The Body Is Funny.

Lev Oborin posted a poem on Facebook that I liked so much I wanted to repost it here and make an attempt to translate it; he gave me the go-ahead and explained a couple of difficult bits, so without further ado:

смешно уму с телом
то течёт красным
то стреляет белым

то к делам опасным
само себя клонит
то курсом напрасным

само себя гонит;
то снова здорово;
то от боли стонет
то от иного

смешно, право слово

оно треугольник
и над ним кружочек:
мяч прыгнул на столик

сел на клиночек;
пухни, тело, пухни,
лезь из сорочек,

пульсируй на кухне,
выжимайся в сушке;
потом все рухнет —
шлам, хлам, кольца, дужки,

крючки, завитушки

смешно уму с телом
устарелой картой
хоть ножом как мелом

по доске шаркай
хоть наклонись над
исписанной партой

все одно виснет
ум, понять силясь:
как признаки жизни
спеклись помутились

во что превратились?

ум раскинул сети —
монашеским плачем,
бодрым междометьем,

воем собачьим,
внутри себя вечем,
счётом неудачам:

улов не замечен,
ожиданье зряшно,
рыбарь не вечен,
ворону брашно.

смешно уму, страшно.

My version:

the body is funny
it flows red
it shoots white

of its own accord
it gets into a fight,
on a vain course

it rushes ahead;
again finds itself able;
it groans from pain
or from some other foible;

it’s funny, no fooling

it’s a triangle made
with a circle on top:
a ball jumped on a table,

sat on a blade;
swell, body, swell,
burst out of shirts,

pulse in the kitchen,
diet till it hurts;
then it all collapses —
slime, trash, rings, arches,

hooks, curls

the body’s funny
like an out-of-date atlas;
use a knife as chalk

on the blackboard in class
or bend over
a scribbled-on desk

all the same the mind
hangs, it tries
to grasp how life’s signs
curdle and dim

what have they become?

the mind has spread nets
with monkish laments,
hale interjections,

the howl of a dog,
an assembly within,
for failures a log:

the catch is unseen,
expectation in vain,
the fisher is doomed,
food for ravens.

it’s funny and fearsome.

As always, it’s a struggle to deal with the rich rhymes of Russian in the less lush environment of English; I’ve gestured toward the pattern without trying to reproduce it, and have depended on assonance and rhythm to pick up some of the slack. My main priority is to capture the sound and feel of the original, which in this case means a refusal to pad out lines: the opening line (repeated later), смешно уму с телом, is literally “it’s funny for the mind with a body,” but there’s no way to cram all that in without bloating, so I settled for “the body is funny” (the mind is the only entity that can find something funny, after all). The original has an archaic ring in Russian; one of Lev’s commenters compared it to the 17th-century poet Simeon Polotsky, and that makes sense to me (if you read Russian, there’s a selection of his verse here).

Also, this poem taught me the word брашно ‘food, viand,’ a Church Slavic doublet of Russian борошно ‘rye flour’; Proto-Slavic *boršьno is derived from Proto-Indo-European *bʰars- and is thus cognate with Latin far and fārīna ‘flour,’ English barley, Old Norse barr ‘grain,’ and Old Irish bairgen ‘bread, loaf,’ among others. I love that kind of thing.


  1. January First-of-May says

    I think I got more of a Kharms vibe myself, but that’s because I wasn’t familiar with Simeon Polotsky’s works; they do look much more similar.

  2. Yeah, I think Kharms was drawing on the same old tradition.

  3. It is strange to see снова здорово in its literal sense rather than as ” here we go again”…

    Mind laughs at its body, would probably work metrically. English isn’t too pliable a medium for poetry, but without case endings, one can pack quite densely in it…

  4. Mind laughs at its body, would probably work metrically.

    That could work, and then the last line would be “mind laughs and fears.”

  5. And now I learn there’s a village Сново-Здорово!

  6. I don’t know Russian, but I applaud your English version – it’s a great poem.

  7. I wonder if a more conventional English meter would do this better justice given that English “wastes” precious syllables on things like articles, copulas, and personal pronouns.

    You always have to give up something in translation, so I would probably give up the meter and keep more of the meaning. It seems to me that the mind-body juxtaposition is crucial to the original – and the implication doesn’t do it justice.

    The first words that sprang to mind on reading the first few stanzas were something like:

    The body is a funny thing
    to the mind it streams in red
    now spurting out with white

    now rushing forth instead
    its own dangers to invite
    reasons in its own head

    It chases its own tails
    now it bursts out in rude health
    now on pain its self impales
    now complains of something else

    It’s funny! Other words fail!

    It certainly loses a lot of it’s compactness and a little bit of the feeling of the form of being off kilter as a parallel to what it says about the body. But for me it resonated better with the overall feel as I experienced it in the original (mind you, my Russian is beyond rusty and my English poetic skills questionable).

  8. AJP Crown says

    Mind the body.

    It’s too bad Jim Morrison & co. missed the opportunity to make an album

    The Doors

  9. @AJP Crown: They never would have anyway, not being British.

  10. It does remind me of syllabic masters – Simeon Polotsky (1629-80), yes, but also Dimitry Rostovsky (1651-1709) and Antiokh Kantemir (1708-1744). One of Kantemir’s best-known poems is subtitled “To my own mind” (K umu svoemu) and begins like this:

    O underripe mind, fruit of brief learning!
    Stay idle, do not impel my hands to labor…

    To writing, that is. Oborin is playing a bit loose with the number of syllables – most of his lines have six but some, only five, which was would have been OK for popular and/or humorous verse but not for the more serious, moral poetry. However, he’s sticking to feminine rhymes faithfully, as any syllabic versifier is supposed to.

  11. You always have to give up something in translation, so I would probably give up the meter and keep more of the meaning.

    Ah, well, that’s where we differ. As I’ve said elsewhere, for me the whole point of poetry is the sound of it; if you want to send a message (in the immortal alleged words of Sam Goldwyn), use Western Union.

  12. Beautiful translation — I have a minor criticism: in the line “то от иного”, in the Russian version my mind went to sex, doesn’t work if you specify “trouble”

  13. Excellent point — I’ll change it to “foible.” Thanks!

  14. I would like to join the applause.

    But not knowing any Russian, I didn’t know what sort of `log’ was being referred to. You compared the body to an atlas earlier so I thought it might be `log’ in the sense of a book of record but it could also have been `log’ in the sense of a lump of wood. I guess that ambiguity is not there in the original.

  15. No, it was meant in the “ship’s log” sense. I worried about possible ambiguity, and now I see I was right to worry. I’ll have to mull that over and see if I can do better.

  16. John Cowan says

    for me the whole point of poetry is the sound of it

    An extreme version of this position would claim that the following (in a non-rhotic accent) is the most beautiful poem in English:

    Cellar-door cellar-door cellar-door,
    Cellar-door cellar-door cellar-door,
    Cellar-door cellar-door,
    Cellar-door cellar-door,
    Cellar-door cellar-door cellar-door.

    In any case, when dealing with poetry in translation, it’s a matter of trade-offs: by the same token, you wouldn’t want to read a version of the Iliad in perfect English quantitative hexameters which is about “incestuous dukes in Tierra del Fuego” (h/t Philip Toynbee), would you?

  17. An extreme version of this position

    That’s not an “extreme version,” it’s a polemical caricature which has nothing to do with the position being caricatured. See the post I linked to in this comment for an example of what I mean.

  18. Too repetitious. Maybe:

    Seller – sell her cellar door!
    Sell ardor!

    Are door sellers cellar-door sellers?

    Sailor dough or cellar door or sell herd, or?


    Her door.

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