Pussy Riot's Punk Prayer is pure protest poetry

Careless translations of Punk Prayer obscure the song's serious purpose and in solidarity with the band I'm offering my version of the lyrics as Poem of the week

This week's poem is Punk Prayer by the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot, three of whose members have just been sentenced to two years in a prison colony for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred". Is there any truth in the accusation? It's worth taking a closer look at the lyrics of Punk Prayer.

This, of course, is the song that sparked the trouble when the three women performed it in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour five months ago. The performance was mildly shocking, at least for any believer unused to trendy vicars putting on rock concerts. Loud, rude, up-yours protest is what punk is all about. But the lyrics are not all raw obscenity: they have something significant to say, which the careless translations slopping around the internet tend to obscure. Western commentators have cherry-picked simple-mindedly to find quotations. In offering my version of Punk Prayer as Poem of the Week, I'm expressing solidarity with the singers, objection to their absurd and horrible sentence, and annoyance with the cynics who accuse them of staging a PR exercise. In another context, dramatic acts of self-sacrifice for a cause are known as martyrdom.

Punk poetry without performance is an oxymoron. Still, it was an interesting challenge to try and inject a little of Pussy Riot's performance-style into the words. The song brings together two different musical genres. It has a hymn-like opening chorus, very melodic and redolent of traditional Russian Orthodox chanting. The mood soon changes, though, and everything erupts into punk rant, a slam of hard-hitting images connected by minimal syntax. The chorus returns, exhorting the Virgin Mary to become a feminist, and finally, with its original plea for Putin's banishment, it concludes the song.

I deliberately used archaic language for the chorus: "banish" rather than "drive out" and "we pray thee", a supplication not in the original. Elsewhere, I did a certain amount of syntactical joining up – perhaps a little too much. I'd like it to sound punkier. But I aimed at a poem, and a poem needs more than a list of images. I hoped the message would be emphasised and not anaesthetised by some added syntax.

The first verse centres on a vivid symbol of the unholy alliance of church and state: the priestly robes and the militaristic gold epaulettes. The antithesis is repeated in other unlikely pairings, such as the black limousines ("cars" in my translation), with their mafia associations, processing with the cross. Pussy Riot's performance in consecrated space is itself a further metaphor of this culture clash.

For the verses, I went for short lines, mostly trochaic. There are some obscurities in the original lyrics, such as the reference to the missionary who goes to school and gets paid, which I couldn't solve. The penultimate line in the penultimate verse was another tricky one. It translates literally as "the belt of the Virgin cannot replace meetings". I have guessed that this belt is a sacred accessory, and therefore a ritual object. The meeting referred to I think must be a protest meeting. Hence my "Fight for rights, forget the rite". But it's rather a long shot.

Finding a short version of the Patriarch's name wasn't too difficult. Kirill Gundyayev (he who allegedly called the Putin era "a miracle of God") becomes "Gundy". The nickname in the original is similarly harmless. But a heavy insult lies in waiting: "suka", meaning "bitch". This doesn't work as a masculine insult in English. So, for the sake of a rhyme with "virgin" and a zoological reference, I went for "vermin".

The Russian word "sran" becomes English "crap" in my version, rather than "shit". This line, particularly offensive for some, has been translated as "shit, shit, the Lord's shit". Not only is this ambiguous (it could mean either "the Lord is shit" or "shit from/of the Lord"), it's inaccurate. Derived from Gospod, meaning Lord, "gospodnaya," is an adjective. It could be translated as "religious", though I tried something different. "Crap" has a stronger metaphorical dimension than "shit" and comes a shade closer to "bullshit". The song is simply saying that all this state-controlled religious stuff is bullshit. It's interesting that these disgraceful sentiments would have represented, until recently, the official Communist party view of religion.

I'm not claiming the translation is anything special. Feel free to take it apart! And the original lyrics aren't wonderful poetry, either. Artistic comparisons with Joseph Brodsky are far-fetched. It's the absurdity and dishonesty of the judgment that recall Brodsky's trial, and also the fate of Irina Ratushinskaya, viciously punished, in part, for poems expressing her Christian beliefs. How horrible to find that, post-perestroika, rampant capitalism and artistic repression are somehow able to cohabit. Pussy Riot have explained that their protest was not primarily against religion but against the Russian Orthodox Church's support for Putin. The lyrics they wrote for Punk Prayer bear out the truth of this claim.

Punk Prayer, English version by Carol Rumens

(Chorus)

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin, banish Putin,

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish him, we pray thee!

Congregations genuflect,

Black robes brag gilt epaulettes,

Freedom's phantom's gone to heaven,

Gay Pride's chained and in detention.

KGB's chief saint descends

To guide the punks to prison vans.

Don't upset His Saintship, ladies,

Stick to making love and babies.

Crap, crap, this godliness crap!

Crap, crap, this holiness crap!

(Chorus)

Virgin Mary, Mother of God.

Be a feminist, we pray thee,

Be a feminist, we pray thee.

Bless our festering bastard-boss.

Let black cars parade the Cross.

The Missionary's in class for cash.

Meet him there, and pay his stash.

Patriarch Gundy believes in Putin.

Better believe in God, you vermin!

Fight for rights, forget the rite –

Join our protest, Holy Virgin.

(Chorus)

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin, banish Putin,

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, we pray thee, banish him!

Contributor

Carol Rumens

The GuardianTramp

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