Translating the non-Soviet man

Vadim Astrakhan discusses his life's work: bringing Vladimir Vysotsky's work to the non-Russian-speaking world
| 04-03-2012
headshots of Vadim Astrakhan and Vladimir Vysotsky superimposed into the same image with a black background
Astrakhan and Vysotsky

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A movie titled "Vysotsky, Thanks for Being Alive," on the massively popular Soviet-era folk singer, was released in December 2011 in Russia. In the first three weeks, it recouped the cost of production and advertising: $17 million. The vast majority of reviews were either negative or strongly negative.

Vadim Astrakhan, however, liked the movie. He wrote a positive review and published it on his Facebook page. In the 1990s, as a 14-year old who moved to the United States with his parents, Astrakhan performed Vysotsky's songs for his new fellow students.

Now, Astrakhan translates Vysotsky's poems into English and performs the songs. His website says bringing the late artist to a worldwide audience, is his life's work. He gave a concert at Stanford University on February 3 and sat down for an interview.

Natalia Koulinka: Americans who know Vladimir Vysotsky compare him to Bob Dylan. What do they have in common?

Vadim Astrakhan: They were the first idols of the intellectual youth and the intelligentsia in general: one in Russia and the other in the U.S. But on the scale of influence, I would compare Vysotsky with Elvis, because Presley was such a number 1 figure… Dylan was more popular among the intelligentsia, although he has influenced many others. But Presley was rightly called "The King." He was one of a kind. The same was true about Vysotsky. He was one of a kind, too. Custom-made.

NK: In your translations, how do you cope with the deep immersion of Vysotsky's texts in Soviet social reality and, more broadly, in Russian culture?

VA: You know, when the famous Russian translator Samuil Marshak was asked how much was left of Robert Burns and the other classics whose masterpieces he translated, he answered: "At best, a third." And this was from a person whose translations became the standard for good translation work! I completely agree that it's impossible to translate every nuance in Vysotsky's texts. But there's no need for that, in my opinion. All translators are confined by the language they translate into.

My task is a little different – to create an equivalent of the great Russian poet in English. Perfectly translating every nuance of the language is impossible, because it's a different language. It is possible to convey the stories he told. It's possible to convey the energy, the spirit, the dynamic of his works. And it's possible to make the equivalent just as attractive, interesting, and beautiful. For instance, I work a lot with rhythm in my translations. If Vysotsky uses wordplay – and wordplay translates very poorly – I work hard to find similar wordplay in English. Or if there is a joke in the original, then there has to be a joke in the translated text. It may be a different joke, but at that place in the text, listeners are supposed to smile. And it's my job to make them smile. Here's an example from my translation: there is a Vysotsky song titled "Toward the Mountain Peak." A phrase from the song in Russian, "Ложь, что умный в гору не пойдет" refers to a Russian proverb whose closest analogue in English is "Work smart, not hard." The phrase is concise but lacks any literary charm. So I just replaced this phrase with a completely different proverb: "Если гора не идет к Магомету, Магомет идет к горе." The line in English turned into, "If you're weak, the mountains won't help, but to you they walk, not to Mohammed." First, it preserved a proverb within the text. Second, it gave a bit of an Afghan tint that modernized the song a little.

It's interesting to note that the difficulty of the translation doesn't depend on the level of poetic verse. For instance, I translated the tragic and autobiographical "Flight Aborted" (Прерванный полет) in about a week, but I labored over "He Didn't Return from the Battle" (Он не вернулся из боя) for four years. In my opinion, many of Vysotsky's songs are not translatable at all because of their attachment to the cultural layer which existed in the Soviet Union in the '60s and '70s. For instance, in translating "Tale of a Wild Boar" (Песни о диком вепре) I spent lots of time working on the specific theme of alcohol. In the original, a marksman asks for "бадью портвейна" [a bucket of Soviet wine famous for its low quality –NK]. Of course, this Soviet "port wine" had nothing in common with real port wine. I thought for a long time and eventually had my protagonist ask for a "tubful of gin." Folklore is very difficult to translate, but I managed to translate "Heavenbound" (Разбойничья) for my first album and "Gypsy" (Цыганская) for the second. Plus, there is plenty of original music on the albums. The second album should be released in May. In the writing stage, the work is centered on the music, the new arrangements, which should make the songs more "relevant" for modern listeners.

