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The Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize 2012

Third prize

Read the judges’ reports

Alexandra Berlina

You can't tell a gnat…

You can't tell a gnat: "Soon, I –
just like you, my friend – shall die."
It won't understand you: for
gnats, we humans are immor.

Hence our species' speech and speed –
it is needed to mislead;
hence the insects' zoom and zeal –
life can cunningly conceal

its own end that lies ahead
in a buzz which speaks pure dread
(and not the desire for hot
blood from – cancerous or not –

human flesh); or, deeper still,
in the minerals which will
hardly speak. A talking act
can but instantly insect.

Translated from the Russian by Alexandra Berlina


Ты не скажешь комару:
"Скоро я, как ты, умру".
С точки зренья комара,
человек не умира.

Вот откуда речь и прыть --
от уменья жизни скрыть
свой конец от тех, кто в ней
насекомого сильней,

в скучный звук, в жужжанье, суть
какового -- просто жуть,
а не жажда юшки из
мышц без опухоли и с,

либо -- глубже, в рудный пласт,
что к молчанию горазд:
всяк, кто сверху языком
внятно мелет -- насеком.

Joseph Brodsky
Reproduced by kind permission of the estate of Joseph Brodsky

Translator's commentary

"A foreigner's fondness for puns", as Nabokov puts it in Pnin, prompted me to translate this poem. Is there a way to recreate the ironic break-down of an aphorism that integrates sudden death into the body of the poem, I wondered. The English equivalent of "умирает", dies, is too short to be used, but I found an equivalent via negation: "immortal"; thus, eternity itself is stopped in mid-word.

There is some word play in the middle section of the poem (cp. "our species' speech and speed", "zoom and zeal" in my translation), but it is the final stanza which again culminates in paronomasia: "насеком", a shortened version of "насекомое" (insect) becomes an adjective. Here, I tried out another solution. I hope that after four stanzas of metrical poetry the reader will be tempted to mis-stress "insect" – thus, the noun would be transformed into a verb (as it happens in, say, "présent" and "presént", "object" and "objéct" etc).

I recreated the rhythm and the rhyme scheme: I cannot rest easily if I don't (besides, this particular poem needs to be rhymed and metrical for the word play to work). I know that this approach is unfashionable (as it was back when Brodsky preached the same approach) and that valuable work has been done by non-formalist translators (as acclaimed by the jury last year). Still, I hope that the bosom of the Stephen Spender Trust is large enough to accommodate different translation methods.

Alexandra Berlina