Yevtushenko: Babi Yar (From Russian)

This is poem, about the largest single massacre of the Holocaust, is extremely famous, in no small part because of how infamous it made Yevtushenko in the Soviet Union. Accordingly, it has been translated a great deal. There are a number of Hebrew translations including fine versions by Ze'ev Geisel, Shlomo Even-Shoshan and Arie Aharoni. I've been able to find three different Yiddish versions, as well as four German ones, including one by Paul Celan. The poet Julius Balbin won a prize for his Esperanto translation. There are also at least a dozen English versions that I have been able to find. For me personally, the most moving translation of all is the Yiddish version by Zyame Telesin, though it omits the second to last stanza.
For this translation, I was asked by the donor to "give an idea of what was being lost in [previous English] translations." Now, the problem of using translation to show what is lost in translation is a bit like Heisenberg uncertainty. Certain things are inevitably impossible to do or show at the same time. The only answer is to give multiple translations. So I have included a literal prose translation following the original text, along with lexical commentary, and transcription. One way in which my translation conveys something lost in other versions is in respecting the metrical form of the original. See my note on this after the commentary.
This is a poem that remains resonant in part because of the extraordinary level of antisemitism still to be encountered among Russians, both in the diaspora and in Russia. Translating it took a lot out of me. It was also one of those times where the poem I was translating so seized me that I found myself translating as much from the gut as from the head. This is also the reason why sound like I do in my audio recording. If it seems like I am trying to hold back tears, it is only because I am.

Babi Yar
By Yevgeni Yevtushenko
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Requested by Ruth Blumenthal

No monuments stand over Babi Yar, 
A sudden drop sheer as a gross graveslab.  
I am here terrified.  
         Today I am 
As old as all the Jewish people are. 

Now it seems that I am 
          an Israelite.
There I am wandering Ancient Egypt's lands,  
And there I perish, pierced and crucified, 
And to this day bear nail-scars on my hands.  
And Dreyfus too is 
        me, 
          there I have been
Sentenced, sold out  
         by petty philistines. 
I am behind bars,  
        rounded up and battered,
I have been
     hounded, hunted, 
           slandered, spat on, 
And demoiselles dolled up in Brussels lace 
Shrieked as they poked their parasols in my face.  
And now I am   
      a boy in Białystok.
Blood runs across the floor. Blood on the wall.  
The bar-room rabble-rousers run amok    
Reeking of onion and hard alcohol. 
Boots kick my body aside, helpless. Head gushing, 
I plead in vain with thugs of the pogrom 
To hoots of      
      "Smash the fucking kikes! Save Russia!" 
And some grain-seller beats and rapes my mom.   
My People! Russian nation!  
           I know, 
              you
Are internationalist at the core,  
But men with filthy hands too often boomed 
Your clean sweet name into a jingo roar.   
I know the good, the kindness of your land.   
How vile it is     
     that, with no pinch of scruple,
those pompous antisemites tried to brand    
themselves a "Union of the Russian People."  
It seems that what I am is  
           Anne Frank 
Transparent  
      as a fragile April branch.
And I love. 
     And I need no puffy phrase.
I need for us 
     to meet each other's gaze. 
So little we can see or smell,  
              we who
Have been denied the sky,  
           denied the leaves. 
But we can do so much: 
          to tenderly
Embrace each other in a darkened room.  
"They're coming!"  
      "Don't be scared.  
             That's just the clamor
of early spring. 
         It is spring coming here!  
Come here.  
     Give me a kiss, quick."
              "Are they ramming
The door?"  
     "Shhhh...no, that's cracking ice you hear." 

The wildgrass rustles over Babi Yar. 
Trees stare down stern,   
         judicial, 
            cold as day. 
All things scream silent here.  
            Hat in my arm, 
I feel myself now  
       slowly growing grey. 
 And I myself  
      am one all-out soundless scream 
For the thousand buried thousands in this char. 
I'm every old man 
           shot in this ravine,
I'm every baby   
      burned in Babi Yar. 

No fiber in me  
      will forget this ever. 
Let the Internationale  
         thunder forth
When we have buried, finally and forever, 
The final antisemite on this earth. 

There is no Jewish blood in me, it's true.  
But with their callous ossified revulsion 
Antisemites must hate me like  
           a Jew
And that is what makes me    
         a real Russian.


