I am Goya

My translation of this poem by Andrey Voznesensky (1933-2010) was commended by the judges of the Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize 2014.
My submission also included the commentary that follows.


I am Goya!
a crow — my foe — swooped on the barren field,
and gouged craters in the globes of my eyes.
I am grief.

I give
voice to the ghastly legacy of war, gutted towns
aglow in the snows of Forty-one; hungrily
I groan.

I growl
through the throat of a woman, lynched in the square now bare,
her corpse beating time like a bell…
I am Goya!

Oh grapes
of wrath, in a flash to the west flew my volley:
the ashes of the unwanted guest!
And I drove those crude stars like memorial bolts
into the heavenly vaults.
I am Goya.

Translator’s footnote: the ‘unwanted guest’ is the ‘first false Dmitry’, who arrived from Poland and was briefly Tsar of Russia in 1605-1606.  After his murder, his ashes were reputedly fired from a cannon westwards towards Poland.   

Russian 0riginal

Я – Гойя!
Глазницы воронок мне выклевал ворог,
слетая на поле нагое.
Я – Горе.

Я – голос
Войны, городов головни
на снегу сорок первого года.
Я – Голод.

Я – горло
Повешенной бабы, чье тело, как колокол,
било над площадью голой…
Я – Гойя!

О, грозди
Возмездья! Взвил залпом на Запад –
я пепел незваного гостя!
И в мемориальное небо вбил крепкие звезды –
Как гвозди.
Я – Гойя.


I first read Voznesensky as a student and this poem has intrigued me for over 30 years.

Its most striking feature is the insistent repetition of a line consisting solely of the pronoun I (Ya) followed by a bisyllabic noun starting with the, stressed, first syllable of the painter’s name (Go_). This sound pattern appears seven times in the 18 lines of the poem, at the beginning and end of the first three stanzas, and end of the final (fourth) stanza.  A minor variation opens the fourth stanza.

My main aim was to keep close to this sound pattern for those eight lines, with minimal loss of meaning. In some places, unsurprisingly, I couldn’t find nouns with the right meanings and starting with the right syllable. So I inserted verbs starting with ‘g’, moving the nouns into the preceding or following line:

  • ‘I am the voice’ (Ya golos) became ‘I give /voice’
  • ‘I am hunger’ (Ya golod) became ‘hungrily / I groan’.
  •  ‘I am the throat’ (Ya gorlo) became ‘I growl / through the throat’

The poem is full of other instances of consonance and assonance. Being unable to keep them all, I inserted new ones, such as ‘ghastly’, ‘gutted’ and ‘aglow’; ‘gouged’ and ‘globes’; ‘bolts’ and ‘vaults’; and ‘flash’ and ‘ashes’.

Finally, the second line poses one specific problem. In some versions, it ends with ‘voron’ (crow) but in others it ends with ‘vorog’ (foe). Voznesensky set up the expectation that it would end in ‘crow’ by using nearly the identical word ‘voronok’ (of craters) three words earlier. He then used ‘enemy’ to confound that expectation.  To reflect that, I opted to use the version with ‘foe’.  To help English readers pick up submerged hints at the presence of a crow, I used both terms ‘crow’ and ‘foe’ together.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *