Smith’s Loseff.

Gerald (G. S.) Smith, now that he’s retired as Professor of Russian at Oxford, is devoting himself to continuing his project of translating the late Lev Loseff (Лев Лосев; I quoted one of his poems here and wrote about his biography of Joseph Brodsky here and here). He’s putting them up at [Dimitry Loseff’s] Lev Loseff blog, each translation followed by the original Russian and sometimes notes to explain allusions, and I urge you to investigate them if you love good poetry of the formal/tradtional sort. At the moment the top entry is “D’you hear me… / Ты слышишь ли…,” so the first thing that greeted me was this quatrain:

D’you hear me, the shutters are open, hey you, rise and shine,
unwashed and uncombed, as you are, just get yourself out,
to where some enamel’s been chipped from the rim of the sky,
and daybreak holds forth with its whistling and steaming spout.

If you like that, you’ll probably want to spend some time there. I learned about it via this post by Anatoly Vorobei, in which he quotes and rightly praises “Documentary,” Smith’s version of Loseff’s “Документальное”; the one thing I don’t like is his translation of these lines:

Там русский царь в вагоне чахнет,
играет в секу и в буру.

Stuck in his airless railway carriage,
the Tsar plays snap and more besides.

“Stuck in his airless railway carriage” doesn’t convey the sense of чахнет, which means ‘withers away, goes into a decline, becomes exhausted or weak’ (a pretty important sense in the context of WWI); more importantly, “snap and more besides” is just awful. The Russian means ‘plays seka and burá,’ two simple-minded card games — in the former (also called сика or три листа ‘three leaves/sheets’ and traditionally played by coachmen), each player is dealt three cards and the winner is the one with the highest point total according to an agreed-on system of values (the maximum is 33); in the latter (also called тридцать одно ‘31′ and apparently associated with criminals), the winner is whoever gets 31 points when the deck is fully dealt. I guess “snap,” though even more simple-minded, is a reasonable substitute, but “and more besides”? Come on, that’s just lazy, and it throws this reader right out of the poem for a moment.

But that’s only a minor quibble; the translations are lively and provide a great deal of pleasure, and I’m even learning new words (like кемарить ‘to doze, snooze’). A great way to start the day!


  1. Perhaps the lines could be rendered:
    “The Russian Tsar fades in his carriage,
    he’s plays go fish and also snap.”
    Not sure whether the rythm works.

  2. The rhythm is fine, but “and also” still feels like filler. Maybe “he plays go fish and games of hearts” (although of course one would also have to work with the rhyme scheme).

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Part of the trouble seems to be that “snap” and “go fish” immediately suggest small children as players, not coachmen, and still less criminals, and presumably give a distinctly wrong impression of what the Tsar is up to.

    I’m trying to think of another card game associated with criminals that is also simple and not coming up with much.

    Japan has the Blackjack-like Oicho-kabu, which is associated enough with gangsters to be the origin of the word “Yakuza”, but it doesn’t seem to be particularly simple qua card game. Blackjack itself seems to have the right vibe, come to that, but is so far from being simple that it’s about the only widespread gambling game where you can consistently beat the house if you’re clever enough.

    Craps might do, if only it were a card game. Also, I don’t suppose any game that needs a fine feeling for odds is really simple, even if the mechanics of play are.

    Perhaps the Tsar needs to be playing some quite different games to preserve the overall sense.

  4. I don’t know the full context, which might be important, but “Там русский царь в вагоне чахнет” is a clear play on enormously famous “Там царь Кащей над златом чахнет” (Pushkin, Prologue to Ruslan and Ludmila), which can be translated something like “There tsar Kashchei is withering over his gold”, but you really cannot translate it. Any rendering assumes knowledge of the Pushkin’s line.

  5. George Grady says

    I’m trying to think of another card game associated with criminals that is also simple and not coming up with much.

    Perhaps Faro or Commerce. I’m not sure how well known they are, though. How well known are сика and бура?

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s Faro that Hermann plays in The Queen of Spades, if I remember right. I don’t think it’s at all well known in these degenerate days, though. Saint-Germain must feel he has lived too long …

  7. I don’t know the full context, which might be important

    Just click on the link (“this post by Anatoly Vorobei“); the full poem is there.

    but you really cannot translate it. Any rendering assumes knowledge of the Pushkin’s line

    Yeah, people at Anatoly’s blog were making that point. It’s sort of like what I was talking about here — there are some things you just have to give up on when translating.

  8. Faro has less house advantage than any other casino game, which is why it’s unpopular today. The tiny odds meant that faro houses almost always cheated. They were called blind tigers and playing was called bucking the tiger (something that never works!) The phrase the only game in town is associated with this joke, told by famed card sharp Canada Bill Jones:

    “Don’t go in that blind tiger, mister! Don’t you know it’s crooked?”

    “Sure I do. But it’s the only game in town.”

  9. Faro has the right connotations, I think. It’s an easy game to play and is associated with sketchy practices. Playing casino also sounds appropriate for the situation; perhaps the tsar can give his driver cards and spades.

  10. Nice poem.

    Looks like it was written after reading Solzhenitsyn’s “August 1914”.

    References to Allenstein, Samsonov and general von François are a dead giveaway.

  11. Yes, I thought the same thing — although of course he could simply have been reading a historical account of the first campaign on that front.

