Translating Against the Odds:
Wendy Klein discusses Yvonne Green’s new versions of Semyon Lipkin’s poetry


After Semyon Izrailevich Lipkin by Yvonne Greenlipkin
Smith Doorstop Books
ISBN 978-1-906613-38-9
100 pp  £9.95


The Russian-Jewish poet Semyon Lipkin (1911-2003), was born in Odessa and died in Peredelkino, the historic dacha colony near Moscow. He remained in his homeland throughout his entire life, which limited wider circulation of his work and has restricted its translation elsewhere.  His poems, translated and given new life through Yvonne Green’s ‘versions’, were written primarily in a classical, refined poetic technique which has been compared to Alexander Pushkin. Lipkin’s verse is simple, formal in style, relatively unadorned, but rich in metaphor and image.

Green’s access to what might be described as original material was, to gauge from her introduction to the collection, limited:  audio tapes made by Russian friends reading literal translations obtained word by word; line by line; and her own examination of rhyme as visible on the page from a phonetic copy of the Cyrillic alphabet.  The result may not be entirely what Lipkin intended, but this seems less important as the poems work well in the majority of Green versions.

In the opening poem of the book, which Green titles Charred, from the Russian word ‘ashes’, she has taken a fair amount of poetic license.


and ashen I whisper, ‘I’ve been cremated’
in deserted barracks on Bavarian grasslands.

A more literal translation of the first stanza would read:

I was cooled ash,
No thought, no face, no speech,
But entered the world
From my mother’s womb – the furnace[1]

I believe she loses something of Lipkin’s impact through discarding the image of the womb/furnace and by choosing to bleed the title into the first line.

In what is a more streamlined, but less linguistically accurate version, she alters the order of the lines so that Lipkin’s final phrases:

‘They’ve incinerated me, ‘I breathed, ‘How can I get back to Odessa?

are pared down to:

Born burnt I can’t yet mourn

what it means to be alive or dead.
My cold embers won’t light a flame.

The poet’s cri de coeur, ‘How can I get back to Odessa?’ resonated more powerfully for me as the voice of a Diaspora Jew and created a stronger ending.

Lipkin’s poetry takes a thread of narrative from the Torah.  He uses this to illustrate historical atrocities, particularly the holocaust.  In the poem ‘Moses’, Green takes a twelve-line piece written in three end-rhyming quatrains and turns it into a ten-line contemporary shape made up of two stanzas with six and four lines.  The reader is taken on a fearsome journey beginning with:

The train of my black thought
tunnels through heaving sewers
races along all German, Soviet,
Polish roads and beyond,

Although the Cyrillic text as it appears in the book does not actually include the word ‘train’, Green adopts the image as a metaphor from the Russian ‘concentration path’ using it skilfully as a ‘train of thought.’ The journey ends when the face of God is revealed to the poet in flames from the image of gas ‘ovens’:

God reveals his face to me
intact, spiritual, lit by the blaze
of gas inside the burning bush. 

In the final line which places God in a holocaust crematorium, the poet seems actually to see the face of God as it might be seen by an observant Jew. In this poem Green’s version gains authority in its sparseness, and I am convinced it reflects the spirit of Lipkin. a potent representation of fear and faith in a deftly compressed form.

Green’s own poet voice is a vibrant one, and she triumphs in, On a Blue Vase, where she uses the incorporation of title and first line to much better effect:

On a Blue Vase

there’s a July forest
with pines drawn in detail
and people in vague silhouette.

Thank God for the impetus
of this imprecise sketch
so brilliantly incomplete.

There are thirty-three ‘versions’ in this collection, ranging from historical/political narratives like Reflections in Sarajevo and The Cossack Mother, to a marching song, Anthem, which Green has made her own in a compressed version which succeeds in maintaining the spirit of song.  It would be impossible in a single review to do justice to all of them.  Ultimately I have had to ask myself whether a version can ever be right or wrong.  Without the assistance of a Russian linguist, I might have been entirely happy just to rejoice in well-written pieces successfully executed by a poet working with a paucity of printed Russian texts. It is nonetheless the case that the glimpse offered into Lipkin’s oeuvre is a welcome one, refreshed by Green’s skilled and sensitive treatment.

Wendy Klein (January 2013)

[1] Translated (2012), by Barry Elliott, BBC External Services 1971-1993