NК: What about Vysotsky's work is most interesting for American audiences?

VА: Vysotsky was a brilliant storyteller. And I believe a well-told story can be appealing in any culture and any language. From a poetry standpoint, Vysotsky wrote about such eternal themes as love, courage, friendship, life, death... I consider Vysotsky a great Russian poet, even just a great poet, who belongs to the same worldwide pantheon as Goethe and Shakespeare. Only the absence of adequate translations prevented him from taking his place in that pantheon. I'm trying to fill that gap. Vysotsky is too great to remain a part of only one culture and to be confined to Russian-language circles.

NК: The movie that was shown in December elicited major reactions, though mostly negative. But you liked it. What did you see in it?

VА: Yes, in general, I liked the movie even though I was ready to hate it. I liked two things: the main idea of the movie is that "Vysotsky changes the people around him." The movie isn't about Vysotsky. It's about his ability to change people around him. When that idea cut through, I immediately started enjoying the movie. I also thought the movie had the right nerve, the right emotional charge.

NК: Vysotsky's son Nikita wrote the screenplay for the film. You met with him last year after your performance in the Vysotsky club in the Taganka in Moscow. Did you ask him why he decided to undertake the film project?

VА: Nikita Vladimirovich does everything he can to promote the name and memory of his father. The ways he does that might appear questionable to some. I think it's better for people to do something than nothing. He has probably realized that he exhausted all other means and so it came time to make a movie. He told me (beforehand) that after the release, he would probably have to immigrate. At least for a while. And I agreed with him, because they really threw him to the dogs even before the movie came out. It's not right. When I met him I saw an unusual person, who seemed nervous and persecuted by the constant pressure. It's hard to be Vysotsky's son. I felt sorry for him. And I think of him with great respect.

NК: The Belarusian newspaper Nasha Niva re-posted a review of the film from a publication in Moscow. A number of comments followed the article. Could you comment on three of them?

"My 'Vysotsky' time is already vanishing even though I once loved his songs, knew many of them, and even played some on the guitar. I still have a CD collection of his songs, but I'm not interested in them anymore."

"Among the gray Soviet masses, Vysotsky was really distinctive. But now I'm not interested in him either. His poetry isn't great, and his voice often didn't match his music."

"Vysotsky was a rebel?! Mercedes, French wife, traveled abroad, huge popularity, wide circulation, royalties…"

VА: Let's leave the third comment alone. That person clearly has some other problems.

And, of course, no one has abolished the boorishness typical of the "Soviet" internet. At the same time, I've encountered another interesting phenomenon. People in my parents' generation who really grew up with Vysotsky and on Vysotsky don't necessarily know his poetic heritage as well as they think. For them, and seemingly for these commenters as well, Vysotsky is associated with thieves' songs, songs he wrote for the movie "Vertical" (Вертикаль) and perhaps some others: "The Sail," (Парус) "Circus Show on TV" (Диалог у телевизора). Vysotsky's truly great things were behind the scenes. He didn't perform them very often for two reasons. First, they were created in the later years of his life when he simply didn't have time to present them. And second, he didn't perform concerts very often because he was a smart guy and didn't want to expose himself for nothing: you never know how many squealers are in the audience! That's why he performed his best songs largely in apartments: for the Vainer brothers, for Todorovsky – for his friends. Those songs didn't become as famous as his universal hits like "The Giraffe" (Жираф) or "Mountain-Climbing Girl" (Скалолазка) – good songs, but not the best in his repertoire. Because of that, people are not well-acquainted with his works, though they think they are. And it's those songs that are timeless. If people are open to listen to something new, either in the original or in my translation, they sometimes realize how little they knew. So the person who questioned Vysotsky's rebelliousness should listen to those songs and see what a rebel he was.