Audio of me reciting this poem in Russian


The Original:

Бабий Яр

Над Бабьим Яром памятников нет. 
Крутой обрыв, как грубое надгробье. 
Мне страшно. 
      Мне сегодня столько лет,
как самому еврейскому народу. 
 
Мне кажется сейчас - 
          я иудей.
Вот я бреду по древнему Египту. 
А вот я, на кресте распятый, гибну, 
и до сих пор на мне - следы гвоздей. 
Мне кажется, что Дрейфус - 
             это я.
Мещанство - 
      мой доносчик и судья.
Я за решеткой. 
      Я попал в кольцо.
Затравленный, 
      оплеванный,
           оболганный.
И дамочки с брюссельскими оборками, 
визжа, зонтами тычут мне в лицо. 
Мне кажется - 
       я мальчик в Белостоке.
Кровь льется, растекаясь по полам. 
Бесчинствуют вожди трактирной стойки 
и пахнут водкой с луком пополам. 
Я, сапогом отброшенный, бессилен. 
Напрасно я погромщиков молю. 
Под гогот: 
     'Бей жидов, спасай Россию!' -
насилует лабазник мать мою. 
О, русский мой народ! - 
           Я знаю -
              ты
По сущности интернационален. 
Но часто те, чьи руки нечисты, 
твоим чистейшим именем бряцали. 
Я знаю доброту твоей земли. 
Как подло, 
     что, и жилочкой не дрогнув,
антисемиты пышно нарекли 
себя "Союзом русского народа"! 
Мне кажется - 
      я - это Анна Франк,
прозрачная, 
     как веточка в апреле.
И я люблю. 
     И мне не надо фраз.
Мне надо, 
    чтоб друг в друга мы смотрели.
Как мало можно видеть, 
           обонять!
Нельзя нам листьев 
         и нельзя нам неба.
Но можно очень много - 
           это нежно
друг друга в темной комнате обнять. 
Сюда идут? 
     Не бойся - это гулы
самой весны - 
      она сюда идет.
Иди ко мне. 
     Дай мне скорее губы.
Ломают дверь? 
       Нет - это ледоход...
Над Бабьим Яром шелест диких трав. 
Деревья смотрят грозно, 
           по-судейски.
Все молча здесь кричит, 
           и, шапку сняв,
я чувствую, 
     как медленно седею.
И сам я, 
    как сплошной беззвучный крик,
над тысячами тысяч погребенных. 
Я - 
  каждый здесь расстрелянный старик.
Я - 
  каждый здесь расстрелянный ребенок.
Ничто во мне 
      про это не забудет!
«Интернационал» 
        пусть прогремит,
когда навеки похоронен будет 
последний на земле антисемит. 
Еврейской крови нет в крови моей. 
Но ненавистен злобой заскорузлой 
я всем антисемитам, 
         как еврей,
и потому - 
     я настоящий русский!


Commentary:

Nad Báb'im Yárom pámyatnikov net.
Krutóy obrýv, kak grúboye nadgrób'e.
Mne stráshno. Mne sevódnya stóko let,
Kak samomú yevréyskomu naródu.
There are no monuments over Babi Yar. A sheer bank, like a crude headstone. I'm scared. I am today as many years old as the Jewish people themselves are. 
Pamyatnik like English "monument" can refer to sculptures, statues, "linguistic monuments" attesting dead languages, and the like. Its semantics are a bit closer to Latin monumentum, though. It transparently contains the root of the word for "memory." It ensures that something gone is not forgotten. What English-speakers call a "roadside memorial" is in Russian called a pridorozhnyi pamyatnik.

Grubyi like English "crude" can refer to physical roughness, unpolished or makeshift craftsmanship, the inexactness of an estimate, personal uncouthness and the like. But it carries a bit more judgmental force than the English word. It corresponds to "gross" in such English expressions as "gross error" (grubaya oshibka), "gross flattery" (grubaya lest'), or "gross violation of the law" (gruboye narushenie zakona), and sometimes to "rude" as when one says "It is very rude of you" (eto ochen' grubo s vashey storony). Gruboye slovo may be a "harsh, coarse word", or it may be the sort of "rude word" that parents are uncomfortable hearing from children.

nadgrobie is literally an "overgrave." It is anything that stands over the interred dead. It may be a headstone. It may also be used to refer to an inscription or epitaph placed on such a stone.

