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The Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize 2012


Read the judges’ reports

Inna Kabysh


This is life: the summer house,
rain and sun, work and more work.
I wake a second before the baby,
the wailing, before bowing and scraping.

This is a bowl full to the top,
and trough, and tub, and chamber pot,
mishmash mix-up, yakkety-yak,
gosh darn it, short end of the stick.

This is the twitter, babble and coo,
laughter and tears, halloo, goochie-goo
and the swallow builds a nest of her own
by day, double-quick, on the run.

This is the view, nothing simpler,
with an anthill close by a stump,
field, clearing, apiary, tree clump;
life – the divine bustle and fuss.

And grass grows between the stones,
and the poet writes between washloads.
This is a stitch, needle, pin,
this is happiness, of which there's none.

Translated from the Russian by Katherine Young


Это жизнь, то есть лето и дача,
дождь и солнце, труды и труды.
Я проснусь за секунду до плача,
до дитя, до травы и воды.

Это доверху полная чаша,
и корыто, и таз, и горшок,
печки-лавочки, каша-малаша,
ёлки-палки, вершок-корешок.

Это гулинье, щебет и лепет,
смех и слёзы, ау и агу,
и гнездо своё ласточка лепит
на свету, на скаку, на бегу.

Это вид, нету коего проще,
с муравейником около пня,
поле, просека, пасека, роща:
жизнь — божественная колготня.

И растёт между плитами травка,
и меж стирками пишет поэт.
Это строчка, иголка, булавка,
это счастье, которого нет.

Inna Kabysh
Reproduced by kind permission of Inna Kabysh

Translator's commentary

I chose Inna Kabysh's untitled poem ("This is life: the summer house") because it embodies so many themes that the poet explores throughout her work: domestic life, women's work, and the everyday struggle of the female poet to carve out time to write. In particular, Kabysh is fascinated by the mother–child connection, which she explores in settings ranging from maternity wards to orphanages to the dacha. These poems are utterly unsentimental; Kabysh writes with clarity and vigor about the burdens shouldered by women in the Soviet and post-Soviet world.

The most difficult aspect of translating this particular poem arises from Kabysh's use of folk sayings to evoke the earthy quality of dacha life; it took me some time to find approximate English equivalents for rhymed phrases such as kasha-malasha. In the first stanza, Kabysh alludes to the Russian saying "quieter than water, lower than grass" to imply subservience; in that case, I chose "bowing and scraping" over a more literal translation.

Kabysh's poem maintains a four-beat line. To establish the meter, I substituted a colon for to est in the poem's first line (and elided leto with dacha in the translation). Although I was able to push the translation slightly closer to Kabysh's A-B-A-B rhyme scheme than what you see here, that version ended up sacrificing meaning to form. Also, I wanted to avoid making the poem sound "precious" or "perky" in English. Consequently, I rhymed as much as I could (often using slant rhyme and several times inverting phrases to maintain assonant or consonant rhyme) without following the A-B-A-B pattern. I also tried to maintain Kabysh's meter, although I wasn't a slave to it – the translation's last line, for example, runs to five beats, a compromise I made to ensure that the meaning was clear.

Katherine Young