In case anybody’s wondering what kind of a poet Dmitry Bobyshev (the guy who stole Brodsky’s girlfriend) is, I’ll pass along a translation I dashed off some time back of one of his poems; I started it because I so loved the line “Птичий почти: полу-свист, полу-щелк” [ptichi pochti: polu-svist, polu-shcholk], which seemed to represent the chirp of a chipmunk with uncanny fidelity, and wanted to see if I could render it plausibly in English. (Russian below the cut.)

Just think, there are places where beasts can live life
simply, without any forethought or strife.
The squirrel, if it can escape the raccoon,
has heaven, with walnuts and pears for its boon.
Listen: like bird-peep, half-whistle, half-click,
the chipmunklet chatters and runs away quick.
There are so many things that the vixen finds nice:
slippery frogs and mouthwatering mice!
I know there’s a stash that’s been stowed safe away
by special blue magpies for some future day.
As for the two of us, walking here now—
we’ll get through everything, sort of, somehow.

(Many thanks to Sashura for his help!)

Надо же, есть же такие места
где и животным живется спроста.
Белочке—рай, коль не схватит енот:
с груш и орехов довольно щедрот.
Птичий почти: полу-свист, полу-щелк
выпустив, спрятался бурундучок.
Сколько ж тут, сладких для лис, барышей:
скользких лягушек и вкусных мышей!
Знаю: запасец, запрятанный впрок,
есть у особенных синих сорок.
Что же до нас, что тут бродят вдвоем—
как-нибудь эдак и мы проживем.


  1. Bathrobe says

    Unless she’s hooked on children’s verse, “Brodsky’s girlfriend” (otherwise known as Marina Basmanova, who appears to have been an artist in her own right) must have found something in Dmitry Bobyshev more appealing than his poetry. “There are so many things that the vixen finds nice: slippery frogs and mouthwatering mice!” With lines like that, I can only hope the guy had irresistible sexual magnetism in real life.

  2. You, maybe Sashura as partner, should translate as many poems as possible. I can’t evaluate your Russian, but your English results outclass about 1/3 of the professional translators out their.

  3. Maybe Basmanova had unusual tastes and was pleased at the recognition.

  4. The poem is dated May 1983, so it long postdates his relationship with Marina and isn’t particularly representative of his output anyway. It’s just a fun little poem. I don’t have any of his early work, so I don’t know what she was judging him by (if indeed she cared about his poetry at all).

  5. “Chipmunklet” is interesting in that it offers one possible solution to the problem of translating Russian diminutives, but does it stretch English too far? This is an issue I run up against over and over, and I’m never satisfied with what I come up with.

  6. Also:
    If бурундучок = chimpunklet, then белочка = squirellet?

  7. “Chipmunklet” is interesting in that it offers one possible solution to the problem of translating Russian diminutives, but does it stretch English too far?
    Probably, but 1) I needed it for the rhythm, and 2) it wasn’t a serious translation so much as a proof of concept.

  8. the problem of translating Russian diminutives
    A diminutive form – an exemplar of a grammatical category – doesn’t necessarily carry a snugglyform semantics with it. Two banal German examples are Eichhörnchen and Leibchen. Even in English a “-let” ending on a word does not force you to entertain tender feelings towards its reference. I give you “couplet” and “wiglet”.

  9. Note that I wrote Leibchen, not Liebchen

  10. Jamie Olsen, you’re being far too rational. This is a poem. Chipmunklet is perfect. It doesn’t mean Language has to write -let ever again if he doesn’t want to. He’s not writing a goddamn dictionary.

  11. Sorry, “Olson”. I was thinking you were Norwegian.

  12. How about “chipmunkies” ?

  13. Me and my bro, Superman, we fully endorse the ‘chipmunklet’, even though we’ve just had a fly over Russia to confirm that there are no chipmunks there, only lemmings.

  14. Interestingly, I recently ran across a бурундучок (aka chipmunklet) in Grossman’s Life and Fate. It gave me a snugglyform feeling.

