Immigrant Ditty


Translated from Russian by OLGA LIVSHIN and ANDREW JANCO

Poem appears in both Russian and English.


Translators’ Note:

Born in 1948, Vladimir Gandelsman is very much the literary child of the poets of the Russian Silver Age. He draws on their dramatic, spiritually intense version of modernism, the acme, or the highest point of expression, whether meditating on fleeting moments or on major historical events. His literary parents include Pasternak and Mandelstam. Proust and Wilde are his relatives: he draws on and develops their respective fascinations with the sensuous quality of everyday life. Gandelsman’s exquisite diction and surprising collages of words help us remember our own moments of heightened feeling.

For many years, Gandelsman wrote in the oblivion of Leningrad’s late Soviet literary underground.  After coming to the United States in 1991, he was first able to publish his work, and is now highly acclaimed in Russia, where he won the Moscow Reckoning Prize, the highest award for poetry. He now divides his time between New York and St. Petersburg.

We especially admire Gandelsman’s poetry that explores the thorny aspects of early years in immigration. It is with candor and acmeistically expressive detail that he treats the slow dying of the self that happens to many middle-aged immigrants in the United States—a topic one of his literary forebears such as Anna Akhmatova would never need to touch, since she stayed in Soviet Russia through its many torturous decades. We are particularly drawn to this aspect of his work because it bursts the utopian bubble of the American Dream, its oversized expectations for both new Americans and the ones born here. Significantly, Gandelsman was forty-two when he came to the U.S. For an adult steeped in his original culture—and a representative of that culture—it can be extremely hard to adapt.

Gandelsman’s speaker cannot identify with the American cultural landscape. What he does, instead, is map a world of immigrant push-and-pull––of alienation and difficult attraction to the new home. It is there that darkly comical Russian-English mixtures (“beeldeeng,” “feefty-feefty”) belie the integrity of the speaker’s lofty poetic diction.

These neologisms, born of equal parts pained hybridity, honesty, and literary talent, present a special challenge for translation. Originally in the Russian alphabet, but clearly borrowed from English by New York’s immigrants from the Soviet Union and early post-Soviet Russia, they were an interesting obstacle. We did not want to leave them in English. But nor did we seek to parrot or parody fellow Russian speakers living in the United States, although an element of sarcasm towards his former compatriots is present in Gandelsman’s poem. Behind this tragicomic wordplay, we believe, is existential despair: the alienation that the speaker feels in general, and in his new country, in particular. To carry Gandelsman’s deliberately fractured words into English, to us, meant taking liberties and exaggerating. We wished to amplify their sonic effects in order to convey the intensity of the difficulties on the immigrant journey. With this in mind, we accentuated the sharp Russian vowel “и” (something between the sounds “i” and “ee”). We hoped to create what we think of as a shrill violin effect—a kind of linguistic anguish.


День окончен. Супермаркет,
мертвым светом залитой.
Подворотня тьмою каркнет.
Ключ блеснет незолотой. 

То-то. Счастья не награбишь.
Разве выпадет в лото.
Это билдинг, это гарбидж,
это, в сущности, ничто. 

Отопри свою квартиру.
Прислонись душой к стене.
Ты не нужен больше миру.
Рыбка плавает на дне.

Превращенье фрукта в овощ.
Середина ноября.
Кто-нибудь, приди на помощь,
дай нюхнуть нашатыря.

По тропинке проторенной –
раз, два, три, четыре, пять –
тихий, малоодаренный
человек уходит спать.

То ль Кармен какую режут
в эти поздние часы,
то ль, ворье почуяв, брешут
припаркованные псы. 

Край оборванный конверта.
Край, не обжитый тобой,
с завезенной из Пуэрто-
Рико музыкой тупой. 

Спи, поэт, ты сам несносен.
Убаюкивай свой страх.
Это билдингская осень
в темно-бронксовых лесах.

Это птичка “фифти-фифти”
поутру поет одна.
Это поднятая в лифте
нежилая желтизна.

Рванью полиэтилена
бес кружит по мостовой.
Жизнь конечна. Смерть нетленна.
Воздух дрожи мозговой.

                      ноябрь 1997


Immigrant Ditty

The sun goes down. The supermarket
floods with dead light. Now the gate
caws at you in the near darkness.
A not-so-magic key might blaze.