In choosing the phrase gruboye nadgrob'e, Yevtushenko is not merely suggesting that the ravine's sheer drop is a rough or inept thing to remember the massacre by. Nor is it merely evocative sound-play (repeating the gr-b consonantal pattern.) There is something distasteful, profane, obscene about it. The more so as the rough and underspecified nadgrobie contrasts with the exalted pamyatnik.

Mne kázhetsa seychás - ya iudéy.
Vot ya bredú po drévnemu Yegíptu.
A vot ya, na kresté raspyátyi, gíbnu,
I do sikh por na mne - sledý gvozdéy.
It seems to me now: I am a Jew. There I am wandering over Ancient Egypt. And there, crucified on the cross, I perish, and to this day I bear on me the traces of the nails.  
Russian has a number of words to refer to Jews, ranging from the respectful to the reprehensible, and three different ones appear in this poem. Yevrey which occurs in adjectival form in the previous stanza is the neutral word for "Jew." The word Iudey which occurs here is a somewhat elevated word for "Jew" often used in a specifically religious rather than ethnic sense. The difference may be sensed, and translated, more clearly in the derived adjectives: Yevreyskiy is "Jewish" but Iudeyskiy is "Judaic." Etymologically it means "Judean" and can also set a Biblical mood in contexts where "Israelite" would be used in English.

"And thou shalt remember that thou wast a slave in the land of Egypt..."
- Deut 15:15.

Mne kázhetsa, chto Dréyfus - éto ya.
Meshchánstvo - moy donóschik i sud'yá.
Ya za reshótkoy. Ya popál v kol'tsó.
Zatrávlennyi, opl'óvannyi, obólgannyi.
I dámochki s bryussél'skimi obórkami,
vizzhá, zontámi týchut mne v litsó.
It seems to me that Dreyfus is me. The (bourgeois) philistinry is my snitch and judge. I (was/am) sentenced. I fell into the circle. Hunted/badgered, spat-on, slandered. And little ladies in Brussels frills, squealing, poke umbrellas in my face. 
 "Bourgeois philistinry" here translates the Russian meshchanstvoMeshchanstvo has no exact translation into English or — as far as I know — into any other Western European language, though the German Spießbürgertum comes close.
Originally in the 17th and 18th centuries, meshchanstvo referred to a class or estate, encompassing the lower economic bracket of city-dwellers, including peddlers and dislocated peasants. In the nineteenth century, as the term became more or less the equivalent of "petty bourgeoisie," it developed a looser pejorative sense, denoting a state of being rather than of budget: vulgar greed, prejudice, a surfeit of superficiality and a pretense of profundity. Particularly after the revolution, the word also came to encompass "narrow-mindedness, philistinism" with a strong tone of careerist conformism. It is both a class judgement and not a class judgement. One approximate English translation, though out of place in a text like the one translated here, would be "Babbittry."
Almost all English verse-translations of this poem have used the term "philistines," presumably because the play on Israel's ancient enemies and modern philistine crudity suggests itself very readily. I could think of nothing better than to add the word "petty."

Mne kázhetsa - ya mál'chik v Belostóke.
Krov' l'ótsa, rastekáyas' po polám.
Beschínstvuyut voždí traktírnoy stóyki
I pákhnut vódkoy s lúkom popolám.
It seems I am a boy in Białystok. The blood spills, pours about the floor(s). The leaders of the tavern-bar commit outrages and smell of onion and vodka, half each.  
This and the following stanzas refer to the Białystok pogrom of 1906 in what was then the Russian Empire. During the pogrom, between 81 and 88 Jews were killed, and about 80 were wounded. It was one of a series of violent outbreaks against Jews between 1903 and 1908, including pogroms in Kishinev, Odessa and Kiev.

Vožd'
 "leader" has extremely loaded resonance. During the Soviet period, vožd' became tightly associated with communist leadership, as in Stalin's title vožd' naróda "The People's Leader." Today, this association has so smirched the term that, like German Führer or Italian duce it tends to be avoided in favor of the English loanword líder (and so on with e.g. líderstvo "leadership.") In the poem, its use is ironic. These petty voždi don't know how petty they are.

