Yehudith Dashevsky on translating Alina Khaitlina

Yehudith Dashevsky

on translating Alina Khaitlina

The poem opens with an introduction in Ukrainian, with a Russian translation beneath it. The relationship Ukrainians have with the Russian language is complex. According to a survey from 2004, around 40% of Ukranians use Russian at home and between 70% and 90% understand the language, depending on the region. Despite the widespread use of Russian, the Ukrainian language is a flourishing one. A poll in 2012 showed that 50% of adult Ukranians consider their native language to be Ukrainian, around 30% consider it to be Russian, and around 20% consider both to be their native languages. I’m not an expert in the language policies in Ukraine, or how Ukranians feel about Russian, about whether they feel unjustly compelled to learn or use it, even now. I can guess how they might feel about the Russian jokes that portray Ukrainian as “crude” or “funny-sounding.” I will say that it is sad and not surprising that languages, such as Russian and Ukrainian, that are incredibly rich and developed in literature, poetry, music, and film, only begin to be studied once there is a crisis.

The first phrase of this poem is “Kak vi tam govorite?” which is literally, “How do you say it there?” Is the “there” a veiled reference to the West, to the U.S., where it’s possible to have well-wishes about peace soon in Ukraine, but stay far removed from the actual war, from the remains of a three-month old flying over a staircase? Or is it simply an idiom, a casual way of saying “What’s it called?” I chose the latter, because it feels like more of an earworm phrase (as does the Russian), but am offering the former here as a possibility.

A place where I departed from the literal meaning for the sake of sound is in the stanza beginning with “At three months, you might begin to teach her.” The original is “At three months, [general, collective they] learn to turn on their back.” I wanted to add the rhyme back into the translation, so I added “teach her” at the beginning of the stanza to rhyme with “creature” at the end. A place where I chose a better-known phrase in English instead of the more literal original is “blow their brains out with a rocket” (the original reads “send a rocket at their backs”).

In general, the original poem has a fairly regular rhyme pattern, not unusual for Russian language poetry, but also definitely not a given in contemporary Russian poetry. I wanted to convey some of that rhyming sound in the translation, especially because in some places the original Russian rhyme scheme feels silly. While not contrived in terms of sound, it feels as if the rhymes came first and the phrases after, as if there was nothing to say, so the poet tried some rhyming phrases. This is most felt in the fourth stanza, with the images of the bauble bracelet and the not-yet-tried-on bathing suit. It feels like a desperate and absurd attempt to say at least something about the mind-boggling waste the war made of these lives. Did the mom actually buy a protective bracelet that didn’t work? Was there really a bathing suit the baby did not have a chance to try on? Maybe. But it doesn’t really matter. The rhyme of the poem creates some accompanying drumbeat, a cradle of sound, for these images to live in.

about the author

Alina Khaitlina (b. 1987) is a poet and linguist born in 1987, and is from Leningrad, Russia. Formerly and well-known as Alya Kudryasheva, she became famous after posting some poems (especially her most well-known, “Mom is at the dacha, the key is on the table”) on her blog on LiveJournal. With the release of her first collection of poems in 2007, titled It’s Open, and which sold out its first print and was reprinted twice, she became one of the most read Russian language authors on Livejournal. What is unusual about Alina Khaitlina, and what the contemporary poetry world noticed, is that her poetry became known not just in the world of literary critics but among the general young population. Masses of followers in their twenties were reading her poetry and posting supportive comments on her blog. She is now known as one of the people who led to the revival of interest in poetry among Russian youth in the 2000s (poetry had gone out of style even in Russia at the time; it was seen as frivolous). Strikingly, she did not really consider herself a poet, even with her growing fame. She published academic work about poetry and sociolinguistics in the Russian deaf community and saw herself mostly as an academic, having moved to Germany for work in 2012. Yet, she is now considered one of the top “network poets” (a Russian category for poets who became famous on the internet) and has since been published in various anthologies, including one with COVID-themed poetry. Her second book of poems, Sometimes Ships, came out in 2016, and her book of poems for and about children, Non-Fearful Cats, came out in 2020.

about the translator

Yehudith Dashevsky is a writer and translator living in Washington D.C. She currently works in development for the non-profit public health care and policy magazine, Health Affairs. She is also a managing editor for the post-Soviet diaspora poetry magazine, Pocket Samovar. She is a Penn graduate and a proud former editor of Doublespeak Magazine.