Alla Steinberg


"IT STAYS WITHIN ME" *
NOTES ON ODESSA
AND TRANSLATING EFIM YAROSHEVSKY


If you happen to be born in an empire,
better to live in a remote province by the sea.

Joseph Brodsky, "Letters to a Roman Friend"**


On the street, in the rain, I meet a poet.
We exchange the newly found images.
There's nothing else you can talk about
with poets ...

Efim Yaroshevsky, "Autumn Blues"

_________________________________________
 *From “Upon Taking Off”, by Efim Yaroshevsky.
**All quotes translated from Russian by Alla Steinberg



Part 1.


In the late summer of 2007, I took my husband and teenage daughter, both native New Yorkers (who, unfortunately, didn’t speak Russian), on a weeklong trip to Odessa. I wanted to show them the place I had come from over two decades ago, the place I had been talking and talking about. I had a feeling that they would feel comfortable in the city that I’d always thought of as a little model of New York. I wasn't surprised to learn that Mark Twain felt at home when he visited Odessa, exactly 140 years earlier, in the late summer of 1867: the cosmopolitan spirit, eclectic architecture, bustling seaport, the free spirited, energetic, creative, entrepreneurial people – the climate! It was something I’d felt when I first arrived in the heart of Manhattan in July of ‘86… The main difference was that New York, the way I saw it, was what Odessa had meant to be – even on a tiny scale – but never fully became.

Instead, soon after Mark Twain left its coast, Odessa was smothered by a chain of unfortunate historical events, and developed many neuroses and complexes. A cultural hub and popular resort location since the times of the Russian Empire, this maritime town had an ambitious desire to be taken seriously by the capital cities of the world, while still remaining a “province by the sea”. The beautiful landscape and individuality of its architecture - the European signature of the city's founders - were never appreciated enough to be preserved by whoever was in charge. It was a city famous for its multiethnicity, but historically infamous for its rampaging nationalism and pogroms. Known for its citizens' specific sense of humor, way of talking, and unique language that indwelled the style of writing of the world-famous wordsmiths who defined what was called Odessa South Russian literary school, it was still much more known for the linguistic symbiosis of its less cultured inhabitants, with their provincialism, manner of speaking, and vulgarity. Narcissistic and self-destructive, Odessa (affectionately nicknamed “Odessa-Mama”) had the traits of a mother who gave birth to literary, artistic, and musical geniuses, but didn't give a damn about them and made them leave. I told my husband and daughter a lot about my own love-hate relationship with this place: there was a strong desire to run away from the everyday realities of the claustrophobic Soviet cul-de-sac, but at the same time, I was very grateful for the chance to mingle with the most interesting, creative, artistic, intellectual, and witty people. It was a time when the best literature was forbidden and could only be procured and exchanged through friends. This helped me get through the seven years in limbo, waiting for permission from the authorities to leave the country. Now, on our short visit, I wanted to introduce my husband and daughter to my old friends, hoping to show them the best of the Odessa I once knew.  

After everything they'd heard about it, they expected to be familiar with certain things. It wouldn’t quite turn out that way, though. The irony was that their perplexity in searching for the real Odessa was no bigger than mine! For two days we walked in 95 degree heat, looking for – and not recognizing – the streets I had seen in my dreams for years. Now, seeing and not believing. Buildings that used to be gorgeous in organically coexisting styles of the Empire, classicism, Baroque, and Gothic, were now neglected, dilapidated, and crumbling away – some were even being demolished. Before our very eyes, the beautiful ornaments of a historical 19th century hotel on Deribasovskaya Street were being beaten off its walls with a sledgehammer… Not far above it, a hideous monstrosity of gigantic proportions was dominantly impending… And several blocks away: the sight of the recently renovated, cheesy, cream-colored, cheap-looking, cake-like Opera House that had once stood for over a hundred years in noble gray. But even more striking: on the streets, there was a noticeably limited amount of faces with signs of intellect...  Lots and lots of topless (!) men holding alcoholic beverages in their hands, and gorgeous girls in mini-skirts that were mini to the point of no return. It seemed like people were very comfortable being almost naked, walking from street to street like they would walk from room to room in their own apartments. A very happy place indeed! But where were all the “intellectuals” – the traditionally “unhappy” individuals?! Well, “some passed, and some were far away” **, as Pushkin (who will soon be mentioned here, again) once said. And some were still here, somewhere… among the very few of my friends who stayed.

Part 2.   

On the third hot August day in our search for the “real” Odessa, we were sitting on a bench in the shade of a little sculpture garden on the grounds of the Odessa Literature Museum. I was holding a beautifully crafted book, leafing through it... and laughing. And not just because it was funny (actually, it was pretty dark!). To me it was much more than that: it was like suddenly identifying a familiar face in a crowd of strangers, or hearing a long-forgotten melody, or even better: digging the mother-tongue wit of an old friend whom you haven't seen for ages. It was written with the zest for language and subtleties of humor that only a certain mindset could actually appreciate: inside jokes kneaded with exuberant puns, reveling in a mixture of colloquialism and sophistication, alternation between absurd fantasies and philosophical revelations, coarse expressions intertwined with exquisite passages, whether it was a piece of prose or a line of poetry.

While browsing the pages of the book, it occurred to me that in the early 80s, during my seven refusenik years in pre-glastnost Odessa, a friend of mine (who, incidentally, was among the other few friends we were visiting now) had given me a pile of yellowed, tattered pages that looked like they had been through many hands before mine. He asked me to read it and tell him my opinion. I remember that I wasn't sure I was reading the pages in the right order; there was no plot - just conversations and contemplations. The peculiar thing was that you could mix the pages and it wouldn't make a big difference because you would want to keep reading, no matter where you'd started from. It was based on scraps of real conversations between friends and acquaintances.The voices of real people could be recognized, although it wasn't always clear which phrase belonged to whom. But soon it would become clear that that wasn't even important - the main thing was the content of the word, the language, the style, the playfulness, the thoughts, the feelings, the atmosphere. The characters were poets, artists, street philosophers (even if they had other titles at “real” day-time jobs), or simply genii: those who often were considered “street crazies” by the authorities, or who became that way as a result of not being able to find a better use for their intellectual faculties. It seemed that the characters were simply schmoozing, but the images, somehow, would come out very picturesque and poetic, and the content of their dialogues and monologues with the author's lyrical digressions were profoundly sad or philosophical. And funny! And all throughout, it had a kind of free-form jazziness in it: either it was an improvisation with the names of the characters ingeniously changed into their variations (like turning the root of a patronymic into various roots of different nouns, verbs, and adjectives, keeping the form of the patronymic with the same ending, so Stepanich -becomes: Divanich –, Atleastich – , Syrupich - , Tiredich – , Deceasedich – , etc.) in a lovingly-teasing manner; or it was an unpredictable, but smooth deviation between duos and trios, solos and the full band of main players - including the author - in the shape of little chapters, as performed numbers. Or it was, all together, another flight of fancy, sort of an extemporization - pages streaked with multiple variations on the theme of Pushkin's image - the author's whimsical drawings, obsessively scribbled in the margins of his tea-stained manuscript. It was a novel - a very unusual one - called Provincial Romance. The author: Efim Yaroshevsky.

I was simply ecstatic that the text in the book I was holding NOW was the exact same text I had been one of the privileged few readers of back THEN, when the idea of publishing it would be as crazy and fanciful as some of the scenes in it. Provincial Romance is a picturesque piece of the art of language, sort of the Boschian Garden of Earthly Delights of literature with the flare of Chagall's flying freeness and the colors of Odessa's artists - friends of the author, who, with him and other poets, live on the pages of this unique book. In the oppressive August heat, the sudden winnowing of fresh sea air came out of its pages. It was so good that I couldn't resist the temptation to read it out loud. There was only one twist: the book was written in Russian and I was trying to read it out loud in English. Obviously, a mere attempt at translating something like this would require hours and hours of the hard, exhaustive work of an experienced translator. It would be way too presumptuous for anyone else to assume that it could be done adequately on the spot. Still, the urge to share it was so strong that I roughly went along without realizing what I was getting myself into...

