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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

Peter Oram


Click here to open the concrete version of the poem in a separate window

a moth's sudden ascent
up a ladder of light
as if someone had switched on
his fluttering flight

he opens his booklet
of wonders – he must
have powdered his wings
with heaven's blue dust

in the transparent flask
of his abdomen
flows the blood of another
world's denizen

I could be in his body
but dare not debase
this miniature pharaoh's

Translated from the Russian by Peter Oram



Ходит мотылек
По ступеням света,
Будто кто зажег
Мельтешенье это.

Книжечку чудес
На лугу открыли,
Порошком небес
Подсинили крылья.

В чистом пузырьке
Кровь другого мира
Светится в брюшке

Я бы мысль вложил
В эту плоть, но трогать
Мы не смеем жил
Фараона с ноготь.

Arseny Tarkovsky (1958)
Reproduced by kind permission of the Estate of Arseny Tarkovsky

Translators' commentary

I think it's safe to say that the more a poem tends towards the miniature the more difficult it becomes to translate, partly because such poems are liable to use vocabulary that has some special weight in the source language – how can one equate for example the Spanish duende or the Welsh hiraeth in English? – and partly because the source language may allow a higher degree of compression than the target language, so that the translation is likely to burst its formal banks. In a heavily declined and conjugated tongue such as Russian the latter is almost always a factor to be reckoned with. 'Moth' in the Russian owes its effectiveness to its happy blending of image, form, sonority and all those other ineffable elements that make a poem a poem, into a whole that leaves the reader permeated with its sense of the transient, the ephemeral and the precarious. Faced with such a poem, the translator may have to think a little laterally, and look for other ways to reflect the essence of the original. In the present translation – this word must be used somewhat carefully in such a case – I've chosen the medium of concrete poetry in an attempt to direct the reader's soul via an additional, complementary route to the same emotional goal as the text, which is rendered in a pretty much literal translation which also respects formal elements such as rhyme and verse-structure.

Peter Oram