|"Cardinal Points" litetrary journal: www.stosvet.net
The Crain's Way
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.
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.
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
Sometimes I think that soldiers, who have never
A free translation from Rasul Gamzatov by Irina Mashinski
1 The title of Gamzatov's first collection