Down unshaven plaza-cheeks
flowing like an unneeded tear,
may be
the last poet.

The Russian revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky is an author I’ve written about here on the Ramblings before; a long time favourite of mine, when I first stumbled across his work over 35 years ago I was lucky enough to be able to borrow his work from the local library. A wonderful old tome from 1965, collected and translated by Herbert Marshall, contained all kinds of wonders by and about Mayakovsky; and 35 years later, thanks to the wonders of online shopping, I own my own copy – but that’s another story.


However in the interim his work, which is notoriously difficult to render into English, has been tackled by a surprising number of different translators in different ways and with differing results (and I know that Marshall has also had his critics). A new volume from Enitharmon Press entitled “Volodya” aims to bring together a broad selection of these different renderings in order to give a more rounded view of the poet and his work – which is a laudable aim, and one which seems to me to have succeeded!

It’s actually surprising how many translations of Mayakovsky’s work have been made, although as VM scholar Rosy Carrick (editor of this edition) points out in her excellent introduction, many of them have a particular agenda. She cites specifically “Night Wraps the Sky”, a volume I read pre-blog and wasn’t particularly taken with; the translator excluded many of Mayakovsky’s politically charged works, which gives a terribly unbalanced view of a man committed to the revolution. Personally, I particularly fell out with “The Stray Dog Cabaret”, a collection where the translator actually *changed* the poet’s words, adding extra bits to his verse! So what Carrick is aiming for here is a more even-handed treatment, and it’s a laudable goal.

progress mayakovsky

My Progress Press Mayakovsky books

Many of the translations of VM’s works are out of print, particularly the long, elegiac work “Vladimir Ilych Lenin”; my copy of the latter is a little Progress Press Russian-produced English language hardback, but this seems to be very pricey online if you want a copy. Similarly, a pivotal work, “How Are Verses Made?” is obscure and not currently in print. The wide cross-section of works and translations featured here certainly redresses the balance and presents Mayakovsky’s politicised verse alongside his more personal works; and it really paints a wonderful picture of a powerful poet, bursting with life which he placed at the service of the revolution, with enough left over to have a lively emotional life! Interestingly enough, one of the translators cited as having provided comprehensive volumes of his works is Dorian Rottenberg; several of his translations are featured here, and indeed it’s Rottenberg who translated my copy of “Vladimir Ilych Lenin” and another Progress Press book I have, “Poems”. It’s his rendering of “What about you?” that I’m most used to:

What About You?

I splashed some colours from a tumbler
and smeared the drab world with emotion.
I charted on a dish of jelly
the jutting cheekbones of the ocean.
Upon the scales of a tin salmon
I read the calls of lips yet mute.
And you,
                could you have played a nocturne
with just a drainpipe for a flute?

Interesting to note that he renders here the word often given as “backbone” instead as “drainpipe”!

Excitingly enough, Carrick has translated some works herself, and there are several items never available to Anglophones before. I was particularly pleased to see a full version of Mayakovsky’s speechifying from an evening dedicated to celebrating 20 years of his work; Herbert Marshall’s translation, acknowledged by Carrick as the best, was incomplete, so she’s melded this with missing bits rendered by Rottenberg to come up with a complete version – quite fitting really! And it’s poignant to think this was the poet’s last public appearance…

Translating poetry is *always* going to be a very individual art, and probably each translator could come up with a different and satisfying version. The array of names involved is impressive, and I recognised several from other books I have in my collection, though others were new to me. I confess I’m not entirely at home with Edwin Morgan’s renderings of the poems in Scots vernacular; because despite having been born in Edinburgh, I need help in translating them again! And if I’m honest, I would have liked to see more of Marshall’s translations, as these are the ones I’m familiar with, having read them first. But that’s personal taste, and there’s no denying that “Volodya” is an excellent way to get a flavour of what Mayakovsky’s work is like and which translations might be best for you – and fortunately there is nothing from “Night Wraps…”

My copy of the Marshall book

My copy of the Marshall book

The book features a wonderful selection of photos as well as images of Mayakovsky’s agitprop work, which is another aspect of his work which shouldn’t be forgotten. The final picture we get of the poet from “Volodya” is a much more rounded one than you would get from other, more selective works and it’s an ideal place to start exploring his writing. Enitharmon Press and Rosy Carrick have done all lovers of Mayakovsky’s work a great service by collecting his work together in this way, and I can’t recommend the book highly enough! 🙂

(Many thanks to Enitharmon Press for kindly providing a review copy – much appreciated!)