Ya, sapogóm otbróshennyi, bessílen.
Naprásno ya pogrómshchikov molyú.
Pod gógot: "Bey Zhidóv, Spasáy Rossíyu!"
nasíluyet labáznik mat' moyú.
I, thrown aside by the boot, am powerless. In vain I plead with the pogrommists. Under the gaffaw: "Beat the Zhids. Save Russia." A grain-marketer violates my mother. 
Pogromshchik means of course "participant in a pogrom" but it also preserves whiffs of the semantic range of "rioter, mobber."

"Kike" in my verse-translation is the closest thing I could think of to Russian zhid. Other translators have rendered this term with Yid which has much less force to my ear. Some have done far worse and simply rendered it as "Jew." Which is a bit like a translator into Spanish rendering the English word "nigger" as "negro."

The Russian word zhid is harsher, more venomous, and far more nastily commonplace than any word referring to Jews in English. Modern English doesn't really have words that fully translate the level of disrespect, viciousness, and entrenched casual loathing expressed in the anti-semitic slurs of Russian, or of other Eastern European languages. Take everything that comes to your mind when you hear a white American casually refer to a black American as a "nigger." Or even when you saw the word written out in full just now. Zhid in modern Russian is like that, but for Jews.

Philological digression:
This was not always the case. Zhid is the inherited Slavic word for Jews, and only became pejorative in Russian in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is even present in Russian Jewish family names like Zhidenko and Zhidanov, though many such families have now changed their names.
The pejorative sense began among the upper classes before making its way down the social scale like shit through a colon. In most other Slavic languages, the word is often neutral. Polish Żyd, for example, (pronounced identically to the Russian word) is no more pejorative than English Jew. Only in the plural are there gradations: żydowie (respectful), żydzi (neutral), żydy (pejorative.) This was traditionally true of the word in Ukrainian and Belorusian. (Nikita Khruschev was once shocked to hear educated Jews in Ukraine use the word to describe themselves.) But today, the semantic bleed-over from Russian has made Ukrainian and Belorusian Jews no less uncomfortable with the word than Ukrainian and Belorusian anti-semites are now fond of it.
Here endeth the digression.

Bey zhidov i spasay Rossiyu "Beat the Zhids and Save Russia" was the unofficial slogan of the Chornaya Sótnya, the Black Hundreds. (Interesting fact: Yiddish translations of this poem simply transliterate the Russian here.)

One way to describe the Black Hundreds is as an ultra-right xenophobic nationalist movement that arose in the Russian Empire in the wake of moderate social liberalization at the beginning of the twentieth century. Another way would be to say: picture the Ku Klux Klan, except that none of the people being lynched, shot, raped and tortured have dark skin.
The Tsar himself believed in the Black Hundreds and called them a "shining example to all of justice and order." A few government ministers supported them too, but most deeply despised them. If for no other reason than that government ministers and bureaucrats were a vent - albeit a secondary one - for the Black Hundreds' spleen.
The Orthodox Church tended to support them. It is often said that this support was less than total. This is technically true. It is also technically true that "Donald Trump's administration does not support or endorse white nationalists." In both cases the more important truths are those which the utterers of such pieties are loath to face.

The verb nasílovat' has been rendered as "beat up" or the like in all previous English translations of this poem that I have seen. I am not at all sure why this is. It is true that the verb does mean that. But when, as here, construed with a feminine object, it generally means "rape." And I see no reason why that should not be the sense here.

O Rúskiy moy naród! - Ya znáyu - ty
po súschchnosti internatsionálen,
no chásto te, chi rúki nechistý,
tvoím chistéyshim ímenem bryatsáli.
Oh my Russian people! I know, you are international(ist) by nature. But often those whose hands are unclean have rattled your cleanest name about. 
Internatsional'nyi "international." This Latinate loan is a bit more loaded, more political, than its native synonym, meždunarodnyi.

Bryatsat' imenem "rattling a name" is a bit more aggressive than "name-dropping" but just as pretentious. (Bryatsat' oruzhiem is "saber-rattling.")

Ya znáyu dobrotú tvoyéy zemlí.
Kak pódlo, chto, i zhílochkoy ne drógnuv,
antisemíty pýshno nareklí
sebyá "Soyúzom Rússkovo Naróda!"
I know the kindness of your land. How vile that, not having flinched by so much as a vein, the antisemites pompously/ styled themselves the "Union of the Russian People."
"Union of the Russian People" was the largest and most important of the Black Hundredist political organizations.

