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Osip Mandelstam 

“The Stalin epigram”



We don't feel our country beneath our feet,

We don't hear our voices across any street,


And whenever’s enough for a half-conversation,

People mention the mountain man of the Kremlin.


His fingers are thick like maneuvering worms,

And are certain as pounds his words.


His cockroach whiskers are laughing at us. 

And his bootlegs shine out like stars.


Round him is a circle of pencil-neck leaders,

He plays favors with half-man believers.


Whistle, mewl and snivel our folks,

He is only who bangs and who pokes.


Like horseshoes he forges and throws decrees -

In our crotches and eyes, in our foreheads and brows.


Every punishment his is raspberry-sweet,

And his torso is broad as one of Ossete.

Осип Мандельштам

“Эпиграмма на Сталина”



Мы живем, под собою не чуя страны,

Наши речи за десять шагов не слышны,


А где хватит на пол-разговорца,

Там припомнят кремлевского горца.


Его толстые пальцы, как черви, жирны,

И слова, как пудовые гири, верны.


Тараканьи смеются усища

И сияют его голенища.


А вокруг его сброд тонкошеих вождей,

Он играет услугами полулюдей.


Кто свистит, кто мяучит, кто хнычет,

Он один лишь бабачит и тычет.


Как подковы, кует 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.

During the past 30 years I’ve read many unsuccessful translations of Mandelstam, but I hoped that time would make international translators, especially as well established ones as Jose Manuel Prieto, be more careful in translating from Russian poets. Alas, my hopes were dashed. Below is the same “Stalin poem” translated into English from Jose Manuel Prieto’ Spanish version by Esther Allen in 2012.





“We live without feeling the country beneath our feet,

our words are inaudible from ten steps away.

Any conversation, however brief,

gravitates, gratingly, toward the Kremlin’s mountain man.

His greasy fingers are thick as worms,

his words weighty hammers slamming their target.

His cockroach moustache seems to snicker,

the shafts of his high-topped boots gleam.

Amid a rabble of scrawny-necked chieftains

he toys with the favors of such homunculi.

One hisses, the other mewls, one groans, the other weeps;

He prowls thunderously among them, showering them with scorn.

Forging decree after decree, like horseshoes,

he pitches one to the belly, another to the forehead,

a third to the eyebrow, a fourth in the eye.

Every execution is a carnival

Filling his broad Ossetian chest with delight.”





Obviously, both the Spanish and the English translations ignore the original’s rhyme and meter. Both translations present the prosaic narratives that lose the music and rhythm of the original poem. But even that prose is textually incorrect. For example, it says: “…his words weighty hammers slamming their target.” A literal translation of this original line is: “…his words are as true as pound weights” (pood is 40 Russian pounds). There are no “hammers”, no “slamming” and no “target” in the original poem. All that is the inventions of the translators who hammer the poet’s concise and clear message into a purple prose. Further, Prieto/Allen translate: “…he prowls thunderously among them, showering them with scorn.” The literal translation of this line is “…he’s the only who bangs and who pokes” – exactly how I translated it. Stalin was rude and curt with his subordinates, but he didn’t have to “prowl thunderously among them” – they came to him and follow his every word. The Russian word “babachit” is not a neologism, as the translators claim, but a colloquial, similar to English “bah. Also, the translators grouped the eight original couplets into three uneven stanzas. I wonder why they felt free to break the original form of this famous poem so drastically. As a result, the translated poem in both Spanish and English is unrecognizable to anyone who can read Russian and is familiar with the original. To others who don’t speak Russian these translations present the wrong Mandelstam. Unfortunately, this kind of translation is all too common among American translators.

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