Alec  Vagapov

On line Interview

August  2001 by Internrt Observer

Conversation with the well-known translator about his work on translation and his views on his life in the world of poetry


“Internet Observer”:  Your translations are to be found on some sites in the Internet so that people from all over the world have access to your works. How does it feel to be famous or, should I say, known to world public?

Alec Vagapov: Well, I feel flattered. Besides, it's nice to know that you don't work for nothing, that is what you do is not wasted. It hasn't brought me a penny so far, yet I am content, and I cherish hope that some day my creative work will be appreciated and estimated at its true value by connoisseurs of poetry and public at large.

“Internet Observer”: Do you think your  translations are well read?

Alec Vagapov: Well, I hope so, though you never can tell for sure unless you set up a forum or place a counter on your site, do some advertising and that stuff. Your question reminds of my son's remark who told me the other day that what I was doing was monkey business because "nobody is interested in poetry in this world of commerce we are living in". He maybe right to some extent for poetry is not as popular nowadays as it was in the 60-ties when it was booming, and poets were as popular as film stars or hockey players. Some older people will remember, poetry performances would gather dozens of thousands of people on squares and in stadiums where poetry lovers would come to listen to poets such as Yevtushenko, Voznesensky and others who recited their poems and did it so well. It really felt like listening to nice music. Poetry was thriving, and the galaxy of wonderful poets was widening like never before. It's different today. There are no new names, not even in the world of pop and rock where lyric does not matter. However, there are people in any country, which have interest in poetry and know Yevtushenko and Voznesensky and would like to read them. I translate Russian poets of the 60-ties for poetry lovers all over the world.

“Internet Observer” :Are Russian poets really well known in the world?

Alec Vagapov: Yes, some of our poets are really world famous. Everybody heard of Pushkin of course, and many people outside Russia know YevgenyYevtushenko and Andrey Voznesensky. But the funny thing about their popularity is that everybody talks about them but nobody has actually read their poems. They are not to be found in the Internet. There is plenty of material on these poets, mostly critical reviews, articles, biographies, interviews and appraisals. If you look for these names in the Internet, you will see hundreds of references to them but you won't find a site with their poems translated into English. Nor will you find them in book form, either in book-shops or in libraries. Their political views seem to be more important than their poems. I can't like it.

“Internet Observer”: What do you think of Yevgeny Yevtushenko?

Alec Vagapov:I think he is great. He is undoubtedly among the greatest poets of the 20th century, along with Mayakovsky, Blok and Yesenin. I like his early works, poems he wrote in late fifties and the sixties, though some of his later pieces are just as good. I am not particularly interested in what he thinks and says about presidents and regimes. I think that sometimes he kills his poetry by writing "political" poems.

“Internet Observer”: AndreyVoznesensky was also known for his political intransigence but his poetry is far from being political, don't you think?

Alec Vagapov: Voznesensky is very special. He was, and still is, I suppose, better known as a public figure rather than a poet. Not that he writes political poems but because politicians of all sorts use his name as a symbol of freedom or whatever. The same goes for other poets of the 60-ties such as Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Bulat Okudjava, Bella Akhmadulina and others. Andrey Voznesensky is better known in the West because at one time  he had the audacity to have his say straight in Khrushchev's face. Critics and newspaper reporters focus their attention on what he does and says, what places he visits and what people he meets with and very rarely on what his poems are about. There are pictures of Vosnesensky shaking hands with outstanding public figures such as Pope Paul, Senator Robert Kennedy and John Kennedy's widow Jacqueline, and that’s what they think makes one a famous poet.

To me he is only a poet, and anything else is of no importance.  He has worked out his own style, his own way of expression. Some people may think him to be too self-assertive and presumptuous, even blatant, writing in 'but me no buts” manner. But that’s the way he is. A brilliant elocutionist, he is particularly good at reading his own poems in public. You should have seen him do it on stage in a stadium, or elsewhere before a huge audience, back in mid sixties when he was at the height of his fame. It was like John Lennon shouting out his Instant Karma lyrics, with tremendous power and feeling:  "Well, we all shine on like the moon and the stars and the sun...", or Elvis Presley screaming "Jail House Rock".

YevgenyYevtushenko, Bella Akhmadulina and some other poets of the sixties were also good at reciting their poems. One may call Andrey Voznesensky a freedom fighter but look, he has lived in "free society" for over 10 years now and hasn't written anything worth mentioning. The best of his poems were written back in the 60-ties when he was not "free". The same goes for Yevgeny Yevtushenko and the rest of those "freedom fighters". Where are their great masterpieces that should have been written under the condition of “freedom”? There aren’t any.

“Internet Observer”:  Andrey Voznesensky's poems must be hard to translate considering his special manner of writing

Alec Vagapov: Translating poetry is hard anyway. Sometimes it takes a week or two to find a suitable word or phrase for you are bound to the rhyme and the rhythmical pattern of the verse. Filatov’s "Soldier Fedot" was the hardest to translate because of the peculiar style of the language, the pronunciation of words appropriate to the language of uneducated people. I could have rendered the phonetic peculiarities of the original by using cockney but then the translation would have lost the Russian flavour. So I used standard English and left it to the readers to use whatever style of pronunciation they may want to choose.

As for Voznesensky he is not an exception. He is just as hard to translate as any other poet. I had difficulties in translating his “RU” poem, and the problem was different from the one I faced when translating Filatov’s fairy tale. I found it hard to render the effects of the play of words, which the whole poem is based on. He uses words containing the “ru” and “net” syllables, which mean something to the Russian ear. We know what they stand for whereas the English reader needs explanation, which you cannot render in your literary translation and have to do it in footnotes, something I have done to make things intelligible.

“Internet Observer”:  Bulat Okudjava and Vladimir Vysotsky didn't read their poems, they sang them. Were they, in fact, poets or singers, do you think?

Alec Vagapov: They are poets in the first place though some may think them to be singers, or bards, that compose and recite poems, while playing the guitar. I don’t want to compare but Bob Dylan does the same thing and to most people he is a singer, of course (folk, rock, pop or country- whatever you call it). To me he is primarily a poet, a satirical writer that has something to say and speaks out, playing the guitar and singing. Likewise, I think Bulat Okudzhava and Vladimir Vysotsky are poets because their performance does not conform to my understanding of what the art of singing is all about. Listen to the Beatles and you will see what I mean. It all depends on how you look upon it because, after all, they do both write poetry and sing and may be rightfully considered to be both poets and singers.

“Internet Observer”:  You have translated only a small fraction of what the poets have written. What are the criteria of selecting a poem for translation?

Alec Vagapov:  I think it’s only natural that I should translate poems that appeal to me. Sometimes I choose a poem, which, I think, is representative of a particular poet. Say, poems like “the City Romance” or “Saying Good-bye to the Mountains” couldn’t have been written by anybody but Vladimir Vysotsky. Or the “The Antiworlds” is definitely Vosnesensky’s piece of work.

“Internet Observer”:You translate poets of the 60-ties. I presume, they have something in common, but each of them must have some peculiarities, something distinct from others such as the choice of words, the metrical foot, the rhythmical structure of a line, something that makes up the authenticity of their poetical expression, style and all that. Did you notice those peculiar features while translating?

Alec Vagapov: Yes, you are right when you say that they have some common features. The techniques of writing poetry are not unlimited, after all. Sometimes it is impossible to say who the author of a particular poem is. I will give you two poems to read, one by Byron and one by Shelly, and you won’t say who is who because it is impossible to judge a poet by reading just one poem.  But there are ways and means of making your poetry unique and original, and only gifted and talented poets manage to do it.

Generalisation is a precarious thing, but I will run the risk of describing Okudhava as a lyrical poet with his “city life romance”, Vysotsky as a satirical poet with an amazing ability to use humour, irony, sarcasm, ridicule, and the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc.,  and Voznesensky as  an experimentalist always searching for new forms of expression.

“Internet Observer”:  How did you come to translating poetry? Do you remember how it all started?

Alec Vagapov:   It all started with my discovery of Vladimir Mayakosky at the age of 16 when I caught sight of a collection of his poems at the city library. I started reading it and could not stop. It was non-stop reading for days on end. And that was the beginning of my love of poetry. I started reading and rereading everything I could get hold of, from Pushkin to Yesenin and contemporary poets of which there were many.

At school we learnt poems by Russian classics such Pushkin, Lermontov, Tutchev and  Fet but it was not I until I took interest in Mayakovsky’s literary work that I really became a poetry lover.

“Internet Observer”:   Did you try to write your own rhymes?

Alec Vagapov: Yes I did. At school I wrote satirical and humorous poems for the wall newspaper and even tried to have my “great masterpieces” published but the editors refused to accept them because of obvious imitation of Mayakovsky and “lack of individual way of expression”. And then again when I was a student I started translating English poetry into Russian, without obvious success. I think the reason for the failure was the unhappy choice of poems for translation. I translated poems that were available at the Library of Foreign Literature in Moscow. I did not know much about English poetry, and was completely at a loss in the ocean of names and poems I found myself in. When I was a senior student I tried to translate Mayakovsky into English, and it worked! I used my translations of Mayakovsky for my diploma theses, which I defended successfully, with an excellent mark. Imagine me reciting Mayakovsky’s poems before the State Examination Board, something students had never done before!

“Internet Observer”: How did you come to write for the Internet?

Alec Vagapov: Somebody told me about the electronic magazine called “Speaking In Tongues. Guided by the Voices”, and I wrote to the editor (Max Nemtsov -a beautiful fellow from Vladovostok) asking if I could have my translations placed in his magazine, and he answered in the affirmative. And that was the beginning of my "literary career". I have my own site now.

“Internet Observer”: What about your rights? Have you had them reserved?

Alec Vagapov: No, I haven’t. I am afraid it involves a great deal of red tape, and I don’t know how to get all the formalities done. So I decided to let things slide, whatever happens. Incidentally, my translation of Filatov’s fairy tale was used by film producer Ovcharov who won first prize at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1992 for the film based on my translation... My name was not mentioned anywhere to say nothing of some fee I was entitled to as the translator. Some people say I should have known better when placing my translations in the Internet for what happened should have naturally been expected. But I let it pass. I am not going to sue anybody. May God judge them and bless them.

“Internet Observer”:   What are your plans for the future? Are you going to continue your creative work?

Alec Vagapov: No, not until I find something interesting to translate. Something to my liking or something I think has to be translated.

“Internet Observer”: Thank you most sincerely for the interview. It was nice talking to you.

Alec Vagapov: Thank you


Alec Vagapov’s literary sites:

http://www.foto.lib.ru/w/wagapow_a/

http://vagalecs.narod.ru/

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