“They terrorize us, we are not afraid”: “Say Thank You” by Mikhail Aizenberg3 min read
Beloved poets are frequently remembered for their artistry; few are honored as chroniclers of their time. Mikhail Aizenberg is one of the rare voices recognized for being both. In this new translation by J. Kates, Aizenberg’s writing is presented to English-reading audiences with a hopeful energy.
Aizenberg was born in Moscow in 1948. He was part of the underground arts culture in the Soviet Union, where he organized gatherings colloquially remembered as “Aizenberg’s Mondays,” a weekly circle of literary collaboration. These exchanges shaped much of the poet’s attitude towards the community-rooted nature inherent to poetry. As one who used his time and capital to uplift others, it is fitting that his effort be returned by the careful translation and literary treatment of J. Kates. Kates is a co-director of Zephyr Press, avid translator, and poet himself.
Kates’ translation is the ideal companion to Aizenberg’s original. Kates manages to match the poet’s tone precisely, but his reworkings are masterpieces; they stand on their own. Take these two lines:
Всем голосам, всем комарам – удачи!
Сколько тоски в их ненасытном гуле.
Good luck to every voice, to every mosquito!
Yet how melancholy is their insatiable hum.
There’s not a literal translation that makes sense for “Сколько тоски,” so I am delighted by the succinct reworking of that line.
Overall, Kates’ translation not only captures the specific uncanniness of Aizenberg’s prose, but it sings in a deeply personable way that only the best translators are capable of. I really love Kates’ artful rearrangements, steeped in context and the warm familiarity of what the English language offers. With a single addition here, or a clever mirroring of punctuation there, Kates’ translation of Say Thank You is a clever read, a cornerstone in Russian poetry translation.
Aizenberg’s work has come to define Moscow Conceptualism, a “stance that subverted the artistic canons and aspirations of the Soviet establishment by reconfiguring its own terms and exploding them from the inside,” as Kates explains in the foreword. The cultural backdrop required Aizenberg to write in a characteristic “stoic temperament,” but the messages encoded resonate. His frank manner is seen in this stanza:
Нас пугают, а нам не страшно
Нас ругают, а нам не важно
Колют, а нам не больно
Гонят, а нам привольно
Что это мы за люди?
Что ж мы за перепелки?
Нам бы кричать и падать
Нам бы зубами щелкать
И в пустоте ползучей
рыться на всякий случай
They terrorize us: we are not afraid
They swear at us: but we are not dismayed
They sting us: we experience no pain
They harry us: we continue unrestrained
What kind of human beings, quailing breed
of bird are we? Weeping and weak-kneed,
What should we do but grind our teeth, creep
into the desert, and just in case, dig deep
In hindsight, scholars read Aizenberg’s poetry as commentary on the restrictive nature of the regime. They note his stoicism as revenge against artistic censors. However, I interpret his words as speaking to the power in the ordinary. As the latter example proves, he writes of human beings as birds, which, though weak in spirit, are able to persevere through the harshest of times. The final words: “just in case, dig deep” is a powerful implication that if needed, humans can display incredible resilience.
Book details: Aizenberg, Mikhail, Say Thank You / by Mikhail Aizenberg; translated by J. Kate, 2007, Zephyr Press. Buy it here.