Robert Chandler

... among other things, co-edited the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, 2015.

I sent him, via his Facebook page, a link to my "Backbone-Flute" translation. His (public) response contained not even a hint of praise (1); instead, he opined:

I have two pieces of advice. First, that you should read your work aloud to other people - this might sensitize your ear to crucial matters of rhythm and tone. My impression is that you think it is enough simply to observe the demands of meter and rhyme in a somewhat mechanical manner. Second, that you should read more C20 poetry in English; this, too, might help to sensitize your ear. You might also find it helpful to look at some of the outstanding translations of Mayakovsky by James Womack. I think you'll be able to find some online.

My reply was:

I was going to post a lengthy point-by-point rebuttal of your response: about [...] how my degree of familiarity with modern English-language poetry (2) is, here, quite irrelevant, unless you want me to make Mayakovsky sound like Maya Angelou; etc. etc.

Instead, I followed your advice and searched for James Womack's translations online.

It wasn't easy -- I had to wade through several pages of Google results. The first thing I did find was your declaration that

"Womack's rhymes are every bit as brilliant as Mayakovsky's own." (;1a68ad7a.1110 )

This, already, was absurd on its face: Mayakovsky, after all, had the luxury of coming up with rhymes first, and then writing the rest around them; whereas a translator, obviously, cannot do that without very significantly sacrificing fidelity to the original content. The chances of Womack, or anybody, managing to square that circle -- consistently, throughout a lengthy poem -- are effectively nil. (For some perspective: the 55 verses of my "Flute" translation contain a grand total of three 3-syllable rhymes, and I think even that's not too shabby. [There actually are 4; I forgot the "visitor / Inquisitor" one, since it came бесплатно from the original ("визита / инквизитор").] А вы могли бы?)

Some more searching yielded ( ) an account of you giving a talk, and Womack reciting some of his stuff. The author of the article actually quotes an entire "delightful" quatrain from "A Cloud In Trousers."

The original reads:

Вездесущий, ты будешь в каждом шкапу,
и вина такие расставим по столу,
чтоб захотелось пройтись в ки-ка-пу
хмурому Петру Апостолу.

And here is Womack's delightfully brilliant translation:

If you're omnipresent, you can get into all
the cellars and bring some quality wine back up -
then maybe, just maybe, Peter the Apostle
can be persuaded to lighten up.

Hmmmm. Let's see --

Rhyming: Mayakovsky has a 2-syllable rhyme and a 3-syllable one; Womack has a non-rhyme, and a rhyme of "up" with "up."

Content: if I can think of a less-expressive rendition of "пройтись в ки-ка-пу" than "lighten up," I'll let you know. Also, "if" should, if anything, be "since"; "some ... then" should be "such ... that"; "just maybe" is superfluous, and takes up space that should've been used to convey "хмурому"; "be persuaded" is very different from "захотелось"; "cellars" should be "cupboards"; and so on.

So, thanks for suggesting that I should use Womack as a model, but I think I'll pass. [...]

Here's a piece of advice from me to you: you should carefully read some decent Russian-to-English verse translations. As material you can find online goes, you can even start with mine: the "Flute," plus some other stuff (mostly Vysotsky) reachable via the "Back" link at the bottom of that page; other examples I can point to would be some Vysotsky translations by Kathryn Hamilton and Eugenia Weinstein, which you can find at (note the initial 'w'). This might -- how should I put it? -- sensitize your BRAIN to the fact that unless a translation satisfies the basic requirements of rhyme and meter (if any), and renders the content as reasonably-closely as possible (within the constraints of the previous), things like "rhythm and tone" aren't even worth mentioning.

That way, the next time someone sends you a translation which is clearly better than ones you've praised to the skies, you'll look less foolish if you either

(a) refrain from commenting at all ("Too busy right now," etc.);


(b) make appropriate compliments -- and only after that, any (very specific!) criticisms and/or improvement suggestions;

as opposed to

(c) posting a haughty dismissal amounting to "You've got a lot more to learn before you can play in my league, son."

... Because right now, unfortunately, you don't seem to be a very good judge of who, ability-wise, should aspire to play in whose league.

[And an even more honest conclusion that I had kept to myself, hoping that he might come around:

Let's face it: you're an incompetent, talentless hack, singing effusive praises of another. My suggestion is for the both of you to reread Krylov's "Кукушка и петух," and then switch to careers in which you could be more societally useful, such as ditch-digging. (And take James "Where can I go, melting this hell" (3) McGavran with you.)]


There was no further response from him; he simply deleted my post. Ah well.


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