NК: How do you compose your repertoire?

VА: My repertoire is my translations, for the most part, although I also perform in Russian, usually toward the end of my concerts. I try to provide English-speaking audiences with a picture of Vysotsky, of his works. For Russian-speaking audiences, it can be interesting from the point of view of the global significance of Vysotsky the poet, plus new musical arrangements on my albums. So I perform a variety of songs. I try to balance the program, alternating between serious and less serious songs. There's plenty of material. On my first album, called "Singer Sailor Soldier Spirit," there were 16 translations, and on the second, "Two Fates," there will be 11. But because the music is more serious, the second album is longer than the first one.

NК: Your translation of Vysotsky's songs has probably allowed you to understand more deeply what sort of person he was…

VА: There's the belief that he was bipolar – manic-depressive, which was rarely diagnosed, let alone treated, in the Soviet Union. But I'm not a psychologist. I don't particularly want to pry into his private life. I'm more interested in what could have become an impetus for him to create one song or another. I'm practically sure, for example, that he conceived the song "Two Fates" (Две судьбы) in a fit of delirium tremens. That song is really otherworldly.

The sources of his dissatisfaction are, of course, a topic for a book. I think he was a very vulnerable person. Vysotsky was pained that poets – his contemporaries – didn't consider him a poet. There were two reasons for that, in my opinion. First, he started with thieves' songs, which everybody considered lower-class art not worthy of serious literary analysis. The classic lines of the famous Soviet poet Robert Rozhdestvensky from Vysotsky's epitaph: "Mourn the eloquent singer of thieves' songs, Russia. Each time has its own Messiah." Indeed, in the consciousness of many people, he was part of that world. But he was so much more than that! Secondly, he didn't publish a single book in his lifetime, and he never saw a single line in print. In Russia, with its reverence for the written word, he was deprived. He tried his whole life to prove himself as a poet. Honestly, it bothers me that he wasn't taken seriously.

NК: What about his relationship with the authorities?

VА: The authorities couldn't allow his work to be published. They didn't have the right. He was beloved on all levels –members of Politburo, high-level KGB officers. Concerts – no way. The theater in Taganka – well, they sort of hesitated, but allowed it. Films – certain roles and movies were forbidden right away, others were prohibited at the last minute, but they did give him some minor roles. But to circulate his records at the level at which they were demanded would have amounted to official ideological approval. That would have destroyed the very base of Soviet power. He was as non-Soviet as possible. He was not Soviet and he was not anti-Soviet. He was non-Soviet. He was his own man.

NК: On his political views. David Karapetian went to Nikita Khrushchev's dacha when he had been stripped of power, and as he wrote in his book, "The snobbish rejection of Vysotsky in dissident intelligentsia circles was the norm in those years. Vysotsky's distinctness appeared primitive to them, thanks to their thoughtlessness…. Volodya [Vysotsky] considered them too politicized and not completely free."

VА: Vysotsky was objectionable to the Party authorities not because he was a dissident, but because he was free.

NК: What made him free in such an unfree society?

VА: He was a genius. And his genius removed him from the "check boxes." He wrote one poem that, in my view, characterized him. It stars like this: "I never believed in illusions…" and has the following lines: "I wasn't different from other ignorant men. And if I was, it wasn't by much. Budapest did not pierce me, and Prague did not break my heart."

It's clear from these lines that he was abandoned, torn up. He just didn't put all of his thoughts in the form of such open protest. He was not an outright anti-Soviet. He was simply free, period. But on the surface, of course, he wanted to be recognized. Therein was the cognitive dissonance that ultimately consigned him to the grave.

Vadim Astrakhan's website is