Where have all the children gone?

02/09/2012 by Christopher Buxton

This is a time of present and imminent centenaries – grim early twentieth Century milestones in modern Bulgarian history, which point the way towards diminished national aspirations. The Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 and the “national catastrophe” of the First World War led to significant territorial loss and a laceration of national self esteem.  One hundred years later, Bulgaria is according to surveys the poorest and unhappiest member country of the troubled EU. There’s an oft repeated joke: Yes, there are two ways out of the economic crisis – Sofia Airport Terminals 1 and 2. The Bulgarian population is dropping as youthful emigration increases.

The poet Ivan Esenski, whom I had the privilege of getting to know at the Koprivchitsa Dimcho Debelyanov Festival, has written a poignant variation on Pete Seeger’s famous protest song.  It reflects not only on the wars that Bulgaria has fought but also the present crisis. He has allowed me to print my translation here.

Following On

Where are they going, our lads?

What are these stops in the heart beat?

Why no shriek, why no pain?

The rain bears down on their sodden great-coats,

And they march on – so ridiculously proud.

And once it rained like this on us.


Life repeats itself in cycles of banality.

Yet after all this how do you keep faith –

After the scars of the past, how?

Our fathers stood struck dumb

And looked not in our eyes but at our wounds

How we stamped to attention with absurd pride.


Now they are by their fathers, in the ground.

Our children kiss the banners

And depart in the autumn mist.

Where are they going, our lads?

The rain stays silent over bones, over oaths.

And we, where are we truly going?


Resembling living statues,

The women silently blink back the tears,

Dried out over the days of their youth.

The lasses, where did you hide them?

Lasses, where are you off to, darlings?

Where are they going, our women?


Why they’re still restlessly wandering

Tiptoe through our sterile nights?

Why do they execute backward looks?

There where the beds whiten in solitude,

There where ‘twixt us and them weighs in

The wall of our spectral vocation.


It’s true it’s become a question of honour

To pluck them from this wet autumn orchestra

And get them into some dark entry

and between two kisses to confess

that now – just as before – we don’t know

where our life is going.


Ivan Esenski © 2008 from Exile

Translated by Christopher Buxton