razran Stone. They made several joint presentations at ATA Annual Conferences and together wrote the “Idiom Savants” column in SlavFile. They jointly authored an article about translating Edward Lear in the Moscow journal «Мосты» (Bridges; 2012), a bilingual edition of the journal Чтения/Readings devoted to Okudzhava (2015), and Sports Idioms: English-Russian and Russian-English Dictionaries (2017). He can be reached at email@example.com.