“Do not ask me…” – A. K. Tolstoy

Russian Golden Age and Romantic poetry translation series, 4/?

Here is another love poem by A. K. Tolstoy, made several years before the mature poem we heard a few days ago. This one shows clearly his fascination with the rhythms of the traditional old sagas (bylina among Slavic storytellers, which literally parses as “things-that-have-been”). These, as he heard them, would have been blank verse, in alternating anapestic and iambic feet, usually four feet to a line, with repetition of different images with the same property to emphasize the point — “ask me…seek to find…wonder and guess…Many are the flowers…Many are the stars…No skill to…And no strength to…”

I have tried to convey that in the translation. What English does not really allow me to do is to convey the many diminutive endings on words such as “strength” that serve not to diminish the noun itself or treat it with affection, but to establish a bond with the listener — such diminutive endings are not used in speech between strangers.

I think I first started translating this poem many years ago, before 2006, or even earlier, but didn’t get all of the lines until it came time for this series.

***

Do not ask me, do not seek to find,
Do not trouble your mind to wonder and guess:
How I love you, and why I love,
And what for do I love, and whether for long?
Do not ask me, do not seek to find,
Are you sister to me, or a young dear bride,
Or is it a sweet child that you are to me?

And I do not know, and I cannot ken
What to call you now, how to summon you.
Many are the flowers in the open field,
Many are the stars that glow in the sky,
But there is no skill to go name them all,
And no strength to tell all their ways apart.
When I fell in love with you, I did not ask,
I didn’t trouble my mind to wonder and guess.
When I fell in love with you, I waved my hand
And gave up my head as lost!

A. K. Tolstoy, October 30, 1851; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, October 2016.

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“The passion passed…” – A. K. Tolstoy

Russian Golden Age and Romantics poetry translation series, 1/?

Welcome to a new poetry translation series where I go back into the nineteenth century, earlier than the Silver Age. I will try to show the differing style in my translations, by making them sound more like the English nineteenth-century poetry that was written at nearly the same time.

Of the three Tolstoys and one Tolstaya involved in the Russian literary scene, A. K. (Alexei Konstantinovich; 1817-1875) remains my favourite, and seemingly the one least known in the West. (The others being Tatiana Tolstaya, her grandfather Alexei Nikolaevich Tolstoy the author of Buratino and Aelita whom I mentioned before, and of course Leo who was the second cousin of A. K.; Leo and A. N. are related to each other, but in somewhat complicated ways.)

Count A. K. was a courtier and diplomat, as well as a poet, dramatist, novelist and satirist; he was part of the collaborative pseudonym Kozma Prutkov, whose plays and epigrams gave rise to some of the most enduring, and funniest, lines in Russian literature. His own poetry tended towards the lyrical side, often in imitation of traditional epic sagas. This one, however, is more of a psychological poem, and it caught me such that I filed it away long ago.

I would not say that the fiery and unrequited passions I had as a teenager were not “real love” — I resented it when this was assumed to me, and them being different than what I feel now does not make them any less real and valid. But I will say that I damn well love loving like a grown-up.

***

The passion passed, and now its fiery vying
No longer troubles my heart, ruled by head.
But I cannot not love you, even for trying:
All that’s not you is vanity and lying,
All that’s not you is colourless and dead.

My blood no longer in rebellion roils
Without call or right to rage and pain.
But I can’t sink into life’s petty coils:
My love, my friend, even with no jealous spoils,
The same love as it were, still will remain.

Like so, when nature’s frowning heights are sources,
From overhanging cliffs a torrent torn
Out from the land of storms and thunder’s forces
Would the same waters bear to valley’s courses
And, deep and peaceful, flow farther on.

Alexei Konstantinovich Tolstoy, 1858;
translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, October 2016