• Subscribe to our e-letters

  • Facebook_icon

The Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize 2012

First prize

Read the judges’ reports

Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski

Field Hospital

They turned the table to the light. I lay
Upside down, like meat slapped onto a scale;
My soul swayed, dangling on a string.
I saw myself from the side:
Balanced without makeweights
Against a fat mass from the market.
Was in the middle of a snow shield,
Chipped along its western edge,
Surrounded by icy swamps,
By trees on broken legs,
And railroad halts with their skulls
Cracked open, looking black
Beneath their snowy caps, some double,
And some triple.

                    Time stopped that day,
Clocks didn't run – the souls of trains
No longer flew along the mounds,
Lightless, on grizzled fins of steam.
No gatherings of crows,
No blizzards, no thaws in that limbo
Where I lay naked in disgrace,
In my own blood, outside the pull
Of future's gravity.

But then it shifted, circling on its axis –
The shield of blinding snow.
A wedge of seven airplanes
Turned low above me. And the gauze,
Like tree bark, stiffened on my body,
While someone else's blood now ran
Into my veins out of a flask, and I
Breathed like a fish tossed on the sand,
Gulping the hard, earthy, mica-like,
Cold, and blessed air.

My lips were chapped, and then,
They fed me with a spoon, and then,
I couldn't recall my name,
While King David's lexicon
Awoke upon my tongue.

Snow melted away, and early spring
Stood on her toes and wrapped
The trees with her green kerchief.

Translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski

Полевой госпиталь

Стол повернули к свету. Я лежал
Вниз головой, как мясо на весах,
Душа моя на нитке колотилась,
И видел я себя со стороны:
Я без довесков был уравновешен
Базарной жирной гирей.
                                         Это было
Посередине снежного щита,
Щербатого по западному краю,
В кругу незамерзающих болот,
Деревьев с перебитыми ногами
И железнодорожных полустанков
С расколотыми черепами, черных
От снежных шапок, то двойных, а то
                    В тот день остановилось время,
Не шли часы, и души поездов
По насыпям не пролетали больше
Без фонарей, на серых ластах пара,
И ни вороньих свадеб, ни метелей,
Ни оттепелей не было в том лимбе,
Где я лежал в позоре, в наготе,
В крови своей, вне поля тяготенья

Но сдвинулся и на оси пошел
По кругу щит слепительного снега,
И низко у меня над головой
Семерка самолетов развернулась,
И марля, как древесная кора,
На теле затвердела, и бежала
Чужая кровь из колбы в жилы мне,
И я дышал, как рыба на песке,
Глотая твердый, слюдяной, земной,
Холодный и благословенный воздух.

Мне губы обметало, и еще
Меня поили с ложки, и еще
Не мог я вспомнить, как меня зовут,
Но ожил у меня на языке
Словарь царя Давида.
                                  А потом
И снег сошел, и ранняя весна
На цыпочки привстала и деревья
Окутала своим платком зеленым.

Arseny Tarkovsky, 1964
Reproduced by kind permission of the estate of Arseny Tarkovsky

Translators' commentary

Our goal was to convey the novelty and unique charisma of Tarkovsky's voice, so apparent to a Russian reader and yet so difficult to reproduce. Tarkovsky's themes may seem trite at first blush. We tried to preserve the poem's airy, gestalt-like texture, as well as its hypnotic rhythm and tone; its interplay of motion and motionlessness; its carefully chosen verbs, which construct a planetary model of sorts, with the narrator as the center of a revolving snowy sphere. The first line must be as memorable as the original, positioning the operating table in immobile cosmic emptiness. In Tarkovsky's poetic world, enjambments mark key inflexions, and we kept their tonal and stanzaic position. In stanza four, we sought a new sense of impetus, which resets the narrator's world in motion. Tarkovsky's vocabulary is consistent. While translating "Field Hospital", we imagined we were rendering a whole collection, marking key elements repeated throughout his poems – words like "mica-like", "blessed", "cold" – both common and rare, but belonging to "Tarkovsky's lexicon". The sound "shch" is unusually abundant in the poem; it is associated with the image of wartime destruction and the swishing sound of cosmic coldness. In the final lines, it disappears, leaving us with images of earthly beauty. The word "жирный" is important: we chose "mass" over "weight," because the former represents weight, and ushers in planetary connotations; it is also physiological, in a Tarkovskian way ("Кухарка жирная у скаред…"). We were tempted to use a neologism for "слепительный" – say, "blistening" – that would combine "blinding" and "glistening", as in the original, and suggests the soldier's blistered lips. But this "neon" neologism is atypical for Tarkovsky's diction. And "dazzling", though it echoes with "blizzard", would not be Trakovsky's word either. We chose "blinding" as it seemed fresh and suggestive enough in English.

Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski