Friday, June 11, 2010

Galich on Pasternak, my translation

José Manuel Prieto's essay on Mandelshtam in The New York Review of Books, about which I blogged earlier, reminded my of Aleksandr Galich's famous poem dedicated to the memory of Boris Pasternak. I searched for it online and found a YouTube of Galich performing this song. I decided to translate it here. I'm not sure what English translations of Galich exist out there; he does have an English-language Wikipedia page. Galich's own biography runs the gamut from writing and performing benign love songs to openly political pieces -- and being forced into an exile in 1974, and dying in a freak accident in 1977, raising rumors of KGB or CIA assassination and suicide.

Galich's work is unique in genre. He wrote long poems and performed them to music of his 7-string guitar (a traditional instrument of the Russian stage). It's hard to say that he's singing them -- in terms of the American stage, Galich's performance style is probably the closest to Bob Dylan's. The songs were recorded on large reel-to-reel tape decks. My mother, who had discovered the protest music in the 1960s, had some copies in the house -- but when I was growing up, things were hectic, we lived in tight quarters with my grandparents, and there was never an occasion to pull the large tape player from the closet. I think the first LP appeared in the late 80s, and that's probably when I first heard these songs.

To me, Galich was particularly interesting, because he was one of the few authors I knew who spoke openly about the Jewish experience. Galich himself came from a Jewish family in what is now Dnepropetrovsk; his last name at birth was Ginzburg, and he changed it in college (he studied drama with Stanislavksi for one year before Stanislavski's death in 1938). One of his long songs is dedicated to a Polish-Jewish writer Janusz Korczak, who died in the Holocaust. The song is called "Kaddish" -- I'd never heard the word until I heard Galich's song.

But to return to his poem about Pasternak, here's a YouTube video of Galich performing this song:

This song was written after Pasternak's death in 1960. As I wrote in my earlier post, Prieto is not the first one to bring up Pasternak's death "in his own bed"as a charge against the poet, as a lesser death compared to that of his fellow poets. I wrote earlier that these words were said in very bad taste, and this is precisely what Galich lashes out against in his poem. Galich references these comparisons directly in the second stanza: Marina Tsvetaeva hanged herself in Yelabuga, Mandelshtam was rumored to have died at a camp near river Suchan, in Siberia. The leitmotif of Galich's song is this line: "How proud we, the scum, are that he has died in his own bed!" This line lashes out with anger at "us" for implying the insufficiency of suffering in Pasternak's mode of death.

Pasternak died of lung cancer in his country house at Peredelkino, near Moscow (Pasternak wrote many poems of country life, the snow and fir trees, which Galich also references in his song). Many believe that the cancer was if not directly caused by then certainly indirectly influenced by the stress of the scandal following the award of Nobel Prize (for Doktor Zhivago), his forced refusal to accept it, and the subsequent exclusion from the Union of Soviet Writers that effectively robbed him of income and opportunity to see his work in print (almost any article written on Pasternak today, especially in English, mentions this story, i.e. Wikipedia, Nobel Prize section).

The central image of Galich's poem is the meeting of the Union of Soviet Writers when the writers voted unanimously to expel Pasternak from the Union. Galich claims that "We [his contemporaries] will remember by name everyone who raised a hand" to cast a "yes" vote in those proceedings. And indeed, to this day the reputation of Soviet authors includes as a byline their actions during this meeting. To vote "No" was to commit a political and personal suicide (withdrawal of income, potential incarceration or withdrawal of citizenship) -- and nobody dared. The way to abstain was to not show up, which 26 people did (some said they were sick, others didn't give a reason). Veniamin Kaverin, one of those who didn't show up, always wrote about this with regret, a lapse of judgment--he felt in retrospect that he should've been brave enough to protest publicly. But nobody was brave enough. At the very least, writers could abstain from giving an insulting speech, but 29 writers speechified ("all the yakking," says Galich). I can't easily find the info of these proceedings online in English, but here's the official Russian memo: Google.translate does an adequate job to get the gist.

I'm taking the original Russian text of Galich's poem from this website:

A few more contextual notes about the poem. If something remains unclear, please let me know -- this translation is a work in progress.

LitFund -- the Literary Fund -- was an insurance organization, to which Pasternak still belonged at the time of death.

The opening of the poem (the "wreaths," "the funeral banquet") refers to Pasternak's public funeral, attended by hundreds of people, despite the fact that the poet was officially non-grata.

The indented quotes are lines from Pasternak's own poems.

Aleksandr Galich
In memory of B. L. Pasternak

". . . the board of the Literary Fund [A Society for Assistance to Writers and Scholars in Need] of the USSR reports that a writer Boris Leonidovich Pasternak, a member of LitFund, died on May 30th of this year. He was 70 years old and died after a long and serious illness. The board expresses condolences to the family of the deceased."

The only notice that appeared in newspapers -- in the one newspaper, "Literaturnaya Gazeta," -- on the death of B. L. Pasternak.

We have taken the wreaths apart for brooms,
we were saddened for half an hour,
How proud we are, his contemporaries,
that he has died in his own bed!

And Chopin was tormented by wannabes,
And the farewell proceeded with ceremony . . .
His neck didn't soap the noose in Yelabuga,
He didn't lose his mind in Suchan!

Even the members of the Kiev Writers' Union
arrived in time for his funeral banquet! . .
How proud we are, his contemporaries,
that he has died in his own bed!

And it's not like he was only in his forties;
Exactly seventy -- the age for dying.
And it's not like he was some poor bastard;
A member of LitFund -- budgeted for!

Ah, the fir trees have shed their snow,
the tolling of the blizzards has ceased . . .
How proud we, the scum, are
that he has died in his own bed!

           "A snowstorm swept, it swept across the land, in all its reaches
          A candle was burning on the desk, a candle was burning . . ."

No! It was no candle,
a chandelier!
The glasses on the headsman's snout
twinkled brightly!
And the audience yawned, the audience was bored --
all the yakking!
"Why, the prison or Suchan aren't even on the agenda,
And neither is the supreme penalty."

And not with the crown of thorns
broken on the wheel,
But chucked with a brick in the face --
the hand count!

And somebody, soused, was asking his neighbor:
"What for? Who this time?"
And somebody chewed loudly, and another chuckled
over an idle joke . . .

We won't forget this laughter
and this boredom.
We will remember by name everyone,
who raised a hand.

          "The humming has ceased. I've stepped on the stage.
          Leaning against the doorway . . . "

Finally, the smear campaign and the arguments are over,
As if we've taken a leave from the eternity . . .
The raiders are standing by his tomb,
and carrying out the honor guard.


  1. Nice work, Olga! Thank you for the translation and for sharing the story of Pasternak and Galich. The memory rings in every instance of censorship. God bless him that he died at a relatively old age in his own bed! I wish this could be true for us all.

  2. An excellent translation. Even the rythm and the melody of the original are conveyed.

  3. Is there a good English translation of Galich's "Ya vybirayu svobodu"?

  4. I am looking for the translation of the whole text of "Kaddish".

    Nice work on this one!!