“Song of a Fighter Pilot”
Vladimir Vysotsky wrote such evocative songs about World War II that it’s impossible to tell that he himself didn’t serve in that conflict. His verse on the theme of friendship is especially amazing.
Because of songs like his and the Russian culture of my upbringing, the symbolism of World War II (or, as the Russians call it, The Great Patriotic War) has stayed with me as a kind of arch-metaphor for the human condition.
I was listening today to one of my favorite songs by Vysotsky called Pesnya lyotchika-istrebitelya: “Song of a Fighter Pilot”. It is one of the greatest poems about friendship that I have ever read, and I decided to translate it into English. My translations skills are limited, but though my version inevitably may have errors, I have done my best to convey both the meaning and the flow of the song. The original, like most Russian poems and songs, has a rhyme scheme.
The song is about two Russian fighter pilots in World War II that find themselves embroiled in a losing battle with a larger German fighter formation. You can listen to the original song on YouTube and read the lyrics in Russian here.
Song of a Fighter Pilot
By Vladimir Vysotsky
(Translated by Alex L.)
Eight of them and two of us. Our prospects before battle
Aren’t bright, but we’ve committed to the fight.
Seryozha!* Hold on, it’s looking dim,
But we we have to get an edge in the game.
I promise to not run away from this airspace.
The numbers don’t matter to me now,–
Today my friend guards my back,
Which means we have evened the odds.
A “Messer”† perches on my tail, puffing smoke,
His propellers whining and hacking the air.
They don’t even need crosses on their graves,
The ones on their wings will suit them.‡
I say, “Number One! Number One! They’re right under you,
I’m turning to cut them off.
Put out your fire! Hide in the clouds! I’ll cover you!”
In battle, there are no miracles.
Sergey! You’re on fire! Put your hope, man,
In the strength of your parachute chords.
No! Too late–a “Messer” too has sets his sights on me.
Farewell! I’ll meet him head on.
I know that others will deal them justice.
But sliding along the clouds,
Our souls now rise, like two airplanes,
That can never fly alone.
The Archangel will tell us: “There’s not much room in Heaven.”
Coming before the gates, they close.
We’ll ask God, “Write my friend and I
Into some celestial regiment’s rolls.”
And I’ll ask the Father, Spirit, and Son,
To fulfill this, my will:
May my friend guard my back in Heaven
Like he did in this, our last, battle.
We’ll ask of God wings and arrows,
For the angels need aces too.
But if they have many fighters already,
Let us be guardians then.
To protect–that too is an honorable mission,
Carrying good luck on one’s wings,
To those like we were–Seryozha and I–in life,
Up in the air and once walking on earth.
* “Seryozha” is the informal version of the Russian name Sergey
† Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter planes
‡ German planes had black crosses painted on their wings