Menard’s Khlebnikov

Editor’s Foreword

As noted in the previously released Pierre Menard versions of the Alexander Blok lyric “A Girl Sang in a Church Choir,” the famous Quixote translator, having relocated to Bexley, in Greater London–the date of this move is unclear, though it was certainly after the summer of 1913, which he spent in Nimes–returned to the study of Russian, a lifelong pursuit, and, not unsurprisingly, turned his attention to the translation of some of the remarkable poetry then being published in Russia and, subsequently, the incipient USSR.

Here below, several more examples of his manner of work, characteristically–for those familiar with his previous output–a progression of sorts, only in this case with particular attention to sound.* It should be noted that Menard’s use of what would come to be called a homophonic method here predates Louis Zukovsky’s brilliant versions of Catullus by some sixty years. These Menard translations, if they can in fact be called that without too offensively stretching the term’s historical usage, have as their source, the well-known first poem of the Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922), “Ptichka v kletke” (“Little Bird in a Cage”). Khlebnikov’s intense interest in sound play, neologism, and the potentially transcendent aspects of language suggest a special subtlety in Menard’s translational strategy.

As noted previously, that Menard translated into English with some dexterity should not be surprising, given his background on his mother’s side and the fact of his relocation to England. Of particular note is the palimpsest quality of the final version, which contains hints and scratches of Khlebnikov’s original, though with the subtle alterations familiar from his life-long, if largely hidden, work on the Quixote. This is the second of what I hope will be a series of Menard translations–the material is rich, the poetry historically significant, and Menard’s method, surprisingly productive. I hope in the coming months to bring to light Menard’s versions of poems by Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova, Sergei Esenin, and others.

— Russell Scott Valentino

*In the margin of his Khlebnikov notebook, which I was able to consult on a recent research trip to the Fondation Clêves in Nîmes, in Menard’s hand, the words le son, le son (repeated) appear underlined.

Menard’s Khlebnikov: 1

Little Caged Bird

What are you singing, little caged bird?
Of how you fell into the net?
How you used to weave your nest?
How the cage took you from your wee friend?
Or of your happiness
In your quiet little nook?
Or how you used to catch flies
And carry them to your tiny ones?
Or your freedom, the woods,
Or the hills so high,
Or the meadows so green,
Or the fields so wide?
You’re bored, poor thing, sitting on your perch,
Staring out the window at the sun.
In sun-shiny days you take a little bath,
Drenching yourself in wondrous song.
You recall the past,
Forget your sorrows.
You peck the seedlets,
Greedily drink the water.

Menard’s Khlebnikov: 2

Petit touch o’ kitch kit

A Joan-pie oats the petit touch o’ kitch kit.
Atone, Lee Koch, pop all ‘is sect coo,
cockin’ ‘is disco TV, lah!
Cocked tibia’s but Russkie, kitch kit as Lucia,
Eel-y us Shakti it of ya’ home.
Meal ‘em, gun’s dish kiss if ya’ roam.
Eel-y Koch moo-sheik tea love Illy,
Ee, jeez’ debt come ‘n us silly.
Us verboten, Lee, of a sock?
Are we sodden, Lee, ol’ mock?
A look out, Lee’s alonesies?
Apple ops, Lee, brat score ‘n ease.
Scoots ‘n a bed notch kit ‘n Oz yer Dutch kitchy dates.
(It is a con, sir, ‘n Oz owns it. Glad Yeats.)
So niche knee’d knitty coo pie, yes suh,
piss-knee’d, chewed ‘n eyes alive, yes suh.
Star o’ ya’s pomme in eye, yes.
Fly, yo! Go! Riz’ up! Live, ah-yes!
Same itch-key clue-y notes.
Schad’nfreude ditch key: pee oats.

Menard’s Khlebnikov: 3

Ptichka Kitch Kit

About what do you sing, ptichka kitch kit?
About how you landed in the sit-coo?
How you wove your little villa?
How the kitch kit took you from your little Sheila?
Or of the happy life you led
In your me-lay little bed?
Or how you caught flies for la villa
And brought them to the lil’uns
Of freedom, or the woods,
Of the high-high hills,
Of the pasture lands leafy,
Of the meadowlands airy?
It’s lonely poor thing just to sit on a pole
And look at the sun from the room’s window hole.
You bathe in the sun-filled days,
Drench yourself in wondrous lays,
Remember yourself the old way,
Forget past sorrows and regrêts.
You peck at the seedlings,
Drink the water greedily.

Menard’s Khlebnikov: 4

Птичка kitch kit

Of what ty poyósh’, птичка kitch kit?
Of how you popálas’ in the sit-coo?
How your gnézdyshko you víla?
How the kitch kit took you from your little Sheila?
Ili of your happiness
In your gnézdyshko blest?
Or how you múshek lovíla
And íkh to your kids nosíla
Of liberty, of lesákh,
Of the high-high li kholmákh,
Of the pastures zelyónykh,
Of the meadows prostórnykh?
It’s skúchno poor thing na zherdóchke sidét’,
From the small window na sunlight glyadét’.
V the sun-washed days you kupáesh’sia,
In wondrous lays zaliváesh’sia,
Remember yourself the old way,
Forget past sorrows and regrêts.
Seedlings o’ nibbling,
Greedily the water o’ dribbling.

Menard’s Khlebnikov: 5

Птичка в клетке

О чем поешь ты, птичка в клетке?
О том ли, как попалась в сетку?
Как гнездышко ты вила?
Как тебя с подружкой клетка разлучила?
Или о счастии твоем
В милом гнездышке своем?
Или как мушек ты ловила
И их деткам носила?
О свободе ли, лесах,
О высоких ли холмах,
О лугах ли зеленых,
О полях ли просторных?
Скучно бедняжке на жердочке сидеть
И из оконца на солце глядеть.
В солнечные дни ты купаешься,
Песней чудной заливаешься,
Старое вспоминаешь,
Свое горе забываешь,
Семечки клюешь,
Жадно водичку пьешь.

(translated by Pierre Menard)


Velimir Khlebnikov

Known for his extensive experimentation and sound play with the Russian language, Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922) was one of the leaders of the "Gileia" branch of the Russian Futurist movement. He is the namesake for the minor planet "3112 Velimir."

Pierre Menard

Not to be confused with the first lieutenant governor of Illinois (who lived 1766-1844), the translator-author Pierre Menard is a figure first brought to light by Jorge Luis Borges in his "Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote," first published in May 1939.


Russell Scott Valentino (Editor)

Russell Scott Valentino is Professor and Chair of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Indiana University, Bloomington, as well as the editor of Autumn Hill Books. His translations include Fulvio Tomizza's Materada, Predrag Matvejević's The Other Venice: Secrets of the City, and Carlo Michelstaedter's Persuasion and Rhetoric. He is also the author of two scholarly monographs, numerous essays and articles, and various short fiction, nonfiction, and poetry translations from Italian, Croatian, and Russian.

Copyright (c) Russell Scott Valentino, 2013.