Pyshnyi here rendered as "pompous" can in other contexts mean "sumptuous" with a strong undertone of "overdoing it" or "puffy" in a physical sense. There is a gaudiness implied here.

Mne kázhetsa - ya - eto Ánna Frank,
prozráchnaya, kak vétochka v apréle.
I ya lyublyu. I mne ne nádo fraz.
Mne nado, chto b drug v drúga my smotréli.
It seems to me that I, I am Anne Frank, transparent as a little branch in April. And I love too. And I don't need phrases. I need for us to gaze at each other. 

Kak málo mózhno vídet', obonyat'!
Nel'zya nam líst'yev i nel'zyá nam néba.
No mózhno óchen' mnógo - eto nézhno
drug druga v tyómnoy kómnate obnyát'..
So little we can see, smell. We are forbidden the leaves, and forbidden the sky. But we can do a lot — that is, can tenderly embrace each other in a dark room.

Syudá idút? Ne bóysya — éto gúly
samóy vesný — oná syudá idyót.
Idí ko mne. Day mne skoréye gúby.
Lomáyut dver'? Net — éto ledokhód...
They're coming here? Don't be afraid — that's the booms of spring itself — it's coming here. Come to me. Give me your lips quickly. They're breaking down the door? No — it's ice moving...  
Nad Báb'im Yárom shélest díkikh trav.
Derév'ya smótryat grózno, po-sudéyski.
Vsyo mólcha zdes' krichít, i, shápku snyav,
ya chúvstvuyu, kak médlenno sedéyu.
Over Babi Yar is the rustle of wild grasses. The trees stare sternly, judge-like. Everything here screams silently. Hat taken off, I feel myself greying slowly with age.
I sam ya, kak sploshnóy bezzvúchnyi krik,
nad týsyachami týsyach pogrebyónnykh.
Ya - kázhdyi zdes' rasstrélyannyi starík.
Ya - kázhdyi zdes' rasstrélyannyi rebyónok.
And I am myself like an all-out soundless scream above the thousands of thousands interred. I am every old man shot dead here. I am every child shot dead here.
The impact of the final two lines of this stanza depends not only on word-order ("I am every here-shot-dead old man. I am every here-shot-dead child") but also the general tendency in Russian to shunt the most salient piece of information to the end of the noun-phrase.

Loath to present bad poetry as representing good poetry, in my verse-translation I have basically rewritten this stanza, particularly the final line where I mention the burning of babies. If called to justify it, I can only say that it worked in my head. It also happens to be historically accurate. Most of the bodies were incinerated, and many babies were actually burned alive. The victims were buried under a layer of earth after being machine-gunned. But witnesses report that the earth was still moving because so many people who were merely wounded were shifting about underneath. Babies were simply tossed into the cadaver-heap without being shot. Two days later, the earth-layer was removed and the bodies, living and dead, were all covered with a flame-accelerant and burned.

Nichtó vo mne pro éto ne zabúdet!
"Internatsionál" pust' pogremít,
kogdá navéki pokhorónen búdet
poslédniy na zemlé antisemít.
Nothing in me will forget about this. Let the "Internationale" thunder up when the final antisemite on this earth has been interred for all of time.
The Internationale is a socialist anthem, of which a Russian translation was the Soviet anthem until 1944.

Yevréyskoy króvi net v kroví moyéy.
No nénavisten zlóboy zaskorúzloy
ya vsem antisemítam, kak yevréy.
I potomú — ya nastoyáshchiy rússkiy.
There is no Jewish blood in my blood. But hated with inveterate malice by all antisemites I am like a Jew. And that is why I am a real Russian.
These four lines are the most powerful in the poem, and I think I want them inscribed on my grave when I am dead.

The two middle lines of this stanza derive much of their effect from the word order. Line three if taken on its own could be paraphrased as meaning "I am like a Jew to all antisemites."

Zaskoruzlyi (here translated as "inveterate") has a semantic range that runs from "calloused, hardened" to "unfeeling" as well as "backward, retrograde." It is mightily rhymed with russkiy "Russian" which, particularly in this context, should be taken to mean "ethnic Russian."

