Two Poems

Original by Maria Galina
Translated, from the Russian, by Dasha Koltunyuk

All the soldiers on the square,
all who are hanging from the skies,
who have pain and fear to bear,
barely show it in their eyes,
and we’re no better than the rest,
barely knowing our own face,
and those who pray and wish them blessed,
think of us too as you say grace.
In anguish beyond help, so bleak,
the gaze seeks out in no man’s land
some others, there, where cheek to cheek
under the sky, trees, tired, stand.
At least just please remember us
in crowds, in misery, in ranks…
as you our names read out, discuss,
on some other, unknown banks. 


О всех солдатах на плацу,
о всех, висящих в небесах,
кому знакомы боль и страх,
да жаловаться не к лицу,
и мы не хуже остальных,
себя не знающих в лицо,
и те, кто молится за них,
о нас замолвите словцо.
В какой беспомощной тоске
других отыскивает взгляд,
под небом, где щека к щеке
деревья сонные стоят.
Хотя бы помяните нас
в толпе, в отчаянье, в строю…
перечисляя имена
в ином, неведомом краю.


Original by Maria Galina
Translated, from the Russian, by Milla McCaghren, Christopher Damon, Yevheniia Dubrova, Savannah Eller, Emily Hester, Marta Hulievska, Kirill Lanski, Jasmine Li, and Andres Meraz

Here’s the radio playing “On a Workday Noon”
Here’s the sun hanging almost at its zenith
Here’s the spinstress on the roadside
Pulling and pulling the threads 

And from the roadside wafts the smell of sweet clover and gasoline,
But she goes on spinning since she is beyond reason.
Just look at yourself, spinstress, you’re such a mess,
All of your skeins are different colors.
But we need identical shirts,
Khaki-colored uniform berets
Your colorful threads are tangled and overlong
We need short ones, sorry. 

Saws and tiny hammers are clanging in the hot air –
The cumulative dot-dot-dot of interjections, tiny ellipses
A blue moth is turning his compound eyes
To a young neighbor who accidentally grazed his shoulder,
Watermelons are warming on the counter,
And short shadows nestling close to sagebrush bushes.  

This is too hard, it’s impossible to bear.

So take out your talyanka and play us bye-bye slavyanka
O underground accordionist in the iron stove’s hot gullet
And here comes this hottie in gucci or versace
Let her run along the formation shouting and crying something 

A bus rolls up, and some woman with an enormous bag
Pushes her way through, she gets called a bitch,
By those who barely managed to dodge her
A woman with a kid and guy with a briefcase,
And from the roadside wafts the smell of sweet clover and gasoline,
More and more short threads, more and more dirty-green ones,
And grasshoppers in the withered grass are marching in formation,
Morphing, along the way, into something completely different.


Вот радио играет «в рабочий полдень»
Вот солнце зависает почти в зените
Вот пряха на обочине там поодаль
Тянет и тянет нити

А с обочины тянет донником и бензином,
А она всё прядет, поскольку она безумна.
Погляди на себя пряха, ты такая неряха,
У тебя все кудели разного цвета.
А нам нужны одинаковые рубахи,
Цвета хаки форменные береты,
Перепутаны, длинноваты цветные нити —
Нам нужны короткие, извините.

Звенят в раскаленном воздухе пилы и молоточки —
Совокупный пунктир междометий, крохотных многоточий,
Голубой мотылек обращает глаза-фасетки
К ненароком задевшей его плечом молодой соседке,
Нагреваются на прилавке арбузы-дыни,
И короткая тень уткнулась в кусты полыни.

Это слишком сложно, такое вынести невозможно.

Так сыграй на тальянке прощание нам славянки
Гармонист подземный в раскаленной глотке таганки
И вот эта красотка в гуччи или версаче
Пусть бежит вдоль строя и что-то кричит и плачет

Подкатил автобус, и тетка с огромной сумкой
Прется напролом, ее обзывают сукой,
От нее увернуться поскольку едва успели
Женщина с дитём и мужик с портфелем,
А с обочины тянет донником и бензином,
И всё больше коротких, всё больше грязно-зеленых,
И кузнечики в жухлой траве маршируют строем,
Превращаясь по ходу во что-то совсем другое.


Translator’s note for “Here’s the radio playing ‘On a Workday Noon”:

The translation was completed as part of a seminar for advanced speakers of Russian taught by Victoria Somoff in the spring of 2022.  Written in 2014, Maria Galina’s poem “Here’s the radio playing ‘On a Workday Noon’…” not only captures the specific historical moment of the onset of Russia’s war against Ukraine, but also attempts to reveal the preconditions of any war, where- or whenever it breaks out. Maintaining the convergence of these two distinct planes, the historical and the atemporal, was the biggest overall challenge in our translation of the poem. Another challenge—the poem’s rich and elaborate rhyme, including numerous instances of internal rhyming – proved insurmountable; we opted to forego rhyme for the sake of preserving the poem’s rhythm, register, syntax, network of allusions, and semantic complexity. Below, we will discuss several of our translation dilemmas (of which there were plenty!) and provide a few factual explanations. 

“On a Workday Noon” was the title of a Soviet radio program that regularly aired at the eponymous time, presumably to be listened to during one’s lunch break. In the poem, this social constancy is juxtaposed with the natural one, the sun’s “hanging almost at its zenith”: the trajectory of the sun is as predictable as radio programming. Also present at the scene is a пряха who “pulls and pulls the threads”; we rejected our initial translation of пряха as “spinster” in favor of the archaic “spinstress” to avoid the former’s more immediate connotation. 

