Ian Probstein: Three translations of Osip Mandelstam's 'Stalin's Epigram'

Komer & Melamid, Stalin in Front of Mirror (Tempera and oil on canvas, 72”X48”, 1982-83)

It is said that a translator is like a spy: if everything is fine, the author of the original is praised and the translator is barely noticed; if not, the translator is blamed. Having that in mind, I am going to discuss several translations of Osip Mandelstam’s “Stalin’s Epigram”, which cost him two exiles and eventually, life.

Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) led an unsettled life full of tribulations, wandering and exile. After his Stalin’s epigram of 1933, for which the dictator, who used to say that “vengeance is best when served cold,” never forgave the poet. Mandelstam was first sent to Cherdyn’ in Siberia, then due to protection of several powerful Communist party functionaries who were fond of Mandelstam’s poetry, the term was somehow milder: he had to live in the provincial town of Voronezh deprived of the right to live in the capital and big cities, and finally was arrested again in 1937, sent to Vladivostok labor (virtually concentration) camp where he perished in 1938. The exact date of his death is unknown; neither has the poet the grave of his own. 

The original text, arranged in two stanzas, eight lines each, as if looking forward to his famous “Octaves” the first draft of which he composed in 1933 as well.  Unlike the later deep metaphysical and esoteric poem, the epigram is written in overt manner with a lot of colloquial expressions, idioms, and even neologisms coined by the poet. It comprises alternating rhymed couplets (hence the translators changed the graphic appearance of the poem). The basic meter is alternating anapest, the first two lines are four-feet with masculine rhymes, the third and fourth are three-feet with feminine rhymes, the fifth and fourth are four-feet  masculine again and so forth. Meter and rhyme are very important for Mandelstam in general, especially in the poem under consideration, since it is based on colloquial idioms and its rhythm and rhymes remind that of “folk” couplets; hence the poet uses first person plural point of view, that of collective “we”. 

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”; hence the poet extends  and develops it in the second line: “our speeches cannot be heard at ten paces; both meanings are rendered by the translators correctly, with the little exception that in Clarence Brown’s and W. S. Merwin’s translation active voice is changed into passive: Mandelstam: we do not feel (hear);  Brown and Merwin:  our lives don’t feel; in McDuff’s translation such words as “inaudible”, “conversation”  destroy, in my view, rhythm and music from the start, making it a literal translation.  The key image of the second “couplet” is that of Stalin’s of course: he was born and raised in Georgia, in the Caucasus; hence highlander, not “a mountaineer,” which may imply some kind of athletic competition. It is notable that at that time there were several other Georgian-born Communist party functionaries alive, for instance, Sergo Ordzhonikidze who would be killed in 1937, member of the so-called political bureau of the central committee and the minister of heavy industry; however, the reader would unmistakably identify unnamed “highlander” with Stalin.

Further, it is said that a poet-functionary Dem’yan Bednyi (real name Yefim Aleksandrovich Pridvorov, 1883-1945) who was friendly with Stalin and gave him books to read, once mentioned that Stalin returned books soiled with oily fingers, after which the poet fell out of favor, but was not persecuted further; a famous children’s poet Kornei Chukovsky wrote a long poem “Tarakanishche” [a giant cockroach] about the cockroach-dictator with giant moustache who was easily crushed in the end by a “brave sparrow,” not bigger animals. Everybody understood the implication, but it was Mandelstam who combined all the features adding Stalin’s habit of wearing a military uniform without shoulder straps (only during great holidays Stalin would put on field marshal’s, later generalissimo’s, uniform).  One of Stalin’s long-term associates, Vasily Molotov (real name Skriabin), prime-minister in 1930-1941, and minister of foreign affairs in 1939-1949 and 1953-1956, who signed the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, had a very thin neck; hence “chicken-necked”, as Brown and Merwin rendered, is correct, while  “thick-skinned”, as it appears in McDuff’s translation, is evidently not.  Mandelstam further creates a Russian fairy-tale-like phantasmagoria turning half-men into demons, poltergeists and evil spirits. Again, Clarence Brown’s and W. S. Merwin’s translation is more exact both rhythmically and semantically than that of McDuff’s, which is like an exact interlinear translation, especially in his last but one couplet in which he destroys the music completely.  The word “Ukaz” means in English “a decree” and goes back to the time of Ivan the Terrible, if not earlier. Etymologically, it derives from the verb “ukazyvat’,” which means “to show” or “to order.”  It is notable that the manuscript as well as the authorized edition s of Collected Works of Mandelstam reads “grants a decree after a decree”, not “forges”.  Perhaps it is linked to the Russian belief that a horseshoe brings happiness (in that meaning the word is used in Osip Mandelstam’s Pindaric Fragment “A Horseshoe Finder).

The real problem, however, is the last couplet in which Mandelstam coined a new idiom.  The word “raspberry” in a thief jargon means “a criminal underworld,” usually that of thieves; it is a well–known fact now that Koba (Stalin’s past criminal and then Bolshevik party name) was robbing postal carriages, trains and even banks. “Old Bolsheviks” were uneasy about that, but since they needed money, Lenin convinced them that Stalin “expropriated” the rich giving money to the party (a Bolshevik Robin Hood of a kind).  What seems even more important, however, is that the Russian idiom “ne zhisn’ a malina” [life like a raspberry] means “la dolce vita,” a sweet life. Mandelstam replaces “life” with “execution”, thus rhyming them since the Russian for “execution” [kazn’] and life [zhizn’] form a slant dissonance rhyme.  In my view, it is impossible to render images, especially idioms literally into a foreign language; thus it is necessary to replace “raspberry”, which does not have the above implication in English. At first, I was considering just “a piece of cake” or even “a raspberry cake”, but then decided to move further and have chosen the English idiom “cakes and ale” and added a rhyme “jail,” which is justifiable, in my view, since Stalin has long been associated with the development of the prison and concentration camp system.  In the end, Mandelstam consciously replaced “Georgian” with “Osette” because the Russian word “Ossetina” in comparison with “Gruzina” has an extra syllable necessary for preserving the meter, not just rhyme.  It can be also justified since Stalin’s paternal grandfather Vissarion Dzhugashvili is said to be Ossetian. Although in my own translation I was not quite able to preserve anapest everywhere, I tried to preserve the rhyme and an alternation of longer and shorter lines.

Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам (1891 -1938)

     Мы живем, под собою не чуя страны,
     Наши речи за десять шагов не слышны,
     А где хватит на полразговорца,
     Там припомнят кремлевского горца.
     Его толстые пальцы, как черви, жирны,
     И слова, как пудовые гири, верны,
     Тараканьи смеются глазища
     И сияют его голенища.

     А вокруг него сброд тонкошеих вождей,
     Он играет услугами полулюдей.
     Кто свистит, кто мяучит, кто хнычет,
     Он один лишь бабачит и тычет.
     Как подкову, дари'т за указом указ --
     Кому в пах, кому в лоб, кому в бровь, кому в глаз.
     Что ни казнь у него -- то малина
     И широкая грудь осетина.

             Ноябрь 1933

PennSound link of Probstein reading this poem in Russian: MP3 

Clarence Brown’s  and W. S. Merwin’s Translation:
New York: Atheneum, 1974.

Our lives no longer feel ground under them
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.

But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
It turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,

The ten thick worms his fingers,
His words like measures of weight,

The huge laughing cockroaches on top of his lip,
The glitter of his boot-rims.

Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
He toys with the tributes of half men.

One whistles, another meouws, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.

He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
One for the groin, one for the forehead, temple, eye .

He rolls the executions of his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friend back home.

David McDufff’s translation
            Osip Mandelstam. Selected Poems. London: Writers and Readers, 1983.

We live without feeling the country beneath us,
our speech at ten paces inaudible,

and where there are enough for half a conversation
the name of the Kremlin mountaineer is dropped.

His thick fingers are fatty like worms,
but his words are as true as pound weights.

his cockroach whiskers laugh,
and the tops of his boots shine.

Around him a rabble of thick-skinned leaders,
he plays with the attentions of half-men.

Some whistle, some miaul, some shivel,
but he just bangs and pokes.

He forges his decrees like horseshoes —
some get it in the groin, some in the forehead.
            some in the brows, some in the eyes.

Whatever the punishment he gives — raspberries,
And the broad chest of an Osette.


Translated by Ian Probstein

We live without feeling our country’s pulse,
We can’t hear ourselves, no one hears us,
If a word is uttered by chance,
Kremlin highlander is remembered at once.
Like worms his thick fingers are fat,
His words like pound weights are correct,
His cockroach moustache is full of laughter,
His army boots shine, he is sought after

By a mob of thin-necked leaders, half-men,
He uses their service, manipulating them:
Some are meowing or whistling, or whining,
He alone is poking, boking, and winning.
Like horseshoes, he grants his every decree
Poking some in the groin, in the brow, in the eye.
His executions are like cakes and ale,
His broad chest of Ossete eclipses the jail.



Editor’s note: some more translations of this poem

Dimitri Smirnov

We are living, but can’t feel the land where we stay,
More than ten steps away you can’t hear what we say.
But if people would talk on occasion,
They should mention the Kremlin Caucasian.
His thick fingers are bulky and fat like live-baits,
And his accurate words are as heavy as weights.
Cucaracha’s moustaches are screaming,
And his boot-tops are shining and gleaming.
But around him a crowd of thin-necked henchmen,
And he plays with the services of these half-men.
Some are whistling, some meowing, some sniffing,
He’s alone booming, poking and whiffing.
He is forging his rules and decrees like horseshoes –
Into groins, into foreheads, in eyes, and eyebrows.
Every killing for him is delight,
And Ossetian torso is wide.


Scott Horton

We live, not sensing our own country beneath us,
Ten steps away they dissolve, our speeches,
But where enough meet for half-conversation,
The Kremlin hillbilly is our preoccupation.
They’re like slimy worms, his fat fingers,
His words, as solid as weights of measure.
In his cockroach moustaches there’s a hint
Of laughter, while below his top boots gleam.
Round him a mob of thin-necked henchmen,
He pursues the enslavement of the half-men.
One whimpers, another warbles,
A third miaows, but he alone prods and probes.
He forges decree after decree, like horseshoes –
In groins, foreheads, in eyes, and eyebrows.
Wherever an execution’s happening though –
there’s raspberry, and the Ossetian’s giant torso


John Simkin

We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,
All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer,
The murderer and peasant-slayer.
His fingers are fat as grubs
And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,
His cockroach whiskers leer
And his boot tops gleam.
Around him a rabble of thin-necked leaders -
fawning half-men for him to play with.
The whinny, purr or whine
As he prates and points a finger,
One by one forging his laws, to be flung
Like horseshoes at the head, to the eye or the groin.
And every killing is a treat
For the broad-chested Ossete.

See also:
“On Translating a Poem by Osip Mandelstam” by José Manuel Prieto, tr. Esther Allen

Ian Probstein's translation of "Untruth"