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The Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize 2011

Joint third prize

Read the judges’ report

Katherine Young

Yuri Gagarin Was a Great Russian Poet


Yuri Gagarin was a great Russian poet;
Russia shoved him out of herself into the sky,
as if into exile,
as if to the Caucasus,
and he boarded a carriage, that is, a rocket –
for the path of rockets, that’s the path of poets –
said: Let’s go!
and smiled his Gagarin smile.
And in that smile was the whole Earth,
the very best that’s here,
Earth in blue radiance,
news to the sky from humanity –
because the poet’s the one who speaks with the sky,
overcoming gravity
as if it were the language barrier.

Translated from the Russian by Katherine Young
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Юрий Гагарин был великий русский поэт


Юрий Гагарин был великий русский поэт:
Россия выпихнула его из себя в небо,
как в ссылку,
как на Кавказ,
и он сел в карету, то есть в ракету, –
ибо путь ракет – поэтов путь, –
сказал: “Поехали!..” –
и улыбнулся своей гагаринской улыбкой.
И в этой улыбке была вся Земля,
все лучшее, что на ней есть,
“Земля в сиянье голубом”,
весть – небу от человечества, –
потому что поэт – тот, кто говорит с небом,
словно языковой барьер, преодолевая
земное притяжение.

Inna Kabysh
© Inna Kabysh
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Translation commentary


I chose this poem because it crystallizes so many of poet Inna Kabysh’s larger themes and influences in a single, tightly constructed moment. Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, exemplified much that was both right and wrong not only about early space travel but about Soviet life in general: an avowed higher purpose, derring-do, and the stubborn belief that fortune would be favorable. Gagarin died young, in a flight accident whose causes are still debated. Kabysh’s poem ties Gagarin to Mikhail Lermontov, the nineteenth-century Russian poet whose work informs much of her writing. Like many Russian writers, Lermontov was banished for a time to the Caucasus region in official disgrace, an episode referenced in the poem. Line 11 here is taken from Lermontov’s ‘Alone I set out on the road,’ in which the poet foresees his early death. In other poems, Kabysh has playfully described Lermontov as an ‘alien from outer space.’ It’s not surprising, then, that Lermontov and Gagarin are linked here – exiles, loners, truth-tellers, poets.

Unlike some other writers (Mandelstam, for example), Kabysh’s literal meaning is fairly easy to render in English; a greater difficulty lies in translating the cultural context of her poems without resorting to extensive footnotes. A further challenge in translating Kabysh is tone: the quality of her slightly wry, arch Russian – playful, but never lightweight – stands in striking contrast to her complex imagery and subject matter, which can range from childbirth to the Chechen war to the mutability and imprecision of language. Finding equivalent English punctuation is a challenge, as well. Although Kabysh is an accomplished formal poet, this particular poem resembles English free verse. What I most wanted to convey here was the lyricism of Kabysh’s voice and vision, while still approximating the length and content of each line of the original.

Katherine Young