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The Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize 2014
for the translation of Russian poetry into English
in association with The London Magazine


The Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize
Read the judges’ reports

Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky

An Ode to a Dandelion

In the backyard laid out with slate
light – there it is, on a glossy
stem. Pierced in.
Pierced in. Picked, – serpent milk –
thin rim, –
white and light, like a cloud,
an experience of dispersal –
there it is, mastered.

I carry it carefully, like a gas lamp,
I'm not allowed to take so long, –
it's getting late, –
yet another rough draft of getting late, – I'm not allowed.
In the sky hovers
that which on earth
gets dispersed as dust, rapid babbling.
But it gives off no warmth.

Why are you out for so long, boy with a gas lamp.
I am singing this ode to us.
This is an ode
to a dandelion, mould and copy
of the sky,
and to me in that excavation site –
I am three times three there –
and an ode to life.

Shift but a little – and hair
will break off the dandelion, that loser of a flower.
I remember my mother whispering:
'…in labour…' – of my aunt – '…she's dead'.
And then sitting down to mend clothing,
or, say, sweeping the floors.
An experience of dispersal.
There it is, mastered.

Like a gas lamp, winking in mid-air,
I'll bring it out into the open,
almost there – and the light
of the dandelion will perish quietly.
When we are no more.
Blow! – it will twitch a little, –
something will snap in the world, –
and the light will go out.

Translated from the Russian by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky



На задворках, проложенных сланцевым
светом, – вот он, на глянцевом
стебле. Воткнут.
Воткнут. Сорван, – змеиное молоко –
тонкий обод, –
бел и легок, как облако,
распыления опыт, –
вот он, добыт.

Точно лампу, несу его медленно,
мне так долго не велено, –
вечереет, –
вечереет вчерне, – мне не велено.
В небе реет
то, что прахом развеяно
на земле, быстрый лепет.
Но не греет.

Долго так не гуляй, мальчик с лампою.
Эту оду я нам пою.
Эта ода
Одуванчику, слепку и копии
и себе в том раскопе, и –
мне там трижды три года –
жизни ода.

Шевельнись – и слетит с одуванчика
пух, с цветка-неудачника.
Помню шепот
мамы: ‘…роды…’ – (о тетушке) – ‘…умерла‘.
Села штопать.
Или, скажем, пол подмела.
Распыления опыт.
Вот он, добыт.

Точно лампу, моргнувшую на весу,
на пустырь его вынесу,
и вот-вот свет
Одуванчика сгинет безропотно.
Там, где нас нет.
Дуй! – он дернется крохотно, –
в мире что – нибудь лязгнет, –
и погаснет.

Vladimir Gandelsman
Reproduced by kind permission of the poet

Translator’s commentary

Vladimir Gandelsman's 'An Ode to a Dandelion' is a poem about mortality. It is conceived as an artful rehearsal of 'an experience of dispersal', death. While death is in each case a unique and deeply private event, the poem suggests that 'an experience of dispersal' imposes itself on us from early on, as we try to make sense of fragility and finitude of what we love. Normally, we resist and suppress these experiences (thus a mention of household chores that the poet's mother engages in to take her mind off her sister's death). Against those normalizing tendencies, the poem delineates a quasi-safe place for modelling an experience of mortality.

Our interpretation of the poem has significantly influenced some of our translation choices. For instance, the first stanza describes the picking of a dandelion as 'распыления опыт' and invites associations with pollination and dissemination rather than outright destruction or collapse into elements, which get emphasized later in the poem. Ultimately, we decided on 'dispersal', since this seems to capture the ambiguity of the Russian term quite well.

Another controversial decision we have made is to translate 'добыт' – a neutral-sounding verb predicated of the experience in question – as 'mastered'. While weaker verbs initially seemed attractive – it's more natural to say that one has or undergoes an experience – we ultimately decided to use a verb that signifies an achievement and emphasizes its role as a success term that completes a difficult process (alluding to Vladimir Mayakovsky's famous definition of poetry as 'добыча радия', mining for a dangerous radioactive material).

Our interpretation has also forced us to emphasize some concepts that may get glossed over on the first reading: for instance, we decided to render 'vechereet vcherne' as 'yet another rough draft of getting late', to emphasize the self-consciously meta-literary implications of this phrase.

Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky