In the most recent issue of The New York Review of Books, there's an article by Jose Manuel Prieto about a translation he made in the nineties of Osip Mandelstam's poem, "Epigram Against Stalin." Prieto was commissioned to translate the poem into Spanish from Russian, which he did, but he says that he was not really satisfied with the translation, that it never quite seemed to convey the power of the poem in Russian.
I had never heard of this poem, even though I studied Russian in college in the seventies. I think surely my teachers knew of it; they were Russian emigrees. This article would be a wonderful teaching tool for people learning Russian, as Prieto goes line by line through the poem, analyzing all the nuances and allusions in it that only Russians would understand. The poem turns out to be a microcosm of Russian society in the Stalin era, a history lesson in sixteen lines, and as Prieto says, a sixteen-line death sentence for Mandelstam.
Here it is translated into English:
We live without feeling the country beneath our feet,
our words are inaudible from ten steps away.
Any conversation, however brief,
gravitates, gratingly, toward the Kremlin’s mountain man.
His greasy fingers are thick as worms,
his words weighty hammers slamming their target.
His cockroach moustache seems to snicker,
and the shafts of his high-topped boots gleam.
Amid a rabble of scrawny-necked chieftains,
he toys with the favors of such homunculi.
One hisses, the other mewls, one groans, the other weeps;
he prowls thunderously among them, showering them with scorn.
Forging decree after decree, like horseshoes,
he pitches one to the belly, another to the forehead,
a third to the eyebrow, a fourth in the eye.
Every execution is a carnival
that fills his broad Ossetian chest with delight.
—Translated by Esther Allen from José Manuel Prieto’s Spanish version