The National Poet of Dagestan

Rasul Gamzatov
Rasul Gamzatov

A celebrated mountain poet from the ethnic outskirts of the Soviet empire, anyone? On with the national poet project. Today we’re taking a look at the national poet of Dagestan. And no-one need pretend they’ve heard of Dagestan or have a notion of where it is. Dagestan is situated in the North Caucasus mountains and is the southernmost part of Russia. It’s a republic, but is a federal subject of the Russian Federation. So it has a constitution and parliament and a president, but is represented by Russia in foreign affairs. And defense too, one would guess. Not an independent sovereign state, therefore. Its capital is Makhachkala.

And by the way, the word Daghestan means “country of mountains”, and is derived from the Turkic word “dagh” meaning mountain and Persian suffix meaning “land of.” (So now you what “stan” means.)

Our poet’s name is Rasul Gamzatov and I’m not going to share any of his poetry (except four lines below), because, frankly, it doesn’t work for me. See what you think. I suspect part of it is weak translation work, and part of that is probably the impossibility of translating Avar into English. Gamzatov wrote in the Avar language, which is only spoken by 600,000 people today. But what I do want you to read (please do) is Gamzatov’s biography, as it appears on his official website. Go on, read it. A little rough in the translation, but it’s like a fairytale in itself. His father was a bard!

The most famous thing he ever wrote were the words to what turned into a gigantically famous WWII Russian song called Zhuravli (The Cranes), written in memory of the Japanese girl, Sadako Sasaki . The memory of the paper cranes folded by the dying girl haunted him for months before he wrote it. Wikipedia says: White cranes have become associated with dead soldiers, so much so that a range of WWII memorials in the former Soviet Union feature the image of flying cranes and, in several instances, even the lines from the song. Unfortunately, haven’t been able to find anything of an English translation of Zhuravli that works for me, except these four lines, which are sticking:

From The Cranes

By Rasul Gamzatov

It seems to me sometimes that our soldiers

who were not to return from fields of gore

did not lie down into their beds of honor

but turned into a bevy of white cranes…

He died in 2003.

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2 thoughts on “The National Poet of Dagestan

  1. I wish to offer my translation of “Zhuravli”. I am an amateur, of course, but I tried very hard… Here it is:

    White Cranes

    Sometimes I imagine that our soldiers,

    Who fell in battle in the days gone by,

    Were not consumed by earth, covered with boulders-

    They turned into white cranes flying high.

    They fly from yesterday into tomorrow,

    And call our pain to us from on high.

    Is this not why so often, with such sorrow,

    We turn our silent gazes to the sky?

    The tired flock flies on as dusk gets near,

    In misty fog as far as eye can see,

    And that formation has a gap so clear,

    Perhaps there is a place in there for me.

    The day will come and I will gladly follow

    The flock of cranes into the murky haze.

    And from the skies my message raw and hollow

    Will bring you grief that time cannot erase.

  2. Pingback: they call our pain to us from on high « Very Like A Whale

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