Translations of the Stalin Epigram.

Ian Probstein has a post at Jacket2 presenting Mandelstam’s notorious “Stalin Epigram” in the original Russian and three translations, including his own, and discussing various aspects of the poem and problems of rendering it into English verse, which of course is intensely interesting to me. We discussed the poem a few years ago, but only in the context of the nonce-word бабачит [babachit]; Probstein goes into other aspects, like the allusions at the start:

The idiomatic tone is set in the very first two lines in which Mandelstam coins idioms of his own: “not to feel the country” deconstructing two well-known idioms: “nog pod soboi ne chuyat’”: to be running very fast or to be flying, often to be beside oneself with joy (literally not to feel one’s feet), but also: to be run off one’s feet, to be extremely exhausted; however, Mandelstam creates a new meaning implying “running without looking back from fear” and “being deaf and dumb” since the Russian “chuyat’” also means “to hear” and “to feel” […]

It’s well worth a read, but I have a couple of cavils. He’s wrong to say McDuff’s “thick-skinned” is a mistranslation of тонкошеих — McDuff is actually (for whatever reason) working from the variant толстокожих (scroll down on this page to “8. А вокруг него сброд толстокожих вождей”). And while his complaints about the other translations are often well taken, his is no better, and I find his last line (“His broad chest of Ossete eclipses the jail”) quite silly. Of course, I myself wouldn’t even attempt to translate the poem, so perhaps I shouldn’t throw stones.


  1. While it can’t be proven with 100% certainty, it seems most probable that Stalin’s family on paternal side were of Ossetian descent. The surname Jugashvili is Georgian version of Ossete surname Дзугатæ (Jugaty) and his great-grandfather Zaza Jugashvili was native of highland village of Gery in South Ossetia.

    Now, most Ossetians call themselves ирæттæ or Ирон адæм (Iron people) with Iron being a local variant of “Iran” which in turn is a cognate of well known term “Aryan”.

    So not only Stalin was a highlander, but he also was an Aryan in the most literal sense of this word…

  2. Dmitry Prokofyev says

    Probstein also makes other mistakes there: e.g. he misquotes Molotov’s given name. Not that it were of any importance in the context of Mandelstam’s poem analysis or translation, but such minor blunders tend to sow mistrust in the rest of the writer’s arguments.

    Not to mention that it – the name – has also been immortalized in Rusian political poetry, albeit much later and anonymously:
    Цветет в Тбилиси алыча
    не для Лаврентий Палыча,
    а для Климент Ефремыча
    и Вячеслав Михалыча

  3. Stefan Holm says

    Dmitry: Just out of curiosity from an ignorant – what’s the pun? The verse to me essentially says that ‘The plum (or cherry?) trees of Tbilisi blossom for Voroshilov and Molotov but not for Beria’. Does it allude to anything else than the fact that Beria was a Georgian (while Voroshilov was born in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine and Molotov in Perm)?

    Worthless knowledge, but as a teenager in the late 60s in my home town Borås I got to know a Finnish immigrant, Olavi Kaleva, who actually twice had met with Vyacheslav Molotov. In his youth he had been active in the circles around Otto Wille Kuusinen, leader of the ‘Terijoki government’ during WWII. All I remember is, that Olavi was a great admirer of the ‘cocktail guy’.

  4. Not the same Dmitry, Stefan, but the story of the demise of all-powerful Beria in summer 1953 may remain as obscure as the origins of the couplet (which just brags that Molotov & Co defeated Beria anyhow). Was Beria really a British mole after the revolution? A serial rapist? A proponent of speedy reunification of Germany and of dissolution of collective farms? Murky waters…

  5. Dmitry Prokofyev says

    Stefan: There’s no distinct pun as such. It’s just a rhyme that went around in 1953 when, after Stalin’s death, Beria was hastily arrested, proclaimed a British spy, and executed – not necessarily in this order – by his recent comrades-in-arms, including the abovementioned two. Incidentally, алыча is a variety of plums typical for Georgia and yielding rather sour-tasting fruit, which makes the main ingredient of the wonderful Georgian Tkemali sauce.

  6. алыча is explained as an Azeri borrowing but it’s ultimately from Farsi آلو (âlu) “plum” with an added Turkic suffix. In India there is an incongruous name for a plum variety used for a classic chutney, आलू Aloo Bukhara (usually literally interpreted as “potato Bukhara”) which is of course from the same source.

    There is another Russian word also derived from Frasi “alu”, жердели “wild / small apricots” ~~ yellow plums ( + Farsi zard زرد “yellow”)

  7. @ Dmitry

    Re Farsi آلو (âlu): Is there any relationship with Turkish elma Kazakh алма ‘apple’?

  8. Three years later:

    Re Farsi آلو (âlu): Is there any relationship with Turkish elma Kazakh алма ‘apple’?

    Nope, the Farsi is (via Hindustani) from Sanskrit, and the Turkish is inherited from Proto-Turkic (according to Wiktionary).

  9. David Marjanović says

    Hungarian has alma, too.

    and the Turkish is inherited from Proto-Turkic

    Sure, but Proto-Turkic isn’t too old to have Middle-or-so Persian loanwords itself…

  10. Hmm, I guess that’s true. I don’t know how to find out more, though.

  11. There are also no good etymologies for omena (Fi)/õun (Est) “apple.” They are believed to be either Fennic-Mordvin stems or Indo-Iranian loans (åmuno, amun in Yidgha):

  12. The apple words may be a case of a very old wanderwort, the source of which may be a language family that hasn’t even survived.

  13. Good point; it’s always hard to remember that possibility.

  14. a language family that hasn’t even survived

    BMAC is the first that comes to mind.

  15. Stephen C. Carlson says

    There are also no good etymologies for omena (Fi)/õun (Est) “apple.”
    Whither or whence (depending your perspective) the ‘m’ of Finnish omena?

  16. No idea, actually, but the ‘m’ is present in most of the ?cognate words; it is lacking only in Estonian and Votic:

    ● ? liivi umār ‘õun’
    vadja õuna ‘õun’
    ? soome omena ‘õun’
    ? isuri ommeena ‘õun; kartul (=potato)’
    ? karjala rhvl omena (lapse v looma hellitusnimi (=hypocoristic for children or pets))
    ? ersa umaŕ ‘õun; maasikas (=strawberry)’

    A Votic dictionary:

  17. I’ve sometimes allowed myself the sheer conjecture that “Avalon” and “Shambhala” are not only analogous concepts, but cognate words.

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