Thursday, July 4, 2013

Tears, dreams and dung

About 20 years ago the British Council decided to do some missionary work in Russia, and the Moscow Metro got a program similar to Poems on the Underground. Instead of shampoo advertisements some trains started carrying brief English poems together with their Russian translations. 

This did not play out well. The British Council made a critical mistake: they chose the poems first and then commissioned the translations. At least, this is the only explanation I can find for the disaster that ensued. A few brilliant lines by Rupert Brooke

Unkempt about those hedges blows

An English unofficial rose;
And there the unregulated sun
Slopes down to rest when day is done,
And wakes a vague unpunctual star ...

became something that started as

У изгороди, над горой навоза,
пробилась неофициально роза ...

In the translation the rose was not English anymore, nor it was unkempt. On the other hand, a new circumstance appeared: it grew over a pile of dung. I can't really blame the translator, she did what she could. There are few words in Russian that rhyme with rose: tears, dreams and, well, dung. Tears and dreams were, obviously, out of place.

And, indeed, a Russian village often smells stronger than the English countryside. But the commuters were not amused at all.  They did not like reading "this foreign stuff" (as if they could actually read it) and they did not like excrement. After a few months on the orders of the mayor of Moscow the program was terminated and fine English poetry was replaced by standard primary school propaganda, written, apparently, by some loyal Uzbek:

Москва, Москва!.. люблю тебя как сын,
Как русский, - сильно, пламенно и нежно!

Moscow, Moscow, I love you as a son,
As a Russian, etc.

As everything touched by the hand of the Moscow government, this was real crap.

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