  12. I’ve now read the whole “Documentary” and is not satisfied. All these “chicken legs” make no sense. Pushkin’s Lukomorje is a collection of tropes typical for Russian fairy tales. The translator should have found a similar English text and used parts of familiar phrases from there. Absent the umbrella text, some fragments of nursery rhymes or some similar material could have been used. The idea of the original, if I understand it, is that events of WWI, especially when viewed through documentaries of the time, are not much different from a fairy tale. There is so much time elapsed or, probably, a way to film events has changed so much that we view it as if they where about Cinderella or Humpty-Dumpty.

    Now, of course, poet is pretty much aware that it was not a fairy tale, but quite real and horrible event. So from under this post-modernist play we can really feel the horror not quite concealed by the medium. Last three lines make it obvious. I cannot come even close to suggest how that feel can be created in English, but a good translator would have.

  13. a collection of tropes typical for Russian fairy tales
    Not just fairy tales:
    Valja, valentina, vidish’, na juru
    Bazovoe znamja v’etsja po shnuru

  14. Marja Erwin says

    “I’m trying to think of another card game associated with criminals that is also simple and not coming up with much.”

    It doesn’t get much simpler than three-card monte, but it probably goes to far and it would be important to clarify whether the Tsar is playing someone else, or being played.

  15. “snaps and three-hand poker”??

  16. –The translator should have found a similar English text and used parts of familiar phrases from there.

    so “chicken legs” (reference to Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged hut) should be changed to beanstalk from Jack and the Beanstalk?

  17. —Valja, valentina, vidish’, na juru

    It’s advisable to use transliteration based on English, not German.

    Because someone is going to read it as Валджа, you know

  18. How about perhaps

    He plays at dominos and dice.

    ? These aren’t cards, and aren’t so specific as the original, but both suggest games which are simplistic without being particularly childish, and social, but associated with killing time or playing during conversation more than as a serious pursuit in their own right. *Solitaire* could be swapped for *dominos*, to bring us back to cards at the expense of the social aspect.

  19. Yeah, that works for me better than anything else that’s come up.

  20. I certainly knew all about Baba Yaga and her chicken-legged hut when I was a child, and so have my descendants. Fairy tales are international in scope, especially in the modern age when there are books full of them from all countries.

  21. beanstalk from Jack and the Beanstalk

    Maybe, if that is obvious were this is coming from.

    Russian poetry is so saturated with four-foot iamb verses that it is hard to write another one without precipitating something in the reader’s mind. For some reason, first stanza reminded me Block’s
    А рядом у соседних столиков
    Лакеи сонные торчат,
    И пьяницы с глазами кроликов
    “In vino veritas!” кричат.

    There is no real connection, but as I said, saturation.

  22. David Marjanović says

    The phrase the only game in town is associated with this joke

    That’s a whole world I’ve missed out on! I knew the phrase and nothing else, not even the names Faro or Commerce.

    I certainly knew all about Baba Yaga and her chicken-legged hut when I was a child, and so have my descendants.

    Trust me, that’s unusual in the West.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    Arthur Ransome’s “Old Peter’s Russian Tales” was very familiar to me as a kid; I think it was quite well known generally in those days in the UK, if not perhaps in this Latter Day of the Law. Ms Yaga features prominently therein.

    Naomi Novik’s well readable fantasy novel “Uprooted” seems to assume that her anglophone readership will recognise the name, too. (Incidentally, I liked the fact that it’s set in a sort of mystic Poland rather than a mere generic brothers-Grimm Mitteleuropa.)

  24. Seems to be a UK thing (or perhaps generally Anglophone). I had never heard of Baba Yaga before I started learning Russian.

  25. Baba Yaga came up all sorts of places in my American upbringing. Unlike some more obscure characters from Russian folklore (such as Rope-Nose), who I only learned about from my father, Grandmother Witch came up all over the place, from stories we read in elementary school, to popular video games.

  26. I’d be very surprised if anyone seeking out the poetry of Lev Losseff were unfamiliar with Baba Yaga or Russian fairy tales in general. Should translations of poetry really aspire to be cultural-context-free? I think not, but YMMV.

  27. In Germany many people have heard Pictures at an Exhibition in one form or another, so they know about Baba Yaga. Even IT people !!

  28. I’d still say that the number of people in Germany familiar with that motive is relatively small. FWIW, I did know about the existence of the cycle a long time before I knew the names of the individual pieces.

  29. I don’t remember when I first read about Baba Yaga, but I was definitely no longer a child, and I think I read it in English. My parents had several volumes (in French) of tales and legends from various places (nations and provinces, including Japan and ancient Greece) which I read and reread, but nothing Slavic that I recall.

    About the “chicken feet” of Baba Yaga’s house, I read somewhere that the ‘house” in question would have been started with four trees delineating a square, their exposed roots giving a rough impression of giant birds’ feet.


    It’s a very real thing thereabouts. Not Slavic of course, as Baba Yaga herself.

  31. SFR: Thank you, this must be it, only with six “chicken feet” instead of four. And a notched log for a ladder, stored underneath the little house until it is needed.

    It looks like the trees (at least some of them) are not growing there but have been cut especially and brought together to support the building.

  32. Thank you for reading my blog. Please note that I not only post translations by Gerry Smith, but also by Henry Pickford and other translators. I’ve even included a couple of Spanish and Italian translations.

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