Corruption, Capitalism, Propaganda, & Our Children: Could Translation Save Us?

Want to see past the headlines? Reading literature, and specifically literature in translation, constitutes time-and-space-travel, travel into another body/mind, travel to a place that’s not just alive but full of imagination. It’s also a type of reportage, as well as an act of witness. When we read translated works, we experience moments in human lives, moments beyond political chatter, beyond news reports, beyond sound bites and tweets. If we’re not completely escaping the confines of our own lives, at the very least we’re peeking around them.

Vladimir Druk’s “i go to the movies” is a case in point. On March 25, 2018, a fire at a shopping mall in Kemerovo, Russia, claimed the lives of sixty-four people. Many of those who burned to death or died of smoke inhalation — and almost all of those who were at the movie theater inside the mall were children. Poor design, shoddy construction techniques, cheap materials, inadequate training and mismanagement of first responders, and a culture of rampant corruption all contributed to the tragedy. The fire exits from the theater had been locked: some by overzealous staff who wanted to keep out people without tickets; others, by parents and chaperones who’d gone shopping while the children were watching the film. Security guards were the first to flee the fire scene.

We wanted to translate the poem Vladimir Druk wrote just hours after the fire because we, like the poet, were outraged by the news coming out of Kemerovo, where the governor has now resigned in the wake of the fire and the ensuing investigation. As parents ourselves, we particularly appreciated — and were horrified by — the layered symbolism Druk finds in the images of state actors, parents, and even one’s guardian angel, each of them responsible for protecting children, each at some level failing in that essential duty on that day.

We were also drawn to Druk’s poem because it depicts a Russia we don’t normally see in the news: a country full of families and children, people who get up in the morning and go about their daily routines. People who sometimes go to the mall to watch a movie. People to whom horrific accidents can and do happen — accidents that are sometimes entirely preventable. Because translators are simultaneously members of two (or more) languages and cultures, we’re often uniquely positioned to observe and explore these common connections among people.

Aside from parallels with earlier events in the US, including the 1903 Iroquois Theater Fire in Chicago (the deadliest in US history), we also found a deep resonance here between the terrible fire in Kemerovo and the Parkland shooting in Florida. The fire in Kemerovo took place just one day after the March for Our Lives organized by young people all over the globe in response to gun violence in the US. In both cases, the victims were mostly children trapped in spaces that were supposed to be “safe.”

In Russia, widespread corruption compromises public safely, while in the US, big money coupled with the country’s love affair with lethal weapons cost tens of thousands of lives each year. It seems to us that both nations are willing to sacrifice children to our respective gods.

— Olga Livshin and Katherine E. Young

“i go to the movies”

by Vladimir Druk (translated by Olga Livshin and Katherine E. Young)

/ i go to the movies

i enter the theater

they shut the doors

so no one no one can sneak in

so no one can see the movie

except those who bought tickets

those who got lucky

leave me alone!

i’m watching the movie

i’m watching the movie

i’m watching the movie

i bought a ticket

we bought our tickets

they’re buying their tickets

i’ve got straight a’s

in subject verb object

and in suffering

through tenses

they shut the door behind me

with key and bolt

jam it with a board

and broom and security guard and chaperone

and an officer who’s supposed to protect me

holy shit do i feel safe

totes amazeballs safe

i feel like i’m among the chosen

i bought a ticket

i’m watching the movie

the screen’s aglow

what movie is this? just a movie

just a movie

where characters kiss and make out

or a war movie

where folks get shot? or burn in an oven?

auschwitz? is this a movie about that?

i’ve forgotten already

and all this will stay here forever

everything stays

i’m holding your hand

i’m watching the movie

i’m watching the movie

i’m watching the movie

we’re watching the movie

there’s nothing to make up

we’re just the movie

the movie that’s right here

the movie where everything’s made up

except the doors locked

by our Guardian Angel

so we’d always stay here

.

я иду в кино

/ я вхожу в кино
за мной закрывают дверь
чтобы никто никто не пролез без билета
чтобы никто не увидел это кино
кроме тех кто купил билет кто успел 
не мешайте! 
я смотрю кино
я смотрю кино
я смотрю кино
я купил билет
мы купили билет 
они купят билет
у меня пятерка 
по склонению и спряжению и страданию по падежам
за мной закрывают дверь
на ключ на щеколду
подпирают доской
веником охранником проводником 
офицером что должен меня охранять
охренеть я чувствую себя в безопасности нормалек
я чувствую себя избранным
я купил билет
я смотрю кино
светится белый экран
что это за кино? просто кино
просто кино
там любят и целуются
или про войну
как стреляли? как горели в печах?
освенцим? может про это?
я уже не помню
и все останется навсегда
все остается 
я сжимаю твою ладонь
я смотрю кино
я смотрю кино
я смотрю кино
мы смотрим кино
ничего не надо выдумывать
мы это просто кино
кино которое уже здесь
кино где все выдумано
кроме дверей которые 
Хранящий нас
запер

чтобы мы здесь остались

.

Vladimir Druk is a Russian-born poet and inventor, one of the founding members of the Moscow Poetry Club during the waning days of the Soviet Union. He is the author of seven poetry collections and received several prestigious awards and honors in Russia. His work has appeared in literary journals and leading poetry anthologies such as Twenty-First Century Russian Poetry, 20th Century of Russian Poetry, Crossing Century: The New Russian Poetry, and Third Wave, and has been translated into over fifteen languages. He now lives in New York dividing his time between poetry and projects for Textonica, an interactive books publishing company he created.

Olga Livshin is a Russian-American poet, essayist, and literary translator. Her work is forthcoming from or recently published by The Kenyon Review, Poetry International, International Poetry Review, Blue Lyra, and others. It has been commended by CALYX journal’s Lois Cranston Memorial Prize, the Cambridge Sidewalk Poetry Project, the Poets & Patrons Chicagoland Competition, and the Robert Fitzgerald Translation Prize (twice). Livshin’s poetry has been translated into Persian by Mohsen Emadi. Her play Border Line, about coming to the United States from Russia as a teenager, was performed at the Out North Contemporary Art House in Anchorage, Alaska. She lives in Bryn Mawr, PA. http://www.olga-livshin.com

Katherine E. Young is the author of Day of the Border Guards, 2014 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize finalist, and two chapbooks. She is the translator of Farewell, Aylis by Azerbaijani political prisoner Akram Aylisli (forthcoming 2018), as well as Blue Birds and Red Horses (forthcoming 2018) and Two Poems, both by Inna Kabysh. Her translations of Russian and Russophone authors have won international awards and been published widely in the U.S. and abroad. Young was named a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts translation fellow and currently serves as the inaugural poet laureate for Arlington, Virginia. http://katherine-young-poet.com/