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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

Second prize

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

Peter Oram

White Day


beneath the jasmine lies a stone
                         this day, this white white day
beneath the stone a treasure's stowed
                         this white           white            day
my father's standing by the road
                         this day, this white white day
such happiness I've never known
                         this white           white            day
the poplar's leaves are silver bright
                         this day, this white white day
the hundred-petalled roses bloom
                         this white           white            day
beyond them blooms the rambler too
                         this day, this white white day
the lawn is white, is milky white
                         this white           white            day
           such happiness i've never known
                                    this day, this white white day
                                            such happiness I've never known
                                                    this white         white          day

i never never could explain
                         this day, this white white day
that joy, that peace, that happiness
                         this white           white            day
it was my life, my paradise
                         this day, this white white day
i never shall go back again
this white           white            day

Translated from the Russian by Peter Oram
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БЕЛЫЙ ДЕНЬ


Камень лежит у жасмина.
Под этим камнем клад.
Отец стоит на дорожке.
Белый-белый день.

В цвету серебристый тополь,
Центифолия, а за ней –
Вьющиеся розы,
Молочная трава.

Никогда я не был
Счастливей, чем тогда.
Никогда я не был
Счастливей, чем тогда.

Вернуться туда невозможно
И рассказать нельзя,
Как был переполнен блаженством
Этот райский сад.

Arseny Tarkovsky, 1942
Reproduced by kind permission of the Estate of Arseny Tarkovsky
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Translator’s commentary


I had only recently become familiar with the work of Arseny Tarkovsky and in doing so had been very much taken by his very visual approach to imagery, his cinematographic shifts of scene and the clearly recognisable timbre of his poetic voice. The challenge of attempting to replicate these qualities in translation greatly appealed to me. I began by picking out a handful of the shorter and more lyrical poems, to get a feel for what characterised his writing. When I came to the present poem I naively imagined at first that an adequate translation could be knocked off in a matter of minutes. But no such luck. However much I twisted and turned I couldn't produce a version that had both the utter, artless simplicity of this exercise in understatement and its haunting and strangely evocative power. In the end I decided on a different approach. Since the original was somehow reminiscent of a Russian folksong, I would try to recast the poem as a kind of English folksong, maintaining the simplicity of tone and language, but alternating two variations of the poem's fourth line as a refrain, as in the anonymous medieval poem known as the Lyke-wake Dirge:


This ae nighte, this ae nighte
             Every nighte and alle
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte
             And Christe receive thy saule…

…or in the folksong…

Where are you going to
             my pretty maid?
I'm going a milking
             sir she said…

I'm not sure whether this counts as a translation, but it was the only solution that I could come up with at the time that seemed to create if not a similar at least an equivalent tone.

Peter Oram