Let me tell you something about children’s poetry: people tend to create it for the right reasons. I was taught this concept in connection to medieval lyric poetry. My teacher’s point was that art made in the modern world is under scarcely any obligation to be good. It can be interesting instead, or new. Or it can “bear witness.” Being good—actually good—is even considered a little passé.
The minute you bring a six-year-old into the picture, though, everything changes. She doesn’t care whether what you’re doing “serves as a useful critique.” She wants it to be good. Consequently, if I’m in a used bookstore and I see a book called Thai Children’s Poetry or Setswana Children’s Poetry or Inuit Children’s Poetry, I pretty much buy it on contact. One wants to know: Does Botswana have a Dr. Seuss? Does Thailand? ’Cuz if they do, I need to know about it.
Russia had a Dr. Seuss. Same deal as ours, except his hot decade wasn’t the fifties; it was the twenties. There’s a lot to be said here.
Name: Kornei Chukovsky. Dates: 1882 to 1969. Number of supremo-supremo classic children’s books to his credit: ten or twelve. His stuff is a lot like Green Eggs and Ham: about that long; rhymes bouncing around like popcorn; no real point in sight. (Of course, like with everything else, you can carry whatever point you like into his books and then pretend you found it there. It’s like cops planting weed in people’s cars.)
Chukovsky’s backstory is pleasant. He was a young father; his son was sick. I think he had dysentery, I’m not sure. Somehow, everyone thought the family doctor was the only one would could be consulted, so Chukovsky wound up on a train in the middle of the night with that poor kid, age like four or something, sick and moaning. To take the kid’s mind off the horribleness, Chukovsky got him engrossed in some kind of collaborative improvisation game, rhyming like crazy around a story of a crocodile who comes to Saint Petersburg and eats a dog and then a cop or something… there’s a war … the crocodile runs around … Chukovsky’s kid was just a teeny thing, but he knew inspiration when he saw it. He forgot all about his guts and helped Mozart compose his first symphony.
Next day, the two of ’em knew that what they’d made was too good to let go off, so they sat at a table and reconstructed what they could. Chukovsky took that reconstruction, fixed it up, made it make sense, and voilà: ready for the printer. I’m doing all this from memory.
Here is a more-or-less contemporary photograph, taken by a poet you’ve all read, Vladimir Mayakovsky:
But you see where this is going. The book took off, zillions of little Russian torturers memorized the whole thing—I think it’s like three hundred lines—and Chukovsky started to get fan mail, and the publishers were instantly up his ass for more, more, more. Just like with Dr. Seuss, though, Chukovsky didn’t really have it “on tap.” He always said: When the internal weather was good, he could write a classic in one shot, and then another, the next day. But if he was not “in the vein,” he could squeeze ’til he turned orange but nothing usable would come of it.
Now, one used to be able to say confidently that Chukovsky’s reputation rested on those ten or twelve Russian Green Eggs, but twenty or thirty years ago his diary—which covers like seventy years—was made public, and people started seeing the man in a new light. Personally, I was shocked. I had assumed he was an infantile, mercenary little shit like most poets, but no. That man was beautiful. I kept thinking, while I was going through that diary: “I should be more like this.”
Basically, he’s one of these rare ones who is capable of looking steadily at himself without attachment. He has the usual complement of human vices, but he does not succumb to them easily. When he does, he gives an honest and intelligent account. (Most people who are held up as moral exemplars are quite useless, precisely because they lack vices, and so of course they proceed merrily and elegantly through life. Whereas, what we wanna know is: How shall we live, given that we have these vices? But enough about this.)
To return to meaningless children’s poetry. I want you to think about Chukovsky’s immortal classic “Telephone” (1926).
I’ll summarize it. A grumpy Russian guy—clearly Chukovsky—is sitting next to a phone. It rings. “Who’s speaking?” “Elephant.” “What do you want?” “Chocolate.” “For whom?” “For my son.” “Well how much should I send?” “Oh, no more than five or six tons. He can’t eat more than that. He’s still little.”
Then: the crocodile calls (the one from that other poem). He wants galoshes. Then the monkeys; they want books. Then the rabbits. Then something else, and something else. Herons, pigs—they all want stupid things that pigs and herons don’t really want. The speaker has been exasperated from the beginning; you sense his escalating tension.
The phone’s ringing off the hook. Ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling! (except in Russian it’s din’-di-len’, din’-di-len’, din’-di-len’!).
The gazelles are curious about the carousels … Chukovsky’s tired. Days of this. He’s ready to explode. Somebody else calls: they want help getting a hippo out of a bog. “The hippo out of a bog?” “Yes!” “I don’t want to!” “You must!” And then the last couplet:
Ach! it’s a terrible, horrible job
hauling a hippo out of a bog.
End of summary. Now, listen to me. Your life ain’t worth living, ’til you go to YouTube and listen to the tape of Chukovsky reading the poem aloud. The part with the gazelles is worth the price of admission by itself. Here, let me make it easy for you.
Now, my big question, these past three or four years, has been, How am I gonna translate this thing?
Translation’s a gas, let me tell you. In a sense, there’s no way to do it right, and there’s no way to do it wrong.
What do I mean “there’s no way to do it wrong”? Well, take the first stanza of another untranslatable Chukovsky classic, “Putanitsa” (“The Muddle”). In this piece, all the animals decide they’re sick of making the sounds they’re known for, and would rather adopt … new sounds. First off, the kittens decide they’d like to oink instead of meow. Watch what Google translate does with it:
“Nadoyelo nam myaukat’!
My khotim, kak porosyata,
English:The kittens were crocked:
“I’m tired of meowing!
We want, like a pig,
The above proves that any procedure will work. The line “We want, like a pig, grunt!”—especially if performed with a strong Russian accent—has great charm and authority, and has indeed acquired, in my household, the status of a classic line, like something out of Virgil. The original is not better.
But, of course, apropos of “Telephone,” I see my task as something, well, higher. I must devise a version that rhymes and—even more important than that—I need my English to have the spontaneity, limpidity, and freshness of Chukovsky’s original. And here’s where I find it’s impossible.
Lemme show you exactly what I mean. Here’s the beginning of “Telephone”:
У меня зазвонил телефон.
—Что вам надо?
—Для сына моего.
—А много ли прислать?
—Да пудов этак пять.
Больше ему не съесть,
Он у меня ещё маленький!
Here’s exactly what it says:
My phone rang.
—From the camel’s place.
—What do you need?
—For my son.
—And how much [shall I] send?
—Oh, about five poods. [I don’t know what a pood is. But it’s a lot.]
He can not eat more,
He’s still small!
Now, if you need to, listen to the tape again, so you can experience the rhymes as rhymes. Now look at how that beginning has been translated by various wretches over the last fifty years.
Here’s Dorian Rottenberg (I’m not making these names up):
My telephone rang.
Where do you happen to be?”
“Jungle-town, Camel-Street, 3.”
“What do you want?”
“Some chocolate, sweet,
To give my sonnie a bit of a treat.”
“A pound or two?”
“Oh, a ton will do.
He just wants a little bite,
He’s a wee little mite.”
Here’s Marguerita Rudolph:
There goes my telephone!
—From the Bear.
—What do you want, Mister?
—Chocolates for sister.
—How many tons?
—Send six. Or five, maybe—
She’s little, she’s only a baby.
William Jay Smith:
The telephone rang.
“Hello, who’s there?”
“The Polar Bear.”
“What do you want?”
“I’m calling for the Elephant.”
“What does he want?”
“He wants a little
“Peanut brittle!…And for whom?”
“It’s for his little
“How much does he want?”
“Oh, five or six tons.
Right now that’s all
That they can manage—they’re quite small.”
began to ring.
Elephant was on the line,
calling from Chez Porcupine.
“What do you want?”
I asked him up front.
“If I had my druthers,”
he said in a mutter,
“I’d order some more of your peanut butter.”
who’s it for,
and what’s the location?”
“Just a ton
for my son,
care of Pachyderm Station.”
Look, I’m not one of these ones who gets all het up about exactitude. When it comes to children’s poetry, my philosophy is: Entertain the little morons at all costs. If you have to change things (camel into bear, son into sons, son into sister), go right ahead. But it’s gotta have that rhythm. It’s gotta pop.
Some of those lines above? I curdle. “Wee little mite”? “Elephone”? It’s probably enough to say Chukovsky would not have preserved the poem if it were awkward like that.
Sigh. I’m going to close with my own attempt at the first three lines—an attempt that, for all its faults, has at least this authority: it was created on horseback, as it were. I just mean it was created without recourse to writing implements. I had been trying to solve the problem of those opening lines for years; I wanted the first line to be an anapestic trimeter, like it is in Russian. Suddenly the following bit came to me, alone in the Mazda on the way to Austin, Northbound 183, November 2019:
If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the phone.
That thing will not leave me alone.
Obnoxious, annoying, irrelevant…
—Brrrrng!!!—I pick up. It’s the elephant.
Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.