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I only think in Russian.

 

Later I’ll buy bread rings to go with my tea:

vanilla, toasted, a little stale -

only two shops in Tagil sell them fresh.

I think this all in Russian, of course -

vanilnye, podzharistye, nye sovsem svezhie -

I can’t think it any other way.

 

A friend of mine moved to Germany.

A few years later she told me in a letter that

She’d even started thinking in German sometimes

and I couldn’t get my head around it.

I tried to imagine what it would be like, thinking müssen kaufen Milch

instead of nuzhno kupit moloko, but I couldn’t.

I don’t even know how to say it right.

 

This morning I was reading an interview with Linor Goralik.

She said she thinks everyday things

in English, sometimes writes in Hebrew,

then next thing you know she switches to Russian,

and even she doesn’t know how it works.

 

I didn’t bother trying to understand what that might be like,

since I still can’t even imagine

wanting to buy milk in German.

People don’t do that here, otherwise

we wouldn’t understand each other at all.

 

So I didn’t think about anything, just ate my pancakes in Russian

with Russian currant jam, drank my tea in Russian,

hung out my sheets and towels in Russian,

spotted a hole in my sock, last-minute, in Russian,

changed my sock and went outside,

breathed in and breathed out, repeating those last words to myself in Russian,

vdokhnula i vydokhnula, those familiar, intelligible words,

the day was both warm and cold, it was dusk, and the sky was clear,

like you sometimes get in very early spring.

Then a thought came out of nowhere, caught me by surprise: love

is when you don’t get hurt,

when you

don't cause hurt, when you're certain

that tomorrow you’ll be loved just as you were yesterday.

 

I glanced behind me, then looked ahead

and suddenly it dawned on me: thoughts like this always emerge

in a language you don’t know.

 

 

This poem was first published in Russian in the collection Два ее единственных платья (Новое литературное обозрение, 2020).



Original ↓

Я думаю только по-русски.

 

Вечером нужно будет купить баранок к чаю:

поджаристых, ванильных, не совсем свежих –

совсем свежие продаются только в двух магазинах в Тагиле.

Сами понимаете, «поджаристые», «ванильные», «не совсем свежие» –

все это я думаю только по-русски,

по-другому совсем не умею.

 

Одна моя подруга переехала жить в Германию.

Через пару лет писала, что теперь

даже думает иногда по-немецки,

и это очень странно.

Я пыталась представить, как это: думать не «нужно купить молоко»,

а «müssen kaufen Milch», но не смогла.

До сих пор не знаю, как правильно это произнести.

 

Сегодня утром читала интервью с Линор Горалик.

Прочитала, что о бытовых вещах

она думает на английском, пишет

иногда на иврите, потом вдруг на русском,

сама не может понять, как это все устроено.

 

В этот раз я уже даже не пыталась понять, как это может быть,

ведь я до сих пор не могу представить, как можно

хотеть купить молока на немецком,

в наших городках так не бывает, иначе

мы бы совсем не понимали друг друга.

 

Поэтому я не думала ни о чем, просто ела по-русски оладьи

с русским смородиновым вареньем, пила по-русски чай,

развешивала выстиранные по-русски простыни и полотенца,

нашла по-русски в последний момент дырку на носке,

поменяла носки, вышла на улицу,

вдохнула и выдохнула, повторяя про себя

«она вдохнула и выдохнула» – по-русски, знакомыми и понятными словами,

день оказался холодным и теплым, сумеречным и ясным –

какими иногда бывают дни самой ранней весной,

неожиданно, без всякой причины подумала: любовь –

это когда тебе не причиняют боли, когда ты сам

не причиняешь боли, когда уверен,

что завтра тебя будут любить так же, как и вчера.

 

Я оглянулась назад, посмотрела вперед

и вдруг поняла, что думать такие вещи человек может

только на каком-то неизвестном ему языке.

 

 

Это стихотворение впервые было опубликовано на русском языке в сборнике Два ее единственных платья (Новое литературное обозрение, 2020).

Translator's Note

I suspect that when Ekaterina wrote this poem, she did not expect it to be translated. With its first line, ‘Я думаю только по-русски’, the narrator is hemmed in by a linguistic wall of her own making. Bringing this poem into English, or any other language, would seem to be a contradiction in terms. Translated into English this first line becomes ‘I only think in Russian’, an utterance to make Wittgenstein shudder.

The poem’s second line is no more straightforward, as I found out when I discussed it at a Russian translation workshop held as part of ALTA 43, the annual conference of the American Literary Translators’ Association. As it turns out, if you want to whip up a posse of Russian translators into a frenzied state, just ask them how to translate a select group of typically Russian tea-adjacent snacks, in this case the ‘баранки’ of the poem’s second line. Should they be biscuits, bagels, bubliki, bread rings? In the end, the debate about this one little word got to the heart of the poem itself.

The narrator of this poem is telling us about her world inside the Russian language, a world she feels at home in, and whose limits she cannot conceive of crossing. My translation of the poem, by definition, cannot bring the English-language reader inside that world. To translate the poem is precisely to cross the limits the narrator has set herself, to step outside of her world. What, then, would be the point?

My translation, I decided, may not be able to bring the reader inside the world of the Russian language, but it can make them aware of their outside-ness. In this sense, my translation inverts the poem’s perspective – what is familiar to the poem’s narrator, like the баранка she dips in her tea every day, becomes a bread ring. Not a bagel, not a biscuit, but this vague, unfamiliar object with no precise, clear referent. I take this effect further a few lines later, when the reader is presented with a direct transliteration of the Russian. I might have left this text in Cyrillic, but I wanted this to be a poem to read aloud. I think the uncertainty about how to pronounce those familiar-unfamiliar lines can only add to the reader’s sense of being outside the language-world of the poem.

The approach had some unexpected consequences, such as the pleasing (to me) irony of the lines: ‘vdokhnula i vydokhnula, those familiar, intelligible words’. But I hope there is more to my translation than these little jokes at the reader’s expense. Like many of Ekaterina’s poems, this one ends on an aphoristic note, and an unexpected one. A poem that seemed to be about the limits of language, an ode to Sapir-Whorf, in fact becomes the opposite. We may think of ourselves as walled in (or out) by our language(s), as the poem’s first line seems to suggest, but ultimately, even for those of us who live, or imagine we live, within one language alone, this is never the extent of our world, or our self. In fact, the poem suggests, there is always something outwith. I hope that for the reader of my translation, too, something will emerge from a language they don’t know.  


Robin Munby

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