In the poem, the spinstress is opposed to both the natural order and the social one: she is not orderly but “messy”: “you’re such a mess, / All of your skeins are different colors.” The allusion is to the Moirai of ancient Greek mythology (or the Roman Parcae), the female goddesses of destiny, who weave the threads of mortals’ individual lives. The opposition here is not between order and disorder, rational and irrational, but rather between, on the one hand, the two law-abiding realms of nature and society and, on the other, the singularity and “messiness” of each individual life. Accordingly, when translating the spinstress’s designation as безумна, we declined the readily available “mad” in favor of “beyond reason” to mark the difference in meaning between the Russian сумасшедший and безумный: the former typically denotes deficiency of rationality, whereas the latter, excess in relation to it. 

Notably, in the poem, as distinct from classical mythology, the individual life being accounted for is not necessarily human, but rather any life, including that of “a blue moth with composite eyes” and the moth next to it, its “young neighbor.” The poetic gaze zooms into an interaction between these two, imperceptible by real eyes: in the original Russian, where the “young neighbor” is female (соседка), there is the strong implication of a romantic encounter. We were unable to preserve the gender distinction here without sacrificing the rhythm and syntax of the line, but believe that the most important aspect of this encounter – its being “accidental” (i.e., non-orderly) and therefore exciting – has been conveyed nonetheless. The poem situates the origins of war in the human imagination’s bewilderment before the existence of a multitude of individual lives and the mind’s concomitant urge to do away with this diversity: “This is too hard, it’s impossible to bear.” It is precisely the unbearableness of the swarming of multiple individual lives, of “the cumulative dot-dot-dot of interjections, tiny ellipses” that leads to unification, regularization, and, ultimately, military formations: “But we need identical shirts, / Khaki-colored uniform berets…” 

A talyanka (line 20) is a type of button accordion used in folk music. “Play us bye bye Slavianka” is a reference to a Russian march composed in 1912 by Vasily Agapkin and known as “The Slavic Woman’s Farewell” (Прощание славянки<). The march was widely performed by Soviet military bands and associated with women seeing off soldiers departing to war, and this exact scene is depicted in the poem: “And here comes this hottie in gucci or versace / Let her run along the formation shouting and crying something.” In line 24, we were unable to convey the meaning of the word тетка (the woman who shows up “with an enormous bag”), with its multiple connotations of middle age, unrefined appearance, and pushiness, among others. Having gone over the available English options and found all of them wanting, we settled on the neutral “some woman.”

Finally, we would like to share with the readers of Alchemy a discovery related to the poem’s interpretation rather than translation. We made this surprising discovery thanks to Maria Galina herself, who talked to our group via Zoom. Galina read the poem to us, reviewed our translation, and then asked us a question about the poem’s concluding lines: “And grasshoppers in the withered grass are marching in formation, / Morphing, along the way, into something completely different” – what is this “something different” that the grasshoppers are morphing into? Galina then explained that “something different” here has a very specific meaning which, however, easily escapes the reader unless she is, like Galina herself, a biologist by profession: apparently, when grasshoppers assemble in very large numbers, they undergo a mutation and transform into a different species, namely, the ravaging, crop-destroying locusts. Accordingly, this poem that begins with a mythological spinstress, pulling at multiple and diverse threads of “swarming” individual lives, concludes on that same atemporal plane, but with the biblical image of the destruction of life, the plague of swarming locusts. 

Maria Galina, a marine biologist by education, was born in Kalinin, now known as Tver, studied biology in Odessa and studied salmon in Bergen, Norway. She is a prose writer, poet, literary translator, and literary critic who incorporates strong elements of fantasy and myth into her writing. Maria Galina made her debut as a published fiction writer in the nineties, and her first prose appeared in national publications in 2000. Galina is the author of 6 poem collections and several prose books. For a long time, she has lived and worked in Moscow, but now lives in Ukraine.

Dasha (Darya) Koltunyuk completed a summa cum laude degree in Comparative Literature at Princeton University, focusing on the intersection between music and literature. She has performed both as a soloist and a chamber musician throughout the United States, Spain, France, Germany, Holland, and the United Kingdom, while claiming top prizes at national and international competitions. Beyond performance, Koltunyuk has extended her love of music by launching the Opportunity Music Project’s chamber music summer camp for low-income NYC children as a winner of the Davis Project for Peace, and establishing Live Music Meditations at Princeton University Concerts as Outreach Manager for the series, shortly after graduation. She continues to be part of the inspiring team at Princeton University Concerts, living in Princeton, NJ with her soulmate husband, pianist/composer Gregg Kallor, and their tomato plant, Tobias.

Christopher Damon, Zhenia Dubrova, Savannah Eller, Emily Hester, Marta Hulievska, Kirill Lanski, Jasmine Li, Milla McCaghren, and Andres Meraz are all students at or recent graduates of Dartmouth College. Their translation of “Here’s the radio playing ‘On a Workday Noon’…” was completed as part of a seminar for advanced speakers of Russian taught by Victoria Somoff in the spring of 2022. The course was a workshop dedicated to the translation of war testimonies—stories, captioned photos, and videos—posted on social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms by the ordinary, everyday people of Ukraine. These translations were meant to provide English-speaking audiences with accounts of the war that were not mediated by journalists, analysts, and news networks but instead were direct, personal, spontaneous, and raw. The translations were prepared for two international projects devoted to documenting the war: War in Translation on Twitter and Writings from the War on Facebook. The students have also translated several poems written by contemporary Ukrainian authors. They first conducted individual translations, which underwent multiple rounds of critical revisions before reaching the most refined version of a collaborative translation. The students then met, via Zoom, with the poems’ authors to discuss their translations. Maria Galina was one of the poets who joined the class from Odessa and talked to the students not only about her experience of war and her own creative work but also about Ukrainian history, language, and literature.