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The Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize 2012


Read the judges’ reports

Mark Hanin

I Washed before Bed in the Yard

I washed before bed in the yard.
Coarse stars lit up the firmament.
Starlight is like salt on an axe-blade.
A barrel is cooling, full to the brim.

The gates are locked shut,
And the earth is frank in its severity.
No foundation could be purer
Than the truth in a virgin canvas.

A star in the barrel melts like salt,
And the frigid water turns darker.
Death becomes purer, misfortune bitterer,
And the earth is more truthful and frightening.

Translated from the Russian by Mark Hanin

Умывался ночью на дворе

Умывался ночью на дворе.
Твердь сияла грубыми звездами.
Звездный луч -- как соль на топоре.
Стынет бочка с полными краями.

На замок закрыты ворота,
И земля по совести сурова.
Чище правды свежего холста
Вряд ли где отыщется основа.

Тает в бочке, словно соль, звезда,
И вода студеная чернее.
Чище смерть, солонее беда,
И земля правдивей и страшнее.

Osip Mandelstam

Translator's commentaryy

Mandelstam wrote "Умывался ночью на дворе" in 1921 after the shocking execution of Nikolay Gumilev, founder of the Acmeist movement in which Mandelstam was a leading figure. I was drawn to the mystical quality of the poem that harkens back to Symbolist-era motifs. In twelve terse lines, Mandelstam conjures up images of space, time, mortality, earth-boundedness, and anxiety over the artist's relationship with nature. These themes are presented in an idiom remarkable for its tautness and economy, as if the water's edge in the cooling barrel were the edge of thought and language.

The poem is written using a standard ABAB rhyming scheme. I judged that a rhymed English translation would have been wordy and strained, distracting from the Mandelstam's crisp prose and austere tone. I prioritized accuracy of meaning and evocative association over formal structure.

Mandelstam (like Wallace Stevens) is a master at repeating words in close proximity ("земля" ,"звезда", "соль," "бочка", "чище") without disconcerting readers. One major challenge that I faced was recreating this tight web of diction while avoiding a clunky feel in the English.

A pregnant ambiguity in the poem's second line should be highlighted because it must inevitably vanish in translation. The Russian word "твердь" can refer both to the firmament and the earth. "Stiffened earth" would have been an apt substitute for "firmament". Nevertheless, I selected the more conservative and literal alternative while recognizing that it is not the only possibility.

Finally, I decided against a literal translation of the phrase "свежего холста" as "fresh canvas", which struck me as inadequate. "Fresh canvas" is also problematic because it might suggest a freshly painted canvas, which is not Mandelstam's intended meaning. I settled on the phrase "virgin canvas", because it combines a sense of newness and undisturbedness implicit in the image of a "свежий холст".

Mark Hanin