It is worth quoting Telesin's Yiddish translation of these lines:

Loyt mayne blutn bin ikh nit keyn Yid.
Nor ongefilt mit sine mit gerekhter
Bin ikh a Yid far dem Antisemit.
Un ot derfar bin ikh a Rus an ekhter.

On The Poem:

The story of the poem begins with Anatoly Kuznetsov, author of Babi Yar: A Document Novel about the Babi Yar massacre. Kuznetsov wrote in a letter to his Israeli translator Shlomo Even-Shoshan:
Вы не слышали о стихотворении Евтушенко «Бабий Яр»? Мы с ним вместе учились, и однажды, будучи в Киеве, я повёл его в этот жуткий овраг. Там не осталось ничего, кроме золы, которая выглядывает из-под песка чёрными жирными пластами – немцы сожгли трупы в печах, сложенных из памятников разрушенного ими очень красивого еврейского кладбища на Лукьяновке. Тогда Евтушенко и написал своё стихотворение. 
You've heard about Yevtushenko's poem "Babi Yar"? We studied together, he and I, and one day when we were in Kiev, I took him to that beastly ravine. There wasn't anything left, apart from the ash which was still visible in unctuous layers from under the sand. The Germans had incinerated the corpses in furnaces made out of the tombstones from a beautiful Jewish cemetery in Lukyanovka which they destroyed. That's when Yevtushenko wrote his poem.  
In another letter, Kuznetsov wrote
"Before Sept. 29, 1941, Jews were still slowly being killed in camps behind a façade of legitimacy. Treblinka, Auschwitz etc. were later. From Babi Yar onward they they became the fashion. You know how they did this, right? They put out an order to all Jews in the city to appear in the vicinity of the freight yard with all their belongings and valuables. Then they cordoned them off and started machine-gunning them. In that swarm, a great many Russians, Ukrainians etc.  died, as did those who had come to see their friends and loved ones "off to the train." They didn't kill the children. They buried them alive, and didn't finish off the wounded. The fresh earth was still moving over the grave-ditches. In the ensuing two years, Russians, Ukrainians, Gypsies and people of all nationalities were executed in Babi Yar. The belief that Babi Yar is an exclusively Jewish grave is incorrect, and Yevtushenko gave only one aspect of Babi Yar in his poem. It is an international grave."  
До 29 сентября 1941 года евреев медленно убивали в лагерях, соблюдая видимость законности. Треблинка, Освенцим и т.д. были после. С Бабьего Яра они вошли во вкус. Надеюсь, Вы знаете, как это было? Они вывесили приказ всем евреям города явиться с вещами, ценностями в район товарной станции, затем оцепили и начали расстреливать. В этом "потоке" погибло масса русских, украинцев и др. – провожавших близких и друзей "на вокзал", детей не убивали, а закапывали живыми, раненых не добивали. Земля над рвами шевелилась. Затем два года в Бабьем Яре расстреливали русских, украинцев, цыган, в общем, людей всех национальностей. Мнение, что Бабий Яр – это могила только людей еврейской национальности, – неверно, и Евтушенко в своем стихотворении отразил лишь один аспект Бабьего Яра. Это – могила интернациональная.
Kuznetsov's writings have often been seized on — including by the Soviet government — as an indictment of Yevtushenko's poem, a fact which mortified and disgusted him. As Viktor Nekrasov pointed out: "No, Jews weren't the only ones executed at Babi Yar. But it was only Jews who were executed just for being Jews." (Да, в Бабьем Яру были расстреляны не только евреи, но только евреи были расстреляны здесь лишь за то, что они были евреями.)

Yevtushenko focused on the Jewish aspect of the massacre, and this was provocative precisely because discussion of it was so suppressed in the Soviet Union. It was part of a larger international tragedy to be sure, just as it was part of a larger Jewish tragedy which was in turn international. Nothing about this is unique, and that is precisely the point.