Efim Yaroshevsky (born in 1935) is a poet and legendary figure in Odessa. A teacher of Russian Language and Literature for most of his life, he became “widely known in narrow circles” as the author of an underground novel. It was written in the mid-‘70s, when he was in his mid-40s, at the height of the stagnation era in the Soviet Union with its infamous iron curtain, latent (and blatant) anti-Semitism. But the content of the novel was anything but political, or directly dissident. It was pure (sometimes bitter, funny, romantic) poetry in prose, with an air of nostalgia, lots of talking about art and literature, and quotes from other poets, famous or obscure, mostly Yaroshevsky's friends - especially three of them: Anatoly Glants, Igor Pavlov, Gregory Reznikov. Although it was about the generation that was 20-25 years older then mine, and the circle of characters was based on a purely male fraternity of real people, most of whom I never met - only heard about, the book made me feel like an insider. I could see myself associating with these people who lived in this beautiful but ailing city by the sea, feeling locked out from the rest of the world, looking for and finding outlets in reading, getting together, writing, using their immense irony as a safety net. It was about all of us. It was the novel-reverie that many had either read or talked about, but never dared to dream of seeing it published. Ultimately, it was, but not until 1998, in NY, and subsequently in Munich, Kiev, St.Petersburg, and, finally, in 2005, Odessa - a copy of which I was so lucky to discover. It was a very nicely done paperback, with the feel of a glorious folio, by the name Royal Summer - a collection of Yaroshevsky’s prose, poetry, and Provincial Romance. It included a colorful insert - a collage of photographs and reproductions of paintings featuring the author's artist friends who were among the novel's characters: Lucien Dulfan, Lev Mezhberg, Iosif Ostrovsky, Vladimir Strelnikov, Stanislav Sychev, Valentin Khrusch, Mikhail Chereshnya. Also, the pages of Provincia Romance were elaborately illustrated with drawings a la Pushkin - those caricatural alterations of Pushkin's image from Yaroshevsky's manuscript, alterations to the extent of their transformation into - and fusion with - the author's self-deprecating self-portraits, until it became absolutely unclear whether the resemblance really existed, or if it was imposed upon you.

In his essay dedicated to Odessa in the Network Duke Internet contest, Yaroshevsky names Pushkin as “Governor”of the South Russian literary school, and perceives that movement as the “circulatory system of [his own] imagery”. I sense much broader influences in his writing, and every single association that comes to mind when reading Yaroshevsky is merely a testament to his colorful, individual style. But among the vast array of totally different authors - from those who belong to the South Russian school to those way beyond that (Babel, Beckett, Gogol, Vonnegut, Ilf, Charles Bukowski, Olesha, Sasha Cherny, Mandelstam,  Plato, Kharms, Bulgakov, Marienhof, Shalom Aleichem, and finally Brodsky, etc.) - Pushkin, somehow, always finds a way to stand out, visibly or invisibly. I look at the other two parts of the book, Summer and Showers: The Second Prose and Cold Southern Wind: Selected Poems, as something in the vein of the additional chapters from Eugene Onegin (a novel Pushkin, as a matter of fact, had begun writing during his 13-month exile in Odessa). Technically, The Second Prose contains a sort of continuation of the novel with appearances by the same characters from Provincial Romance, but it's written in the form of little sketches of short pieces of poetic prose. Some of them could be easily printed as vers libre and be read as separate poems. The last section of the book is Yaroshevsky's Selected Poems. This was new for me, and I was curious; I didn't know what to expect. And his poems pleasantly surprised me: I recognized the author. It was the same - unpredictable - Efim Yaroshevsky. And still is. He uses familiar themes, images, rhythms, forms and turns them into something fresh, unexpected, even weird. Never boring. He is clear and precise, but his simplicity is deceiving. Behind it, there are multitudes of layers and myriads of associations.

