Bobeobi by Khlebnikov, Part One

Marina Warner’s blog post inspired my notes on Nikolai Gumilev’s play Gondla and its early performances by the Rostov troupe, Theatrical Workshop. But that’s not enough. The first thing I wanted to write about after reading Warner’s dispatch from Moscow was the poem by Khlebnikov she cited – probably his only work that is somewhat familiar to the public unfamiliar with the Russian language. Unfortunately, the translation used most commonly seems plainly wrong to me, which I tried to explain in a comment to Warner’s post.

The poem, Bobeobi for brevity, is an early one, written in 1908-9: Khlebnikov was gearing up for his later masterpieces. He still had over a decade remaining of his relatively short life: he would die at thirty-six in 1922. This poem is very simple at first glance. My attempt at a literal translation follows.

In each of the first five lines, the passive voice can, and perhaps should, be replaced with the literal translation, “sang themselves/itself” – as in “revealed itself,” “created itself,” or “painted itself.” The vowels in bobeobi, veeomi, etc., are to be read as follows:

  • e: close to the French è as in mère; halfway between the vowel in red and the first one in radical;
  • i: closer to the vowel in reed than in rid; the preceding consonant gets palatalized in Russian;
  • o: close enough to the o in pot or rod in British English; depending on the accent, the vowel in Maud or bawd might do as well.

Each vowel is independent of its neighbors: e.g., pieeo should be read as pi-e-e-o. The stress is on the third syllable, or vowel, in each of the five artificial words. The first five lines of the Russian poem (as Korney Chukovsky noted) are in the trochaic tetrameter of Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha and of its Russian version by Ivan Bunin.

Bobeobi, the lips were sung;
Veeomi, the gazes were sung;
Pieeo, the eyebrows were sung;
Lieey – the visage was sung;
Gzi-gzi-gzeo, the chain was sung.
Thus on a canvas of certain correspondences
Beyond continuity lived a Face.

As I’ve said, it’s generally a bad idea to ignore the reflexive ending -ся as if it weren’t there, yet it’s exactly what happens almost every time someone quotes Bobeobi in English, as well as in German if my googling is to be trusted, and oftentimes in French.

“Bobebobi sang the lips” is both wrong and needlessly childish, as if taken from a dialogue at a preschool for creatively gifted children:

“And how did the lips sing, sweetie?”
“That’s right, my dear. Now for something more difficult: how did the chain sing?”
“Jarring! It must have been a rusty chain?”

That’s not what Khlebnikov meant at all, as I hope I’ll be able to show in the next post on this poem.

It’s only in Italian that the two translations I’ve been able to find are both grammatically correct – by Angelo Maria Ripellino (here) and by Paolo Nori (here). Both begin:

Bobeobi si cantavano le labbra…

Ripellino and Nori chose different terms for протяжение in the last line: dimensione vs. continuità. The Russian word can indicate extent, expanse, continuity or even dimension and can be applied both to space and time. Using “duration” in English excludes the spatial connotation without good reason. Adding the definite article (in English, not Italian or French) is also problematic.

I should add that, although scholarly writers on Khlebnikov tend to literally mistranslate Bobeobi (disappointingly, e. g., Raymond Cooke), I am only aware of one systematic attempt at translating Khlebnikov’s works into English, by Paul Schmidt. It resulted in a magisterial three-volume collection and a condensed version, The King of Time. Schmidt’s translations are not literal, word-by-word exercises and should be examined at a different angle. More in the next Khlebnikov post.

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