On the centennial of the massacre Yevtushenko said the following an interview:
....you know, at Zima Station where I was born in Siberia, there were Jewish, Muslim and Orthodox Christian cemeteries side by side. I never heard the word "Zhid." I heard it for the first time in Moscow. People asked me "how can you be friends with that little Zhid sitting one desk behind you?" I asked "who're you talking about." Nobody believed me. This was not a political poem on my part. My upbringing laid the groundwork for it. Insulting other nations in my family just wasn't done. I think that the fact that we are marking the anniversary [of it] on such a high level ought to be a great moral reproach to everyone.Right now there are so many instances of xenophobia, aggressive anti-internationalism, all over the planet, including, unfortunately, my native country which I so love and to which I dedicated so many poems. When I wrote "Babi Yar" they started attacking me for supposed anti-patriotism, saying that I didn't love the Russian people and concentrated on people of Jewish nationality. You know that apart from the different nationalities which divide us, we are all ultimately earthlings! All religions are based on human brotherhood. I would have this terrible anniversary remind us of that.       
....у нас в семье, в Сибири, на станции Зима, где я родился, были рядом и еврейское кладбище, и мусульманское, и православное.Я никогда не слышал слово "жид", услышал его впервые в Москве, меня спросили, как ты можешь дружить с этим жиденком, который сидит с тобой за одной партой. Я даже спросил, кто это такой. Мне не поверил никто.Это не было политическое стихотворение с моей стороны, оно было подготовлено моим семейным воспитанием, в семье у меня просто не водилось оскорбления других наций.Я думаю, что то, что сейчас мы отмечаем годовщину на таком высоком уровне, должно быть нам всем большим нравственным укором.Сейчас столько случаев ксенофобии, агрессивного антиинтернационализма, везде на планете вообще, и, к сожалению, на моей родине, которую я так люблю и которой посвятил так много стихов.Когда я написал "Бабий Яр", меня стали атаковать за якобы антипатриотизм, что я не люблю русский народ и сконцентрировался на людях еврейской национальности. Вы знаете, помимо разделяющих нас национальностей, мы все, в конце концов, земляне! Все религии основаны на человеческом братстве. Я хотел бы, чтобы об этом нам напомнила эта страшная годовщина.
It is worth noting that the way Yevtushenko writes about Jewish suffering here can readily be matched by the way Yiddish and Hebrew poets in the US wrote about the suffering of Blacks and American Indians. As the poem's preoccupied memory unwinds history like a long scroll in the brain, the parallel is uncanny.


Poetic Form

The original poem is written in rhymed stanzas of iambic pentameter, but you wouldn't know it from most of the translations in English. Most of the translators of the poem into Yiddish,  Hebrew, and German, have seen fit to reproduce something of its formal properties. Even Balbin's Esperanto version is compelled to pay some mind to form. But all but one of the English versions I have seen illustrate one of the most irritating flaws of 20th century English-speaking literary elites, and that is the tendency to treat rhyme much like TV-viewers treat commercial breaks: if they're there, tune them out; if not, it's one less distraction. What makes this flaw so damaging is that so many critics have mistaken it for a  point of pride. Because the way this poem is formatted in printed editions obscures the formal features in favor of semantic pacing, I have given it it linearly stanza-by-stanza in my transcription.

It is often said that it is easier to rhyme in Russian than English. This is true. What is less often noted is that what counts as a rhyme is rather different in the two languages. The minimal requirement of modern Russian rhyme is identity between a stressed vowel and adjacent consonant. Any further similarity is appreciated (and very often present) but not strictly necessary for rhyme-license.  Thus e.g. démon rhymes with akadémik.

This poem itself has rhymes like nébo/nézhno and naródu/nadgrób'e. It also has some ingenious over-complete rhymes such as po polám "across the floors" with po-polám "at halves." This latter is a bit like rhyming herder with heard her or killer with kill her. 

In translating Russian poetry that uses this kind of minimal rhyming, as a good deal of it does after the 19th century, I think the English translator is neither obligated to stick to the full or near-full rhymes of English, nor fully licensed in abandoning rhyme altogether. If one followed the same rule for English, then pairs like orange/forage, demon/redeemer, blood/love, deathwish/breathmint, delay/lame, raygun/raider, Canada/canister would be admissible rhymes. And, well, why not? Why not go a bit further and say that assonance is all that is strictly necessary? There are some hiccups, of course. English doesn't have nearly the kind of vowel-reduction in unstressed syllables that Russian has (well, standard Russian anyway.) Unstressed syllables tend to sound more like each other in any case in Russian, much more so than in English. But Modern Polish verse, which has less vowel-reduction than English, also uses such rhyming practice. With some latitude, and if one isn't too much of a moron in their technique, this seems doable to me. Particularly when mixed in with such rhymes as people/scruple when necessary. 

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