Can’t steal happiness, now, can you?
Win Lotto America! This,
as they call it, is a beeldeeng,
this is garrbage; nothing—this.

Go ahead, open the door.
Lean your heart against the wall.
The world doesn’t need you anymore,
bottom-swimming little fish.

Fruit are morphing into veggies.
It’s the middle of the fall.
Someone, please, come to my rescue,
let me breathe a little here.

Eenie, meanie, minie, moe,
there goes a very average schmo.
It’s to sleep he waddles off
on his short, well-trodden path.

Is that some Carmen being stabbed
at this late hour I hear?
Or the howl of the parked pooches
sniffing out their little thieves?

It’s an envelope, its torn edge.
The edge of a land not settled by you.
It’s the echoes of dumb music
brought to you by Puerto Ricans.

Poet, sleep! It’s you who’s awful.
Sing your fears some bedtime songs.
Lull your fear of balldeeng autumn
darkly bronzed in the Bronx woods.

It’s the feefty-feefty birdie
tweeting all alone at dawn.
It’s the elevator-riding,
lifeless yellow afternoon.

Demons swirl the rags of plastic
bags around the street all day.
Life is finite; death, undying;
a brain, trembling; this, its air.

                     November 1997


Born in Leningrad in 1948, Vladimir Gandelsman is the recipient of the Moscow Reckoning prize, the Liberty Award, and many other prestigious awards and honors. Discussing Gandelsman’s poems, Joseph Brodsky commented: “They are amazing, to me, in the literalness of their emotion, the naked candor of their metaphysical search, and their lack of tearfulness. [They have] a love for love itself, which is the greatest contribution of twentieth-century Russian poetry to world literature.” He is the author of eighteen poetry collections, a verse novel, and a volume of collected works. In English, Gandelsman’s work has appeared in journals such as Modern Poetry in Translation, Mad Hatters’ Review, and others, and was included in several major anthologies of contemporary Russian poetry, including An Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature: Two-Centuries of Dual Identity in Prose and Poetry (2007) and Crossing Centuries: The New Generation in Russian Poetry (2000).  He lives in St. Petersburg and the New York area.

Olga Livshin is the author of A Life Replaced: Poems with Translations from Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Gandelsman (2019). Her work has been recognized by CALYX journal’s Lois Cranston Memorial Prize, the Cambridge Sidewalk Poetry Project, and Slice Literary’s Bridging the Gap award. Poems, translations, and essays are published in The Kenyon Review Online, International Poetry Review, Poetry International, and other journals. As a translator, she was a finalist for the 2018 Gabo Prize for Literature in Translation and received an honorable mention in the Poets & Patrons Chicagoland Competition. She holds a PhD in Slavic Literature and taught Russian language and literature at the university level full-time before focusing on writing and translation.

Andrew Janco has co-translated, with Olga Livshin, the work of Russian-language poets ranging from Anna Akhmatova to Anastasia Afanasieva. Their translation work appears in numerous journals and anthologies, including Words for War: New Poetry from Ukraine and Russian Contemporary Poetry: An Anthology. He holds a PhD in Russian history from the University of Chicago and works as a digital scholarship librarian at Haverford College.

Immigrant Ditty

Related Posts

Picture of a blue fish

The Fish Market

You’re surprised to see a fish that’s blue. You’ve never seen such a fish before, let alone heard of one. You say to the fishmongers, “So it’s true, travel makes you new. I can’t believe how blue it is!” You’re told it’s called a Bluu Fish. Its color resembles the jeans you’re wearing.

Leila Chatti

My Sentimental Afternoon

Around me, the stubborn trees. Here / I was sad and not sad, I looked up / at a caravan of clouds. Will you ever / speak to me again, beyond / my nightly resurrections? My desire / displaces, is displaced. / The sun unrolls black shadows / which halve me. I stand.

picture of dog laying on the ground, taken by bfishadow in flickr

Call and Response

My grandmother likes to tell me dogs / understand everything you say, they just can’t / say anything back. We’re eating spaghetti / while I visit from far away. My grandmother / just turned ninety-four and tells me dogs / understand everything you say. / They just can’t say anything back.