Reading Brodsky always sends me to my dictionary, but usually it’s my Russian dictionary. Making my way through Пятая годовщина (“The Fifth Anniversary”), I ran into the usual slew of difficult Russian vocabulary (и к звездам до сих пор там запускают жучек ‘and to this day they’re still flinging zhuchkas to the stars’—zhuchka looks like a diminutive of zhuk ‘beetle,’ but it turns out it’s an affectionate name for a pet dog) and learned that лишая, the genitive of the word for ‘lichen,’ is accented lisháya these days instead of lishayá as my dictionaries have it, but the worst trouble I ran into was with the line я чувствую нутром, как парка нитку треплет ‘I feel in my gut the Fate something-ing the thread.’

Trepát’ is one of those verbs I’ve never managed to assimilate because it bundles ideas that don’t go together in English: it can mean ‘dishevel (by tugging at),’ ‘blow about,’ ‘pat,’ ‘fray,’ ‘pull (someone’s hair, ears, &c),’ and ‘whip,’ among other things; trepát’ yazykóm ‘to trepát’ with the tongue’ is ‘to babble, chatter,’ and the reflexive trepát’sya (‘to trepát’ oneself’) is ‘flutter,’ ‘go around,’ or ‘talk nonsense.’ But here, in the context of the Fates and thread, it clearly takes on its primordial meaning, ‘to scutch.’ Yes, that’s the first definition in my trusty Oxford: “to scutch, swingle (flax, hemp, etc.).” Well, it was off to the OED with me, where I found it means ‘to dress (fibrous material, flax, hemp, cotton, silk, wool) by beating.’ (There is another verb scutch meaning ‘to strike with a stick or whip, to slash, switch,’ but although it is “not impossible” that this is “a transferred use of [the verb meaning ‘to dress by beating’],… more probably the present verb is an independent onomatopœic formation: cf. scotch vb.”) Unfortunately, due to my deficient understanding of the process of turning fibers into thread, I still don’t have a clear picture; this page helps: “The flax is passed through it, slamming the break as you go, until the brittle outside layer starts to fall away, leaving the fiber intact. Then you ‘scutch’ it, which requires scraping the last of it away with a dull knife.” At least I’m pretty sure it’s Clotho (Клото [Kloto]—why did Greek theta give Russian t here rather than f?) who’s doing the scutching.

So how do you translate it? Brodsky, in his own translation, cheats, which he can get away with, being the author: “I sense the thread within strained by the Parcae’s shuttle.” (I note, sadly, that he mistakes “Parcae” for a singular; the Latin singular is Parca, but that’s not used in English, where we have to say “one of the Parcae.”) Nabokov, of course, would have taken delight in using “scutch”; I suppose I’d go with “I feel in my gut the Fate tugging the thread” for phonetic and associational reasons, but I would regret losing the specificity of the technical term. This is the problem with the English language’s plethora of specialized vocabulary—it can make a grand impression, but it doesn’t serve well when translating a foreign term that is a perfectly ordinary word outside of the particular technical sense used in the given context. (And speaking of context, can any of my Russophone readers tell me what “треплешь парк” means in the fifteenth stanza of Памяти Геннадия Шмакова?)

This is just one tiny example of how difficult, verging on impossible, it is to translate Brodsky (and I have to say I’m not fond of his self-translations in general—he tries too hard to be flamboyant, and is too disrespectful of his originals). Pushkin is untranslatable because of his (surface) simplicity: if you translate literally, it sounds like nothing, and if you gussy it up, it sounds gussied-up. With Brodsky there is the opposite problem—he uses register, reference, polysemy, and every other resource he can work into his text until it presents an interwoven thicket that can be plucked at or hacked at but not, in the normal sense, translated. Which brings me to the final line of the poem:

Скрипи, скрипи, перо! переводи бумагу. [Squeak, squeak, pen! perevodí paper.]

