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After Semyon Izrailevich Lipkin was named Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation (Winter 2011)
Semyon Izrailevich Lipkin (1911-2003) is now recognised as a leading literary figure in Russia, though he is still relatively unknown in the west. In his own country, he was for many years known primarily as a translator, with only close friends able to read his poems. These friends included the great poet Anna Akhmatova, who acknowledged and supported his genius. It was not until the collapse of the Soviet Union that the general reading public was allowed to become fully aware of the scope and depth of Semyon Lipkin’s own poetry.
His work is concerned with history and philosophical exploration, but above all shows a keen sense of people’s diverse destinies. His poems are rich with references to his Jewish heritage and to the Bible, and they draw on a first-hand awareness of the tragedies of World War II.
Yvonne Green has worked for eight years, making and working from literal translations to create ‘versions’ – poems ‘after Lipkin’ that bring to English some of this fascinating writer’s most characteristic verse.
PBS Translation Choice judgement:
Though not well known in the West, Lipkin’s poetry is valued highly in Russia. He is a poet of lucid intelligence with a formal strength which is difficult to bring across into English. Luckily, Yvonne Green is a fine poet herself, and is fortunate to know the poet’s widow, Inna Lisnianskaya, herself a distiguished poet, and also his daughter and son-in-law who have helped her.
Green describes her method of working in the introduction — her versions are vivid English poems with an unusual lyric intensity.
When Mercedes Benz and Volkswagen
course silently though evening autobahns
I ask how do I find my way to Odessa?
Born burnt I can’t yet mourn
what it means to be alive or dead.
My cold embers won’t light a flame.
Lipkin was a man of great courage, who played a part in preserving Vasily Grossman’s epic novel Life and Fate. Grossman gave him the manuscript for his comments, when still hopeful the book might be published. When permission was refused, and Grossman’s flat trashed, Lipkin’s copy was kept on a coat hook in his hall, until it could be microfilmed and taken to the West. It was not his only brave act. When Marina Tsvetaeva returned to Moscow, her husband and her daughter were imprisoned as traitors and many friends were reluctant to meet her. Lipkin went out of his way to do so, and there is a lovely poem for her in this collection.
Lipkin worked, as so many poets did under Stalin, on translations of poets writing in the non-Russian languages of the Soviet Union, such as Moldavian, and several poems lament the likely fate of those cultures. He was also a superb memoirist, and this book includes a translation by Robert Chandler of a short section from Lipkin’s memories of Vasily Grossman and Andrei Platonov.
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