The moment I first read his poems on that bench at the Odessa Literature Museum, I noticed that line by line I was starting to see and hear his verses in English. That wasn't very difficult. But the challenge came very soon after, when I tried (and still try) to convey the intonation, the playfulness of the language, the rhythm and music, the aura of it - the whole set of impossible tasks that usually comes with translating poetry. I try to rhyme wherever he rhymes, but, of course, the intention to be as close to the original as humanly possible is key. And the most tricky. In the torturous process of it, though, it can be fun to feel like a pioneer, introducing the equivalent of a turn of speech into another language without sounding clunky. In one instance, translating one of Yaroshevsky’s poems, in order to preserve the word in its original position at the end of a stanza, I ended up using a literal translation from a Russian phrase into a less common equivalent of it in English. It was about suffering from a guilt complex, projected onto an unfinished piece of prose. I needed the word “guilt” in the end of the line (“afflicted with guilt” didn't work). So I said it this way: The universal horror, at full tilt, / Fills up the screams of the night train as it blows. / And a piece of unfinished short prose / Suffers from a complex of guilt.
Rhyming translation is a risky business. If writing free verse, as Robert Frost famously said, "is like playing tennis without a net", then translating a rhyming verse into another rhyming verse is like having a double, even a quadruple net! It seems that Yaroshevsky rhymes effortlessly, playfully, and it's contagious. That's why I have such a strong temptation to rhyme while translating him. And that's when I dare to take some poetic freedom. There is a well-known expression by Mikhail Lozinsky: “Translation    is the art of losses”. But why not paraphrase this common-knowledge formula into a new one: “Translation is the art of discoveries”? In The Task of the Translator Walter Benjamin says it all: “translation... is midway between poetry and doctrine”, “conflicting tendencies” between “fidelity and freedom”. I'd chose both, and what translator would disagree with that? But that is, of course, the most difficult path.   


For instance, I was enchanted by a seemingly simple, short (2-stanza) elegy called “Proshchanie”. First, although the poem is basically about dying, of all the possible ways to translate its title – “Farewell”, “Parting”, “Good-bye”, etc. - I chose "Valediction" for its more positive tone. A reoccurring theme in his poetry, death takes root in his lyricism in such amazingly non-complaining ways that you inevitably feel “the unbearable lightness” of unbeing. In this poem the narrator essentially promises his beloved that they will be together after they both are gone:

I draw my bones closer to the sea,
by the balmy bluff, almost at the very edge...
And as soon as time washes away to the sea casting me –
read this pledge.

So as I turn into azure and water,  
live on, don’t think too much about me while you're ashore.  
And when you come to me in stormy weather,
We'll swing together upon the empty ocean floor...
                

Rhyming is always sacrificing. The idea of a promise permitted me to substitute the word "verse" at the end of the first stanza for “pledge” when I needed the rhyme for “edge” - an important word that I had to preserve at the end of the second line. I sacrificed the word “verse”, but I didn't sacrifice the meaning of this verse, which is, after all, a Valediction, i.e. a sort of pledge - a promise. The word “weather” at the end of the third line of the second stanza doesn't rhyme with “water” (although visually they are close), but it catches up with the word “together” in the next line, as an internal rhyme, and emphasizes it.  Then, besides him and her, there are two other characters here: the sea - you feel the closeness of it at the cliff, you smell the fragrance of it, you see the blue reflection of the sky in the distance, you feel the timelessness of it; and time - you can sense the evanescence of it in the narrator's immediate presence and his projection into the future, you simply envision him dissolving into a mixture of the blue air and the water of this sea (I imagine the Odessa Black Sea, of course...), and while he's disappearing, he asks his beloved to keep on living without dwelling on thoughts of him, until time brings her to him. In the end, as two lovers reunite with each other, the sea, as timeless as it is, feels like both a synonym and antonym for time, for as they (the sea and time) merge together, too, the sea symbolizes the finiteness of life, while time becomes infinite in the hereafter. What amazes me, is that all the reader's emotions and thoughts are evoked through the prism of fancy induced by the poet's absolutely minimalistic means. And that definitely doesn't make it easier for a translator! In the sad last line, with his final touch, he gives a hint of uplifting, saying that they will swing along together on the empty bottom. My dilemma here was between “bottom”, “seabed”, or “ocean floor”, as in the last image of the poem. In Russian, the phrase ends on an open syllable, so the sound of “on the empty ocean floor” appealed to me as a better choice than the other options. The vision of them swinging on the empty ocean floor becomes so vivid here that you almost can associate the ocean floor with a dance floor. Plus, it brought the perfect - and, as I felt, very appropriate - rhyming word “ashore” in the third line of the stanza, giving a matching nuance of her, although still on earth, staying not too far away from him.

