The Grey-Eyed King – A. Akhmatova

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 9/?

Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966; born Anna Andreyevna Gorenko) may be the modern Russian poet most acclaimed in the West. This is at least partly because of her longtime struggle against the Stalinist terror that killed her ex-husband Nikolai Gumilev and her common-law husband Nikolai Punin and for many years imprisoned her son Lev Gumilev. Her powerful poetry chronicling and bearing witness to the horrors she saw, most famously the “Requiem,” is popular in the West because it is great, yes, but it also serves the anti-Stalinist and anti-Soviet narrative in a way that, say, Khlebnikov does not. The choice of what gets translated and what gets promoted is often political.

I personally dislike the most famous translations of Akhmatova, by Jane Kenyon, set to music by Iris DeMent, because in an effort to preserve the words and meanings they eschew rhyme and rhythm, being line-by-line translations in blank or free verse. Akhmatova RHYMED, she used rhyme with deftness and skill, and that was what made her work dangerous to authority: it was easily memorized and so would be preserved even if paper copies were destroyed.

I will not translate Akhmatova’s post-1917 poems until at least 2017 (when, 50 years after her death, her work enters public domain under Canadian copyright law), but her pre-Revolution poems are in public domain by Russian law, and so I did this one. A rhyming work of flash fiction, it conveys one of the key aspects of Akhmatova’s work, the perspective of women.

I took one major liberty with the translation: “slain” implies violence, while the word she used, “umer = died” is neutral and by implication, does not imply violence. But she never explains how did the king die, so for the sake of a rhyme, I will fess up and leave this there. “Sooner or later / The gentle person, the mime sublime, / The incorruptible translator / Is betrayed by lady rime,” as Nabokov observed.

The Grey-Eyed King

Hail to thee, ineluctable pain!
Last night the grey-eyed king, hunting, was slain.
The autumn evening was sultry and red.
Returning, my husband placidly said,
“They brought him back from the hunt where he died,
They found his body, the old oak beside.
Pity the queen. He was so young, I say!
Now overnight all her hair’s gone grey.”
On the mantel he found his pipe and his snuff
And to his night shift he went walking off.
I’ll wake my daughter, asleep after play,
I’ll look into her bright eyes, dear and grey,
While poplars rustle their leaves at the door:
“He’s gone forever. Your king is no more…”

Anna Akhmatova, 1910; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.

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