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Vadim Astrakhan is a chemist / forensic scientist by training (University of Michigan, John Jay College of Criminal Justice) and a translator / performer of Vladimir Vysotsky by calling.  Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, lives in New Jersey.

This article was published as part of SRAS's free monthly newsletter. Want the newsletter?

Vysotsky in English
On the Translation of Music
By Vadim Astrakhan

  albumcoverVadim Astrakhan's debut album. Available from
Amazon and his site.

"Vysotsky in English" is a project dedicated to bringing the works of Vladimir Vysotsky to English speakers. Vysotsky (1938-1980) was Russia's premier singer / songwriter / poet of the 20th century. Until recently, his popularity was limited to Russian speakers. I am on a mission to integrate Vysotsky's legacy into world culture, by means of

I was 4 years old when Vysotsky died but his music was always played at my home and around me. I started playing Vysotsky as soon as I first learned to play guitar, like thousands of other Russian boys. After moving to the US in 1994, I almost immediately began translating Vysotsky into English, simply to introduce my new friends to an important aspect of my own cultural identity. My first attempts could hardly be called "good," but, as my command of English improved, I kept returning to these translations and improving them. Fifteen years later, I deemed some of them worthy of being recorded. The "Vysotsky in English" project was born.

Quickly, I realized that playing an album-full of songs in Vysotsky's traditional manner (one acoustic guitar, five chords), so popular at various Russian cultural events, would be boring for the American audience. I decided to change the arrangements, while preserving the melody. Some songs were left as acoustic pieces. Some songs were given orchestral arrangements, similar to Vysotsky's own recordings with Soviet orchestras. Others were completely re-arranged, made into blues, folk, heavy metal, or even genre-bending fusion. All of my instrument-playing friends were enlisted and some professionals were hired. The debut album, called "Singer Sailor Soldier Spirit" and featuring an international cast of 14 musicians, was released in 2008. The second album, "Two Fates," produced by an acclaimed composer / guitarist Yuri Naumov and featuring mostly original music to these classic songs, came out in 2012. The third one is currently in the works, continuing the multi-genre approach.

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When talking about translations, people often bring up the issue of “preserving the spirit” of the original, but nobody, to my knowledge, has ever defined what it means, exactly. I define “preserving the spirit” as “evoking emotions in new readers and listeners, similar to those evoked by the original works in the original readers and listeners.” Since I do not just translate Vysotsky’s works but also perform them, the goal remains the same: to produce the emotional effect similar to that of the originals, through a sum of music, poetry, and performance. 

Translating Vysotsky is incredibly difficult. The uniqueness of Vysotsky's poetry lies in its "commoner" language, its multilayer imagery, and its intensity. This intensity -- the energy and the drive of the songs -- must be preserved, otherwise the spirit will undoubtedly be lost. The text must be powerful, rough, and dynamic, using powerful idioms and expressions. Equally important is the singability of the text. This aspect also separates the process of translating Vysotsky from other poets: his texts were intended for singing. The translations cannot be cumbersome, words must roll out easily. Fluidity is absolutely essential. Third, ideally the rhythm should also be kept similar to Vysotsky's but I do not view that as mandatory. I always strive to achieve the same rhythm, but on some occasions the rhythm and the phrasing of the original are altered in favor of the dynamic. Finally, the translations should provide quality storytelling. After all, Vysotsky's songs are stories: interesting and well told.

Here is an example of one of Vysotsky's humorous songs (though of the darker kind), "A Merry Funeral Song." To the left is Vysotsky's original. To the right is my translation. You can listen to the music by clicking here.

Веселая Покойницкая

Едешь ли в поезде, в автомобиле,
Или гуляешь, хлебнувши винца,-
При современном машинном обилье
Трудно по жизни пройти до конца.
Вот вам авария: в Замоскворечье
Трое везли хоронить одного,-
Все, и шофер, получили увечья,
Только который в гробу - ничего.
Бабы по найму рыдали сквозь зубы,
Дьякон - и тот верхней ноты не брал,
Громко фальшивили медные трубы,-
Только который в гробу - не соврал.
Бывший начальник - и тайный разбойник -
В лоб лобызал и брезгливо плевал,
Все приложились,- а скромный покойник
Так никого и не поцеловал.
Но грянул гром - ничего не попишешь,
Силам природы на речи плевать,-
Все побежали под плиты и крыши,-
Только покойник не стал убегать.
Что ему дождь - от него не убудет,-
Вот у живущих - закалка не та.
Ну, а покойники, бывшие люди,-
Смелые люди и нам не чета.
Как ни спеши, тебя опережает
Клейкий ярлык, как отметка на лбу,-
А ничего тебе не угрожает,
Только когда ты в дубовом гробу.
Можно в отдельный, а можно и в общий -
Мертвых квартирный вопрос не берет,-
Вот молодец этот самый - усопший -
Вовсе не требует лишних хлопот.
В царстве теней - в этом обществе строгом -
Нет ни опасностей, нет ни тревог,-
Ну, а у нас - все мы ходим под богом,
Только которым в гробу - ничего.
Слышу упрек: "Он покойников славит!"
Нет, я в обиде на злую судьбу:
Всех нас когда-нибудь кто-то задавит,-
За исключением тех, кто в гробу.

A Merry Funeral Song

You can be driving, or even cab-riding,
Or maybe sauntering home from a bar.
In all of this automotive surrounding
You can’t tell what hits you or how hard.
Here’s a story the papers have mentioned:
Three men rode in a hearse yesterday.
Then – boom, an accident! All three were injured.
The one in the coffin, of course, was OK.

Then, at the sendoff, the brass grated ears
And for the cantor the notes were too high.
The tears were phony, the words – insincere,
Only the man in the box didn’t lie.
His former boss, infamously dishonest,
Kissed him on the forehead, leading the pack.
But the deceased man, ever so modest,
Didn’t once kiss anyone back.

Guess what? With speeches the rain don’t bother:
It started to shower. Nature’s the boss!
Everyone ran and quickly took cover,
Only the dead man remained where he was.
He could care less! That I truly admire.
Now, the living aren’t nearly as tough.
Only the dead men, the men that expired,
They are courageous. They are “men enough”!

People can beat you and treat you wrongly.
They label you, put a stamp on your head.
Truly you’re safe in one place only:
Inside the coffin, presumably dead.
You can have a single or you can share.
Living conditions here don’t mean squat!
The dead don’t demand any special care.
Jolly good fellas! I like them a lot.

Strict is the world of shadows and angels.
No worries, no fears beyond the grave.
Here we are, always living in danger,
Only the ones in the coffin are safe.
Some may accuse me of worshiping corpses.
No! It’s just with fate I’m upset!
Some day someone will run all of us over,
Unless, of course, you’re already dead.

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