The most idiosyncratic quality of his poetry is its translucent airiness, unconventional resourcefulness, and touch of irony - even at its most melancholy. His poems are strikingly tender without being sentimental. He always manages to balance the penetrating sentiment with subtle irony and self-deprecation, like a tightrope walker, forming a cohesive whole out of odd fragments that are seemingly unrelated: At the gate of an alien shrine, like a shred of the herd / I'm standing with the rejected poem in my palm... / There's nobody here. My fast asleep mom, / She's dreaming of me. That I'm a poor little shepherd. The salience of unexpected correlations and aching candor drive a wedge in your memory forever:

                                               The passing day presents me with
                                               the template of itself. Touching its face,
                                               like a blind man, I find
                                               it bears resemblance to a corpse.
                                               Where should I go? I'll go
                                               back, into the woody dream of things,
                                               into the tight peace of a spindle...

(this is from his poem “Clasping my head, I am waiting…” ). And this below, from  “Upon Taking Off”, where you simply become him, either in the image of his head lying  “on the warm stones of the city”, “breathing, looking into the leafage” or seeing yourself…

                                                running in the labyrinth of courtyards
                                                as a gaunt hound,
                                                with the emaciated face of a schoolmaster,
                                                already almost insane...

The tonality of his tuning is never one-dimensional. It is always in ambiguity of both major-minor, always with a juxtaposition of consonance and dissonance, whole tones and halftones, always leaving you with a sense of elevation or relief from pain, even pain that may be impossible to forget (the next two lines of this poem):

                                                By this time, everything’s behind,
                                                but it stays within me.  

But it also can be a feeling of confusion, where you don’t know whether to laugh or cry from the uneasiness of the turned inside-out world of absurdity, created by him in Kharms’style (the poem “Summer”):

                                                Mature dogs walk atop the trees,
                                                Leaves bark.
                                                In a little pot, the May rain starts to boil.
                                                Outside, in the odorous and furry darkness,
                                                The shower is quietly devouring a doggy bone…

His poems are inhabited by “poets and vagabonds”, “scholars of the city squares”, “loonies of the streets”, “cunning chess players”, “self-seeking morning philosophers”, “illuminated oafs”, “strangers of night roads”...  They live in his city that he paints with shots of unbelievably detailed expressiveness and sings his ode to, sarcastically exclaiming, “What a delightful scent of crap and homeland!” in his “Ecological Sketch”. He has a knack for seeing the poetic beauty in the ugliness of life. His poems are the continuation of his prose, and vice versa. They are one.  In fact, his prose and poetry are equally challenging to translate. But the real killer for me is trying to render the specifics of Odessa speech flavor  in Yaroshevsky's organically tasteful style.

By the way: looking back now, being much more familiar with this author's writing, I realize that the unusualness of his prose comes from the fact that it is being written, precisely, by a poet. Even the name of his novel, Provincial Romance, as all true poetry, can be interpreted in different ways: the Russian word means “novel”; adding the “s” sound to it makes it a paronym with the word “romance” - a torch song. Or it can be the French word for a “novel”. But in the Russian language, adding the Russian “-c” to the end of the word can be a totally different thing. In my opinion, it could also be a stylized parody on the pretentiously refined archaic language of the 18th-19th centuries, or even a playful usage of the funny word “Mans”, or “Manse(s)”, in Yiddish, which means “fib”, “fibs”, “to fib” - from the typical Jewish-Odessa expressions “to tell a Manse”, “Don't tell me Manses!”,etc.  But these are only my own humble, personal insights and feelings...
    
