It’s very hard to translate Joseph Brodsky into English. God knows he never managed to do a decent job, and his approved translators tended to be bullied into falling in line with his ideas (see Daniel Weissbort’s From Russian with Love for details). So I was delighted to visit Jamie Olson’s The Flaxen Wave and find his translation of Brodsky’s “Рождество 1963 года,” “Christmas, 1963.” It begins:

The savior was born
into fierce, brutish cold.
Shepherds’ small campfires blazed in the wasteland.

It continues with a flawless feel for Brodsky’s sense of sound and rhythm. Read the whole thing; it’s only ten lines.


  1. I misread the title as

  2. Trond Engen says

    Me too.

    Reel, Brutannia! Brutannia, reel the waves. Brutons ne-e-e-e-ever will be slaves.

  3. Thanks for the plug! It’s nice to be appreciated. And I too recommend “From Russian with Love,” especially for literary translators, though I hate Weissbort’s title. I think it was meant to have been a nod to the poem “Ниоткуда с любовью” (“From nowhere with love”), but the reference is muddied by the cliche that predates Brodsky’s phrase.

  4. The James Bond novel From Russia, With Love was published in 1957. In 1961, Life magazine called it one of JFK’s ten favorite books. The 1963 film’s title lacked the comma.

  5. I like the translation too, well done.
    Looking at the English and Russian versions next to each other, I am struck again how articles make English look so verbose.
    A question: if you were to read (declaim) it in English, how do you read the third line? I’ve stumbled over the ‘-zess-ss-moll’ sound linkage between Shepherds’ and small?
    On Weissbort’s title, I don’t know the story, but I do know from my own experience that publishers and editors often have titling ideas very different from that of authors and fall on cliches the author would never have chosen.

  6. how do you read the third line?
    In my opinion, to make the distinction between “shepherd small” & “shepherd’s small”, you have to think of the words while you’re saying the phrase and you’ll get a slightly longer S. It doesn’t work to have a breathing space between the words, that’s too long. There are other European languages (Italian, Norwegian) where there’s always a distinction between single and repeated letters (S vs SS and N vs NN, etc.) and thinking the word as I speak it is the only way I manage it.

  7. “Thinking the word” — I mean thinking of the spelling of the word(s).
    I’m sure a linguist could have put this comment much better, assuming they agree with me, but I thought it was interesting.

  8. yes, thanks, still, because shepherds are plural I get too much zissing for a comfortable flow of the phrase.
    Did you see the goats reference on Dessine-moi thread?

  9. Yes, I did. I tried to find a picture of a sky goat, or at least find the English equivalent, but I couldn’t.

  10. It doesn’t say anything about goats or sheep here but it’s gotta be the same thing. Or maybe some European snipe makes more of a bleating sound, and the American more of a woo-woo-woo.

  11. Sashura: I take you to mean that you pronounce shepherd’s and shepherds’ differently. Am I correct? As an AuE speaker it wouldn’t occur to me to pronounce them other than identically. I am having a hard time thinking of any word X where I would pronounce X’s and Xs’ differently.
    Hang on, I just thought of something. Although I would write Jesus’ and Moses’ and pronounce them the same as Jesus and Moses, if I saw Chris’ I would pronounce it like Chris’s. I suppose it is because the existing two sibilant sounds in Jesus/Moses makes adding yet a third sound ridiculous. Even more so, a word like assassins’.
    How do others pronounce -s’ words?

  12. yes, I do pronounce it differently: shepherd’s – dz with a slightly longer z than, say, in zone, shepherds’ – with zess at the end to denote plural attributive. Am I in the minority?
    And, come to think of it, do we need plural here?

  13. That’s what I thought you said, Sashura. In other words, you pronounce shepherds’ as if it were written shepherds’s. As I said, that’s what I do for Chris’, as in the possessive for the short form of the name Christopher or Christine. But the pronunciation shepherds’s I would predict to be non-standard for most first language English speakers. And similarly, for example, asses’ pronounced as asses’s, cows’ pronounced as cows’s and so on. But maybe I’m the odd one out here?

  14. let’s see what Mr Speaker and other members present think.

  15. Thanks for the snipe, Ø, and the derivation of sniper.
    Iching may be right. I pronounce shepherd’s and shepherds’ the same way, and I’m a native speaker.

  16. Am I in the minority?
    I don’t know if it’s a minority, but you’re definitely in the group of second language learners. Native speakers pronounce shepherd’s and shepherds’ identically; the apostrophe is purely a spelling convenience.

  17. I see, of course you are right. But where did I get it from?

  18. Words that end in S have a choice of two different possessive endings. The choice is made by the speaker, it’s a bit arbitrary and might be pronounced by somebody reading it in a text differently than it’s written. Example: you can write and say Jesus’ words or Jesus’s words; someone seeing Jesus’ words written might prefer to pronounce it as if it were “Jesus’s words”. If you observed this, you might possibly have concluded that the final S was always pronounced, even when unwritten.

  19. I believe Mr. Crowd is on the money.

  20. (Is this what they mean when they talk about crowd-sourcing?)

  21. so is it tcheezes word, not tcheezeses word? my-my. What about Jones’ as in ‘we’re lunching at the Jones'(place, family, pl.possessive) – zeez or just zzz?
    I’m scanning Russian edu-sites on English grammar trying to find out if it’s something that my Russian teachers inculcated in me, but I think I learnt possessives in Noo-Yok where we had native-speaking Miss Rose and Mrs.Walker.
    But thanks to the crowd for helping with the poem, it solved the mystery for me.
    on D in Crown, I’ve just heard from the Moscow fashion crowd that Dolce&Gabbana is called ‘Dorogo i Glupo’- expensive and stoopid. Don’t change your brand.

  22. You can say Tcheezes word or Tcheezeses word, it’s up to you. I’d write “the Jones family” or “the Jones place”, but either “Mr Jones’s place” or “Mr Jones’ place”. The consumerist neighbours expression is keeping up with the Jonses, and it’s pronounced that way. I’d like to avoid being made into a sauce.

  23. We are lunching with the Millers.
    We are lunching with the Miller family.
    We are lunching at the Millers’ house.
    (This last is never spelled Millers’s, and never pronounced with two final sibilants.)
    In exact analogy:
    We are lunching with the Joneses.
    We are lunching with the Jones family.
    We are lunching at the Joneses’ house?
    (This last could be spelled Jones’s, or less plausibly Jones’, but surely not Joneses’s. It is definitely pronounced with two final sibilants, not three! Not just one, either, unless one is getting muddled by it all.)

  24. keeping up with the Jonses” that should be “Joneses”. I was getting confused by so many of them.

  25. Sashura: I would certainly say Jesus’ with three syllables, despite the conventional spelling, except when reading Shakespeare’s tombstone.

  26. ʤizesus?
    thanks, John,
    Iesvs – is it from Greek or Arameic? In Russian Jesus is spelt Иисус, though flowingly pronounced Isus with one i.

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