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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

Commended

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

Robert Isaf

The Final Day


Early in the morning, when most were too lazy to stir,
Their grayish sleep annunciating the final day of winter,
The gentleman and the jezebel awakened in the room,
Slowly coming to amidst a carbon darkness.

Morning dawdled round. Hopelessly candles dwindled.
Sputtering wickflames loomed in puttied eyes.
At the cold window female shoulders trembled;
The gentleman at the mirror combed the parting in his hair.

Even so, the grayish morning didn't disappoint;
All today the day, like death, was pale.
Even last night her face shone before the lamp;
She had been in love in this same room.

Today there were dreadful wrinkled buttondowns left hanging,
A vile grayish film on every one;
Furniture jutted from corners; scattered scraps and fag-ends;
A scarlet set of drawers was the most horrible thing in the room.

And suddenly noises flew in. Pussywillows, kidney-swollen,
Were swaying in the wind, scattering snow.
The bell in the churchyard tolled. The shutters were swinging,
And urgent running could be heard coming from below.

There were people frantically all running through the gates
(the street was hidden by a wooden fence).
Urchins, women, streetsweepers – all sensed something,
Were waving their arms, tracing strange designs.

The bell struck. A clamour came, of cries, and neighs and barks.
There, on the dirty street, where all the people gathered,
The lady-jezebel, from her lounge of drunken passion,
Was on her knees, in her buttondown, her arms extended high…

Higher – past the houses – in the mist of the snowy tempest,
Instead of middiurnal clouds or midnocturnal stars,
Within the yawned azure – with flashes of jagged rose –
A slender hand had spread flat out a slender cross.

Translated from the Russian by Robert Isaf

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Последний День


Ранним утром, когда люди ленились шевелиться
Серый сон предчувствуя последних дней зимы,
Пробудились в комнате мужчина и блудница,
Медленно очнулись среди угарной тьмы.

Утро копошилось. Безнадежно догорели свечи,
Оплывший огарок маячил в оплывших глазах.
За холодным окном дрожали женские плечи,
Мужчина перед зеркалом расчёсывал пробор в волосах.

Но серое утро уже не обмануло:
Сегодня была она, как смерть, бледна.
Ещё вечером у фонаря её лицо блеснуло,
В этой самой комнате была влюблена.

Сегодня безобразно повисли складки рубашки,
На всём был серый постылый налёт.
Углами торчала мебель, валялись окурки, бумажки,
Всех ужасней в комнате был красный комод.

И вдруг влетели звуки. Верба, раздувшая почки,
Раскачнулась под ветром, осыпая снег.
В церкви ударил колокол. Распахнулись форто́чки,
И внизу стал слышен торопливый бег.

Люди суетливо выбегали за ворота
(Улицу скрывал дощатый забор).
Мальчишки, женщины, дворники заметили что-то,
Махали руками, чертя незнакомый узор.

Бился колокол. Гудели крики, лай и ржанье.
Там, на грязной улице, где люди собрались,
Женщина-блудница – от ложа пьяного желанья –
На коленях, в рубашке, поднимала руки ввысь…

Высоко – над домами – в тумане снежной бури,
На месте полуденных туч и полунощных звезд,
Розовым зигзагом в разверстой лазури
Тонкая рука распластала тонкий крест.

Alexander Blok

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Translator’s commentary


This is a poem of immense, if subtle, contradiction and thematic conflict; a unique joy and challenge to translate. It balances features suggesting both everyday and otherworldly readings, and its otherworldly symbolism suggests a conflict between Apocalypse and Annunciation.

Although rhymed, the original's most distinctive 'physical' quality is its free-stress rhythm, which manages both to allow more prosaic narration and to invest even the most everyday images with powerful, mystic importance. It was essential to catch the sense and echo of that rhythm; lines where rhythmic patterns repeated, passages where five-stress and six-stress lines alternated or jostled for prominence, or moments when iambic, trochaic, or amphibrachic suggestions emerged from the mist.

Great attention also had to be paid to Blok's penchant for repetition of words; 'room' occupies the same rhythmic position in l.12 and 16, and so while those lines had to be re-ordered in translation, preserving the parallel placement of 'room' was important. 'Echoed' words also could be reproduced, as with 'swaying' and 'swinging' in l.18 and 20. The wordplay in l.6 presented special difficulty; instead of the expected заплывшие глаза, Blok repeats 'оплывший', conveying his meaning with an unexpected image. To mirror the effect, I used 'puttied eyes', which both aurally echoes the flame's 'sputtering' and suggests by unusual means the unwritten заплывший.

Words like 'зигзагом' had to be adjusted in translation in order to preserve the poem's tone; most important is the translation of 'предчувствуя' as 'annunciating', suggesting the Annunciation to English-tradition readers who would not know that the feast, by Russian tradition, falls on winter's final day, and is greeted with a procession with pussy-willows. Certain archaic forms encouraged careful translation, as with 'полунощный', which at the poem's overtly mystical ending necessitated a solution like 'midnocturnal', in turn requiring an equivalent 'middiurnal' for the more everyday 'полуденный'.

Robert Isaf