Part 3.

I found myself torn between different worlds, and not only those of world views or two languages (with the Ukrainian - three), but also between the past and the present. It was surreal. On one hand, the best of my Odessa was basically gone. Its face had drastically changed. It was a different place, with a different crowd, a different genotype. A disappearing act, or some genetic mutation had occurred, and the new Odessa was being born out of its own ruins. Unfortunately, the main part of a newborn breed that was rapidly expanding, was the part I had so badly wanted to run away from over 20 years ago. On the other hand - Efim Yaroshevsky. His writing is the poetry of fleeting time and space. Time and space that, against all odds, I was fortunate enough to be a witness to. I can relate to it. In this sense, we are related... Kindred spirits. Maybe this was the source of my spontaneous impulse to translate him, to somehow preserve that passing era in the only way I knew how - transplanting it to the soil of the English language. I'd found what I was looking for, after all, and took it back with me. But only at home, upon returning to NY, did I begin to agonize over every word, trying to save as much as I could. What a Sisyphean toil! But I simply got hooked on it, and there's no way out. Now I'm tackling his prose...

We met up with Efim at the Literature Museum (it seemed like one of the rare places in Odessa where you still could find sanity), talked there, walked through the not-so-crowded streets, sat in a cafe, ate pelmeni... Listening to him talk was the highlight of our journey. His stature, pronounced aquiline nose, swarthy-mat skin, and gray hair made him look like an Indian chief. Probably Hawkeye, for his piercing eyes. (An interesting coincidence: to make sure that “Hawkeye” is the correct name, I referred to Wikipedia and came across this sentence: A notable feature of the novel is that Cooper uses more than one name for many of the characters and groups of people. Hmm, and yet another association with Yaroshevsky's novel and himself!) Truly, “the last of the Mohicans” (although, a year later, in 2008, he and his wife Tanya moved to Germany). But his appearance contradicted his distinctive features - the soft burr with the pleasant baritone and his slight, knowing smile and gently ironic intonations. I liked his answer when my husband asked him whether he had ever been to Paris. He reacted immediately, “I haven't been there, but I have been!”

I asked him about the novel. “It all started from little gatherings between friends,” he said. Once, he wrote a page, liked it, and showed it to the others, just for the fun of it. They liked it, too. The rest is history. He described himself and his peers as “the interrupted generation. Not perished, but considerably crippled.” He thought it explained their “late blooming and overdue coming out to readers.” For years, Yaroshevsky was writing, as they say in Russian, “into the desk ”, i.e. only for himself. Since 1991 his poetry has appeared regularly in various literary magazines, but his very first published (in Odessa, 2001) book of poetry was called Poets Write Into The Desk. He added, “In general, a word lying in a desk drawer for too long suffocates. But sometimes it can gather strength.”

Talking about his definition of a poet, he echoed the sentiment of his then-recent interview in the magazine Ukrainian Profile:

A poet can be a person who doesn't write poems. But that's different. Today there are almost no ‘professional’ poets. There were professional poets during the Soviet power: when they got published, they got paid. The ‘good old days’. Now they rarely pay, or they don’t pay at all. The one who writes a lot and is regularly published, probably is a professional litterateur, one who puts poems in their budget, I guess. I don't write a lot, but I always write. It's a sort of a paradox (or 'padorax', as Mayakovsky used to say). Before, I used to like Mayakovsky's motto: ‘A poet  should write without neglecting the profession that gives him bread, meat, shirt, and Sunday wine.’ Then, I disliked it. He himself, as you know, was occupied exclusively with poetry: he wrote, traveled, and read. And in the end, he strained not only his throat. But the first professional poet was Pushkin. A ruble for a line, but in gold. Not bad!” And later, “Another phrase by that same Vladimir Mayakovsky that I like: ‘Now they publish... more than they write.’ It's pretty absurd! It is not the amount. One can write one poem and be a poet. But, still, it's better to write more then one. If poems are good, they are always good. I have to admit, I still write poems. And prose, too.”

