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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FACES & VOICES: Poetry Prizes Are Lesson in Human Riches




It takes a poet to translate poetry. Which is why the annual poetry translation competition at School No.2 in the town of Fryazino northeast of Moscow is not only unusual but ambitious. Teenagers try their hand at a task that would daunt professional writers three times their age.


On Boxing Day - potentially a difficult day after the overindulgence of Christmas - I had the honor to be invited to hand out the prizes in Fryazino.


The town itself is worth a visit. Until recently, like the rest of the Moscow region, it was closed to foreigners because of the defense industries around it. Thus, I may have been one of the first outsiders to see it since German prisoners built its solid apartment houses after the war. Like Akademgorodok in Siberia, it has a special atmosphere, as many of its inhabitants are scientists or other intellectuals.


The prizes are given for the best translations of English poetry into Russian. The competition is organized by English teacher Zoya Arnoldovna Martinova, who said she was carrying on the tradition of her own teacher. When I arrived, Zoya Arnoldovna was dressing in a gold-spangled gown while the kids were running in the corridors, eagerly awaiting an event that was clearly a highlight of their year.


A dozen teenagers from the school - not a special language school, just an ordinary one - had tackled the translations as well as four interested adults from the town. A panel of local literary figures had judged their efforts. Zoya Arnoldovna came on stage to read out excerpts and announce the winners.


What the judges had been looking for were translations that were both accurate and lyrical. That would be quite a feat. But when I looked at the tricky set texts, I was even more awe-inspired. They included Shakespeare's Sonnet 130, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," in which he satirizes the Elizabethan habit of putting women up on pedestals.


One girl had taken "mistress" to mean khozyaika (owner, landlady or hostess) instead of "lover" and produced a literal translation: "My landlady's eyes are not like the sun." Another entrant had gone to the other extreme and written a wonderful poem of her own that had very little do with Shakespeare's original.


Myself a linguist, I could have sat all night, contemplating the niceties of words. But not all teenagers are so obsessed. Some lads in the back row were growing restive, displaying in stage whispers a fine knowledge of vernacular English.


Zoya Arnoldovna moved quickly to announce the winners. They were Lyubov Galkina, Leonid Arapov and Mikhail Kozinets. An extra prize for the poet who attracted most audience sympathy went to Misha, who admitted with a grin that he had packed the hall with his friends.


To add to the official prizes, I brought little British flag badges and a giant silk Union Jack for the school. This was a risk as the head might have been a Russian nationalist. However, it went down well and Zoya Arnoldovna used it as a tablecloth.


The real prize, of course, should have gone to her. I learned afterward that she worked with computers at an institute as well as teaching. Neither of her employers had paid her for months. Yet, she had bought the prizes with her own money. "I am a rich woman," she joked, jingling the little gold discs on her evening gown.