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The Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize 2014
for the translation of Russian poetry into English
in association with The London Magazine

Third prize

The Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize
Read the judges’ reports

Katherine Young


Spring rain beats on broken branches
everything smells strong, wet, restless.
Where are we going, where will we turn?
Here's the mouth of the alley with
the bell tower at the end. Here's
the drowned boulevard. Here's the courtyard
and playground with the foot-worn earth.
And, like a gift, a child's lost glove…
Swings, pigeons, the litter of trees.
Remnants of snow in the shadow
of ancient walls. Push me, swing me.
I go numb on takeoff, even now.

Translated from the Russian by Katherine Young

Древесный сор весной прибит дождем
И пахнет сильно, влажно, неспокойно.
Куда пойдем, в какой проем свернем?
Вот устье переулка с колокольней
В конце. Вот вымокший бульвар.
Вот двор и детская площадка
С утоптанной землей. И, словно дар,
Потерянная детская перчатка…
Качели, голуби, древесный сор.
В тени старинных стен остатки снега.
Раскачивай меня. Я до сих пор
Немею от воздушного разбега.

Xenia Emelyanova
Reproduced by kind permission of the poet

Translator’s commentary

I chose this poem because it reminds me of the playground in the apartment courtyard where I lived in Moscow – the poem so perfectly captures the often-melancholy air of those spots. I also wanted to explore the challenge of bringing the formal aspects of this poem into musical English.

It doesn't make sense to me to 'replicate' the formal structures of Russian poetry in English (even supposing that one could do so with two such different languages): I'm more interested in capturing tone and sensibility. That task is even more difficult because so much of modern English poetry eschews rhyme and metre. Here I tried to preserve the vigorous, driving energy of Emelyanova's lines (for example, the three adverbs in the poem's second line) by harnessing English syntax (I substituted adjectives for those adverbs in the second line, for example) and musical devices: alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme. The 'w' and 'ow' sounds flow through the translation, providing some of the sonic structure that end rhyme provided in the original. I experimented with a five-foot line in English (replicating the Russian metre), but the result was too wordy: I pared back to four feet. I had particular trouble with the phrase древесный сор, which appears twice in the poem – in the first instance, I chose 'broken branches' and in the second 'the litter of trees'. Both are imperfect compromises, but each captures an aspect of meaning that belongs in the poem. I also had trouble rendering the poem's final two lines in English, more for metrical reasons than anything else – Раскачивай меня (which in English literally means 'swing me') takes three full metrical feet to express in Russian and only one in English – I needed to find more beats. I addressed that problem by adding 'Push me' in the penultimate line.

Katherine Young