The Black Cat

Bulat Okudzhava: Little song about the Black Cat

Со двора – подъезд известный
под названьем “черный ход”.
В том подъезде, как в поместье,
проживает Черный Кот.

Он в усы усмешку прячет,
темнота ему – как щит.
Все коты поют и плачут –
этот Черный Кот молчит.

Он давно мышей не ловит,
усмехается в усы,
ловит нас на честном слове,
на кусочке колбасы.

Он не требует, не просит,
желтый глаз его горит.
Каждый сам ему выносит
и “спасибо” говорит.

Он и звука не проронит -
только ест и только пьет.
Грязный пол когтями тронет
как по горлу поскребет.

Оттого-то, знать, невесел,
дом, в котором мы живем.
Надо б лампочку повесить…
Денег всё не соберем.
We’ve a doorway with a staircase,
Also known as a “black door”.
In that place as in a palace
A black cat has set up store.

There’s a smirk beneath his whiskers,
Darkness fits him like a glove.
Other cats are coy or frisky,
This black cat won’t make a move.

As his leer gets only bolder,
He does not catch mice or steal.
Somehow we are all beholden,
Running briskly with his meals.

As the yellow cat eyes glower,
He does not demand or cadge.
Every one of us forks over,
Grateful for the privilege.

This cat doesn’t issue orders,
He just sits and drinks and eats.
When he claws the dirty floor it’s
Like he’s clawing at our throats.

Must be that’s why we’re in chaos,
And the scowling never ends.
One small lightbulb might have saved us…
But we just can’t raise the funds.

Jerzy Głuszek: Czarny kot

10 comentarios:

MOCKBA dijo...

This poem, in English, has been one of the first verses I saw translated, contemplating how hard it may be to convey the subtext in the foreign language. The "tamizdat" paperback of Russian "Bard lyrics" had the closing lines of Okudzhava's song as ...

"But the light bulb is too expensive"

Yeah, right!

You have done a much better job, but it is still a challenge, to convey the feeling of disunity, isolation, and mutual suspicion between neighbors. Just a couple words spell out this atmosphere where nobody is willing to spend a few kopecks for the common good.

Studiolum dijo...

But… Do I not understand well that the subtext is something different: namely, that some people from the house insist to have the bulb in the “black door”, but as this would chase away the black cat for whom “darkness is a shield”, therefore the rest of the tenants “just can’t raise the funds”?

languagehat dijo...

MOCKBA's interpretation seems more plausible to me, but then I have never lived under these circumstances.

Studiolum dijo...

I accept it, and I also think that that atmosphere is included in the image, indeed. But in my opinion the most probable logical connection between those few verses describing this situation and the previous long poem dedicated exclusively to a cat is that this time the reason of the failed fundraising is mainly the reluctance of a part of the tenants (including the author) to chase away the beloved cat with the light of the bulb.

MOCKBA dijo...

Ah, true art is always multidimensional, and your superb translation still gives room for both interpretation :)

I noticed that the youtube clips also uses the imagery of feline affection rather than dirt and desperation of the slum cats. In my small unscientific survey, Russians thought that there was nothing warm or affectionate about Okudzhava's Black Cat. It definitely feeds into the larger narrative of black-cat superstitions, of bad omens. But I wouldn't be surprised if others feel that this cat is cute and nice and desirable after all. Who knows, maybe there are two sides in the this facet of the story.

There could be no disagreement about the connotations of "collecting money for residential improvements" in the minds of the Russians of my generation. Everyone breaks into the same understanding smile, like, yes, this is sooo familiar.

We used to live in a 1904-vintage kommunalka with a formerly regal staircase from the street-side entrance, and a dingy and dark service entrance in the rear, from the yard. "Black entrance" as opposed to "parade entrance" in a literal translation, yes ... another little stumbling block for translations, isn't it?

Studiolum dijo...

I believe you if you say that Russians find nothing affectionate about Okudzhava’s black cat; even if my – obviously even less scientific and representative – experience shows that a great number of Russians are indeed affectionate to slum cats, too (but then perhaps this is a secret and unconscious bond causing me to be friends with them instead of other Russians). The makers of the video and of the drawings in it also definitely belong to this latter group. And I just think that Okudzhava himself must also belong to them once he fed the black cat; therefore he must have also belonged to those who were not happy by the idea of the bulb to chase him away. But I accept that if we deny his affection to the cat, then the other interpretation is also acceptable, and then he is in fact sorry for the impotence of the house to collect the many for the bulb.

Our historic downtown houses also have always two entrances, a parade entrance and a back door. I thought to play a bit with this latter by transforming “back door” into “black door”, which also rhymes well with the black cat, just like in Russian.

languagehat dijo...

In my small unscientific survey, Russians thought that there was nothing warm or affectionate about Okudzhava's Black Cat.

I agree with them, and I have a black cat (named Pushkin) whom I dearly love, despite his greed and occasional bullying of our other cat. It's hard to see how "как по горлу поскребет" could be read affectionately.

Studiolum dijo...

Yes, I also thought about this verse, the only one which is definitely not affectionate.

MOCKBA dijo...

Not the only one IMVHO. There are a number of others where the choice of synonyms provides for an ominous feeling, although perhaps more subtly.
поместье - evokes a landlord
усмехается - connotes insincerity or evil; it isn't a generic smile
и звука не проронит - also speaks of arrogance and defiance of this kind of silence
глаз его горит is quite devilish, "glowing with fire" as opposed to more usual synonyms such as блестит "glistens", светится "is alight"

Effe dijo...

Well, a cat is a cat is a cat.
Is that cat an actual cat?
Probably my consideration sounds obvious to you. I’m not fluent in russian, and don’t know who Okudzhava is or was.
Reading the rhythmical english translation, I consider the black cat as something without which we all could maybe live better, but without which we can’t, or don’t know how to, really live (and that “something” may have many names).
So, I gather that the author doesn’t love the black cat: he can’t help but to be devoted to him.