He writes a lot now. For the last two years he wrote over a hundred poems. And I think they are only getting better. It's as if he's gotten his second wind – and he just turned 76. His poems have appeared in literary magazines in Russia, Ukraine, Israel and Germany. He has several books of collected poetry; his latest, Cold Southern Wind (an expansion of his previous, similarly-titled collection from Royal Summer), came out in 2010.
         
He mentioned cosmopolitanly that he had more than one homeland: “the Soviet Union (you can't get away from it!),  the Russian language and, covered with snow, great Russian literature, Odessa, my grandmother's Yiddish, Ukraine, the Ukrainian mova [language], my Jewish roots, the eternal truths of Judaism and Christianity, the old stones, the streets of Odessa and its yards. The high Odessa sky. The salt sea. The outlet to the ocean. Simply, THE  OUTLET! And this, it seems, is the main thing.” (I wonder if now Germany will become another one for him. I know that he comes back to Odessa several times a year.)

We had the most interesting conversation. Between Yaroshevsky, my husband, my daughter, and my friends, I was listening and talking to several people at once, simultaneously digesting, interpreting, looking through his book, translating, explaining - back and forth, non-stop. That was when, realizing that I was seeing and hearing his verses in English, I attempted to read them out loud. I went on with the sight-reading: “We used to get together often...”, and so on to the last stanza:

                                        Caryatides were shivering in the wind,
                                        piercing the blackness with unseeing eyes,
                                        and the sea, like a bear in its lair,
                                        was tossing, turning, rolling, unable to fall asleep...  

It was from “Youth”, the first poem in the book. Translating it seemed so natural to me. Little did I know that three years later I'd still be improving upon it. Now, coming back to my old translations, sometimes I feel like a gardener: trimming, watering, replanting. And translating the new ones. My English is growing in the garden of planted poems by Efim Yaroshevsky.



Odessa, Morning


…The dew was refreshingly showering over zinc rooftops…
The stones were getting warmer, absorbing dawn.
The city was huddling up, shaking itself, swooning with premonition.
Daybreak was approaching cautiously, with no rush.
The birds were violently silent.
Another few rustlings – and they would catcall the exiting night…
A wet star settled on top of the horizon.
The city was drying off the sopping roofs…
Caryatids on Deribasovskaya were sunbathing their cooled down breasts.
Exposing its deep, warm, pink throat, a dog sweetly yawned,
Sneezed, and rhythmically ran towards the sun…


©Translated by Alla Steinberg


Upon Taking Off


I picture this: on the warm stones of the city,
my head is lying.
It is left here...
Breathing, looking into the leafage, dreaming of —
postwar summer, childhood,
gurgling fresh water from the faucet,
the south, wet pebbles by the sea,
clouds over Hadjibay,
books of my youth,
our hopes, music, —
scaled off youngness...
Now, I see myself
running in the labyrinth of courtyards
as a gaunt hound,
with the emaciated face of a schoolmaster,
already almost insane...
By this time, everything’s behind,
but it stays within me.
I've been looking at the half-moon for a long time.
The crescent is slim, teary...
All around — just the night, the roofs, and the fog.
The pavement is glistening... No one’s here.
I can’t bear it any longer —
I'm taking off and ascending to the stars...

©Translated by Alla Steinberg

alla-steinberg
Alla Steinberg
is a freelance translator who lives in New York. Her educational background is in music and English. Since coming to the USA from the USSR in 1986, where she was a refusenik in Odessa for seven years, she has taught piano, music theory, music history, and English, both privately and in schools throughout New York City. Alla writes and translates poetry, her most recent project being the translation of the works of Efim Yaroshevsky. An abridged version of her essay, along with the translation of several of his poems, was published in 2011 by Cardinal Points,an American literary journal.