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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

First prize

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

Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky


She says:
we don't have the right kind of basement in our building
I had to leave, one can't hide in there
couldn't leave for a whole week straight
men elbowed us out
we were weaker, there was no room for us
in the past we thought about nice furniture
home improvements and such
now we think: our basement doesn't work
it won't protect us, it will collapse on us
it's worse than sitting outside

we dragged our mattresses and pillows onto the floor
so that we could fall down as soon as it all starts
we fell down and lay there

my husband stayed behind. someone had to stay home
otherwise there would be no home to come back to
there may be nowhere to go back to anyway
but still, he watches the apartment
so that no one moves in and takes our things
he calls once a week from some high-rise
where he miraculously gets cell reception
he says a few words and hangs up
I am alive
call back next Saturday

when a four wheeler with a mortar
passed down the street
we weren't asking who are you
whose side are you on
we fell down to the floor and lay there

on our way to the market
the bullets whistled over our heads
we arrived here with a single bag
there wasn't enough room for people, let alone things

she speaks, as the August air
enters the room
in the yard
my coworkers are gathering overripe plums
last year these were delicious
but this time around
we missed our harvest
now it's too late

I listen, and I don't know
but if heaven and hell
really exist
they must be separated by a journey
in a minivan, packed full of people –
where plums ripen in silence,
where people fall down to the ground,
if so, then we must be experiencing
moments after death

Translated from the Russian by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky

Она говорит:
у нас в доме нет правильного подвала
я уехала, там не спрячешься
неделю не могла выехать
мужики расталкивают локтями
мы слабее и не помещались
раньше думали про красивую мебель
ремонт и прочие вещи
теперь думаем: наш подвал не подходит
он не укроет все завалится прямо на нас
лучше сидеть снаружи

мы положили на пол матрасы, подушки
чтобы упасть и лечь как только начнется
мы падали и ложились

муж остался на месте. кто-то должен быть дома
иначе будет некуда возвращаться
конечно, и так ничего не понятно
но охраняет, чтобы никто не вселился, не растащили вещи

он звонит раз в неделю с какой-то многоэтажки,
где чудом ловит мобильник
говорит два слова и сразу кладет трубку
я жив
жду звонка в субботу

когда по улице ехал
квадроцикл с пристроенным минометом
мы не спрашивали, кто вы,
с чьей стороны, за кого вы
мы просто падали на пол

по дороге на рынок над головами свистело
мы приехали с одной клетчатой сумкой
не помещались люди, не то что вещи

она говорит, августовский воздух
проникает в окно
во дворе переспела слива
сотрудники рассматривают, собирают
говорят, в прошлом году была особенно вкусной,
в этом году
уже поздно

я слушаю и не знаю
на самом деле
если ад и рай существуют,
то их разделяет путь
в автобусе, переполненном до предела,
если ад и рай существуют -
где в тишине переспевает слива,
где падают на подушки,
тогда мы теперь проживаем
мгновение после смерти

Anastasia Afanasieva
Reproduced by kind permission of the poet

Translators' commentary

Anastasia Afanasieva's poem tells of loss and exile following the 2014 war in Eastern Ukraine. It opens with a monologue, in which a recent refugee recounts the situation from which she fled to an interlocutor, and ends with the interlocutor's own reflections on what she has heard.

The poem is written in free verse, with no rhymes or other poetic devices such as alliterations and assonances. Rather, it's rendered in a documentary-like style, offering striking snapshots of traumatic events in simple, straightforward language. We've tried to find an appropriate idiom for the author's seemingly simple and self-consciously anti-artistic choice of phrases and words in this poem. We've settled on unembellished common sense writing style that one could find in an unsophisticated blog or internet forum. We've also preserved the author's original punctuation, which represents the chopped-up style of documentary reporting and emphasises the incompleteness of what's communicated and the impossibility of successfully describing traumatic experiences.

In the last stanza, the inner speech approach generated an ambiguity in the Russian text: the narrator says 'I listen and I don't know' and then instead of naming an intentional object of her ignorance, she starts a new thought entirely. Initially, we thought that connecting the communication of uncertainty in the first line ('I listen and I don't know') and the rest of the stanza would make the text more readable. To this end, we rendered the first part of the stanza thus: 'I listen and I don't know / if heaven and hell really exist / but if they do…' However, we then decided to go with the inner speech approach in order to capture the narrator's insight that no matter how often one listens to the stories of the victims of violence, one will never know what they have gone through.

Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky