Amongst people of the former USSR, legendary singer, songwriter and poet Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980) is loved and admired like no other. A recent survey placed him as the most important cultural figure of the twentieth century, and some say he is the greatest Russian poet since Pushkin; others talk of him as the Russian Bob Dylan, or Jacques Brel. His songs championed the underdog, and even today, forty years after his death at a tragically young age, people in countries as far apart as Bulgaria and Kazakhstan weep at the mere mention of his name. Yet remarkably this is the first landmark collection of his lyrics and poetry in English.
The translators set themselves the hard task of translating Vysotsky’s songs as first of all songs, not poetry, enabling readers to perform them in English. This collection of lyrics also includes sample sheet music for six Vysotsky’s songs. Vysotsky himself used the seven string guitar; the songs are adapted here to the western six string classical guitar by John Farndon and West-End singer Anthony Cable.
This bilingual volume gives a chance to enjoy Vysotsky’s works both in English and Russian, just by flipping the print book over.
Published with the support of the Institute for Literary Translation, Russia.
Please note that the e-book (PDF) follow a conventional arrangement: the lyrics in the Russian language follow the English translations.
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Born in January 25, 1938 in a family of a German-language translator and a military officer, Vladimir Vysotsky was an iconic Soviet singer-songwriter, poet, and actor. He attended the Institute of Civil Engineering (1955-1956) before joining Moscow Art Theatre School. He graduated in 1960 to become a professional actor. He met his first wife Iza Zhukova in 1956, when both were theatre institute students. From 1964 he was a member of Moscow Theatre of Drama and Comedy in the Taganka theatre. Vysotsky met his second wife Lyudmila Abramova in 1961, whom he married in 1965 and had two sons, Arkady and Nikita. In 1969 he married Marina Vlady, a French actress of Russian descent, who worked at Mosfilm at the time they met. They had to maintain a long-distance relationship for ten years.
Vysotsky was featured in several films and on television. Known for his “raspy” voice, Vysotsky was probably the most prolific songwriter of his generation, covering a wide-range of themes from the criminal underworld, peace and war, to everyday Soviet life, love and friendship. Vysotsky was an immensely popular figure who continued to be revered long after his death. He died from a heart attack at the age of 42 on July 24, 1980 in Moscow.
John Farndon is a widely published, award-winning author of books about science and nature, and an acclaimed translator of Russian and Central Asian literature. He was joint winner of the 2019 EBRD Literature Prize with his verse translation of Hamid Ismailov’s The Devil’s Dance, and a finalist in 2020 for the US PEN Translation award for Rollan Sesyenbaev’s Dead Wander in the Desert. He is also a songwriter, poet and performer, who has performed with the legendary folk violinist Dave Swarbrick. His songs have been recorded by rising folk musician Kim Lowings and others. His poetry has been translated into Russian, Uzbek and Kazakh.
Olga Nakston is from St Petersburg but now lives in London. She has collaborated with John Farndon on many translations of Russian literature, including Ravil Bukharaev’s Letters from Another Room, the poetry of Lidia Grigorieva, and Rollan Sesyenbaev’s Dead Wander in the Desert. She is currently working on an English translation of Auezov’s libretto for Zhubanov’s Kazakh opera Abai.
Endorsements and Review Quotes
“Farndon, along with his cotranslator Olga Nakston, and musical collaborator Anthony Cable, has gone to the painstaking effort of not merely translating these works for the enjoyment of readers, but preparing them to be performed coherently in English. There is rhythm, they rhyme, they make sense, they are entertaining, they are moving and they are to be sung. It is a songbook.” Thom Dinsdale, East-West Review
“Reading this collection of lyrics has certainly introduced me to one of Russia’s most distinctive voices and the work of a man whose songs still mean so much to so many people. With his sympathy for the contradictions and the shortcomings of human nature, Vysotsky is a reminder that the best Russian culture is so often found on the margins, positioning itself at an angle to the orthodoxies required by those in power. He deserves to be much better known and appreciated amongst English readers and listeners than he is, and this selection of his work is a great place to start.” Peter Lowe, RUSSIAN ART + CULTURE
Vysotsky “was an iconic poet, singer and songwriter and an extremely popular actor with legendary acting, both in theater (he played Hamlet at the Taganka Theater) and movies (his most famous role was policeman Zheglov in the cult Soviet TV series ‘The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed’). He had a very deep voice with a very well recognized wheezing, which made all of his singing even more dramatic and eccentric.” Alexandra Guzeva, Russia Beyond
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