  15. “Сколько ж тут, сладкий для лис, барышей:
    скольских лягушей и вкусных мышей!”

    Hat, is the spelling meant to be like that?
    Correct Russian should be:
    сладких (sweet, genitive plural)
    скользких лягушек (slippery frogs, genitive plural).
    If it is deliberate, I don’t see why?
    My cat Vassily has just brought from his evening prowl a big fat fieldmouse – and gave it to the ever-slouching sister Masha, she ate it with gusto. No wonder Bobyshev managed to seduce Marina.
    Note ‘blue magpies’ in the poem. I have often marveled at the birds’ blue tint of their ‘lovely plumage, innit?’

  16. Damn, that’s what comes of having to type the whole thing myself—it’s hard to avoid typos… сладкий for сладких is my mistake, but лягушей for лягушек is in the anthology from which I copied it (which doesn’t excuse me—I should have caught it). Many thanks, and I’ll fix the errors forthwith.

  17. Everyone kno that Clark Knut is Norwegian Superman. Olsen is some kind of assistant, like Robin.

  18. They were comparing Kirsty Young to Christine Lagarde today on the beeb’s Today, saying that Young is Clark Knut to Lagarde’s Superhomme.

  19. Hat, sorry,
    скользких – correcting s for z. скользкий, скользко.
    Лягуш, лягуши, лягушей – could be an affectionate back-formation, from лягушка, though unlikely here. I’m not sure if it’s possible to query, so would keep it to ‘correct’ dictionary form.

  20. Sheesh, I don’t know how that happened. OK, I think it’s finally fixed.

  21. There’s BBC Radio 4!

  22. befuggled says

    I am going to pay you the finest sort of compliment by stealing “Clark Knut.”

  23. Actually, having just re-read the English version, I must agree with John Emerson (not the Sashura part, Hat is too generous) – it is wonderful, both the chipmunk chatter, which I remember from my time as a kid in New York, and as a whole. It captures Bobyshev’s pulsating thumping rhythm and it sounds right in English, like, maybe, Ogden Nash.

  24. I just noted that I said that Hat outclasses 1/3 of the translators out there, when I meant 2/3. 1/3 is almost faint praise.

  25. Funny how “better than 1/3 of professional translators” is faint praise, but “better than some professional translators” is not.

  26. AJP Crown, Sr, I’m rarely accused of being “far too rational,” but I take it as a compliment. And I would argue that reason occupies a key place in poetic translation, particularly when dealing with the mathematical complexities of Russian prosody, as LH does so well here.
    Sure, he’s not writing a “goddamn dictionary,” but as I said, I encounter the diminutive problem again and again, so setting up some general guidelines for how to deal with them is helpful. Adding “-let” or “-et” each time would create an absurd translationese. That said, I can’t think of a better solution for this particular example. It fits the meter perfectly, even if it is cutesier than the original.
    My Swedish relatives in Värmland, by the way, have an extra ‘S’ that we in the U.S. don’t: Olsson.

  27. I’m sure you’re right that guidelines would be helpful. I did like Language’s translation, though, and I wouldn’t want him to change a word on grounds of being more rational. Incidentally, I spent years being a rational architect. In the end I realised that rigour should only be a means to an end, it’s a tool to be used with care rather than an objective. Subsequently I’ve even become wary of the tool, it can be a bit of a security blanket – and a wet blanket, at that.
    Yes, that -sson looks very Swedish to me.

  28. I note that the chipmunks of Russia, Eutamias sibiricus, are immigrants from North America, where the other twenty-odd species of chipmunks live. As the name indicates, they are found mostly in the far east, though they are widely domesticated — obviously the poet is not speaking of caged chipmunks, however.
    Chimpunks (ages 7-14) can be found at Gombe Stream and other habitats making trouble for adult males; chimpmonks, on the other hand, are found in monasteries throughout Alexandria and All Africa.

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