Normally, perevodít’ means either ‘take/carry across’ or ‘translate,’ but here Brodsky is using the colloquial sense ‘use up, waste’ (Не переводить бумагу ‘Don’t waste paper!’). But if you translate “waste paper,” you lose everything that’s memorable about the line. Brodsky renders it “Scratch on, my pen: let’s mark the white the way it marks us”; does that make sense? Is it poetry? You be the judge.


  1. “Pushkin is untranslatable because of his (surface) simplicity: if you translate literally, it sounds like nothing, and if you gussy it up, it sounds gussied-up.”
    Beyond translation problems, poets of that type are even hard for non-native speakers to read and appreciate, because so much of the power of their poems comes from an implied comparison between the perfection and simplicity of their poems, and the near-perfection and slight excessiveness of poems by other poets who are “almost” as good. I’ve had better luck with Rilke than with Heine, and with Gongora than with Machado, even though the latter member of each pair is actually much more congenial to me.
    A possible English translation of the Russian word Might be the colloquial “mess around [with]” or “mess with”. The specific meanings “whip” and “scutch” aren’t actual, but something like “Today he has to spend the afternoon messing the hemp” would be a workable idiom if anyone actually used it.

  2. LH, I don’t think you have reached proper “hair pulling” stage.
    Here, look what googling “трепать куделюbrought me. Are you there yet?
    Actually, the process is quite simple, I had a chance to see it in starover’s village in Udmurtia when my college friend invited me for a holiday. Women use this crude wooden tool to beat up piece of raw linen fiber (now, what’s the English word for THAT?), dirty dust flies everywhere, and they even manage to sing, with their mouths covered with kerchiefs!
    In your last example you seem not to notice another mistransaltion: Скрипеть is not “to scratch”, but “to creak”. You assumed physical waste: pen scratching the paper renders it unusable. But original phrase is not that literal; it just means diligent work, laborous writing that doesn’t bring any meaningful results.

  3. You’re right, I was so fixated on the other problems that one slipped right by me — I’ve changed my literal translation accordingly. And thanks for the links, especially the picture of the tool — it’s always helpful to have mental images to go with the words!

  4. why did Greek theta give Russian t here rather than f?)
    The answer might be quite interesting, but requires research. Originally, the Cyrillic letter fita was borrowed from Greek and corresponded to the Theta, but it’s unclear if it ever had a sibillant quality in Slavic; thus correspondence was most likely graphic, not phonological, since the earliest period. This correspondence was meaningless for texts not translated from Greek. Kloto is obviously a later borrowing, I would suspect via a translation of Greek mythology done in Petrovian times, but done from what language? And hereby lies the answer, I suspect. Same rendition of theta as t occurs in other mythological names, e.g. Tanatos not Fanatos.

  5. Hat, please change that to fricative. What was I thinking? 🙁

  6. Instinctively, I take “трепать” for “mess up with the thread, perhaps pluck at it, fluffing it up.” Scutching precedes spinning (not immediately though as I understand); Clotho should have yarn ready for spinning (already scutched) at her disposal. The Parcae spin, measure and cut off the thread; one of them must keep nervously or playfully messing with the thread so there’s a risk it’ll tear, which causes the poet some discomfort.
    Technologically, лен мнут, треплют, чешут, that much is true.
    In the Shmakov epitaph, треплешь парк probably compares the gone man’s spirit to the wind blowing through the trees as if tousling their hair.

  7. Many thanks, Alexei!

  8. How did you translate углекислый вздох? I hope you realize that no dogs were sent into space (to the stars???)in 1977. The last such dog was sent in 1966 (see It is a very curious anachronism, given how many Soviets would immediately recognize it. I suspect that Brodsky wrote the poem or part of the poem in mid 1960s and then adapted it. Quite possibly, the original poem referred to his excile from Leningrad; only later was it reworked into the emigrant’s lament. Its rythm and structure are also more typical for early Brodsky. Just a guess.

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    J P Maher

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