Gamzatov wrote "The Cranes" during a visit to Japan, on the day he saw the paper cranes at the Nagasaki museum. He received the news of his mother's death on the same day. The poem was written in the Avar language, one of the languages of Dagestan, translated into Russian by Naum Grebnev, and altered by Mark Bernes, its first balladeer interpreter who famously recorded it in one session in 1969. The song later became a staple of the Soviet official repertory — sung on special occasions by soloists of military choirs and official pet singers with voices like steel pipes. It was a very Soviet — not Dagestani or Russian — song, just as Gamzatov himself, the son of the first Avar people's poet Gamzat Tsadasa, was to become the designated poet of Dagestan.
Maybe it is the complex and multilayered authorship of this text that has made it, in Soviet perception, almost anonymous, like an ancient Egyptian poem. Having lost the author's biography, the poem loses its individual poetics, too — or at least so it seems to a Russian reader. Nor does it represent an ethnographical peculiarity or a national tradition (in the final version, by Bernes, the Avar djigits became soldiers). It is only breadth, simplicity and height that remain. "The Cranes" is a unique case of an epic elegy.
All this added to my sense of freedom as I translated — it did not bother me much, really, that some of the feathers of the author's will were to be lost in the process. I can't say that my translation is a loose one, but I did take liberties with it.
I translated this poem (not the song), mesmerized by its slow solemn music, the clarity of its emotion, and its simple but piercing diction. Starting from the second stanza, I, like other readers, saw — a wedge.
If there is anything specifically Gamzatovian in this poem, it is the adjectives.
Say, in the first stanza — bloody (fields) and white (cranes). I intended to keep these artless, slightly naive words since there they sound not like a cliché of the "Hot Love and Burning Hatred"1 kind, but like a folk song. These adjectives are followed by others that are similarly simple, but already down-to-earth, homey: tired (wedge), small (gap).
This "small" is especially moving — not only because it is so humble, but rather because it corresponds so precisely to the space that is subtracted from the earth and added to the sky. And was it Gamzatov or Grebnev or Bernes's slip of the tongue: from under the sky?
The wedge flies under the weightless heaviness of the sky above, and it is not the last freedom, either (no wonder the cranes cry out). I translated it this way:
"…beneath an evening cloud…"
A wonderful possibility offered by the very nature of English grammar is the fractionality of the English past tenses, which allows one to split layers in the introduction and change the scale of the images: some are zoomed in on, while others are presented in a panoramic view. However, I found that it was rhyme that, paradoxically, was the most instrumental in this translation.
Transferring a Russian rhyming scheme into English, a language tired of rhymes, has long been a painful problem, certainly a nuisance for a poet or translator who happened to have come out of the relatively young Russian poetic tradition of the 19 and 20th centuries. Endless possibilities with words' endings in various declensions and conjugations still make Russian rhyming largely a poem-forming adventure. At the same time, in "The Cranes," rhymes add warmth to the iambic pentameter of the Russian text. A Shakespearian blank pentameter would sound way too solemn. So, everything pointed to a consonant rhyme — and in fact it is evolving spontaneously: one just needs to listen to the original. The off-rhyme in the first two stanza allows one to create an impression of a distant echo — it unfolds the sound, the plumage of the lines spreads as feathers do in a fan. Or — as cranes do in the rear-guard of a flock. The third stanza, i.e. closer to the pointed vanguard, the rhyming evens up: it becomes exact, and in the last one not just exact, but homonymic, identical. The repeated word ends the poem, so that the poem narrows, sharpens into