To Tamara Karsavina – A. Akhmatova

Russian Silver Age poetry translation series, 47/?
I love my second-rank Silver Agers. Really, I do. I love reading their poetry and finding out about the dramas of their fascinating interlaced lives against the background of a dying autocracy and a rising revolution in both governments and societies. They were many. They loved and believed and were passionate and they deserve to be known.
But it takes picking up a random eight-line poem on Wikisource to make it clear that the reason that even the quiz bowl aficionados among you, dear friends, have not heard of them and have heard of Anna Akhmatova — is that Anna Andreevna Akhmatova really was frickin’ good, as they say about Shakespeare, despite all the people who say she is frickin’ good.
Her dedicatee here, Tamara Karsavina (1885-1978), was the principal dancer of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and previously of the Imperial Russian Ballet. She pioneered the leading roles in Petroushka and The Firebird. Later, she would emigrate to England and help found the Royal Ballet and the Royal Academy of Dance. 

To Tamara Karsavina

Your light dance, you are like a song composing —
It told us of glory high —
And on your pale cheeks your blush grows more rosy
And darker and darker your eye

And more and more captives with every minute
Forget their own lives mundane,
And in the sounds of the sacred, in it,
Your supple form bends again.

Anna Akhmatova, March 26, 1914; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 9, 2019.

“It’s not your love I’m asking for…” – A. Akhmatova

Russian Silver Age poetry translation series, 41/?
I am not so satisfied with this one, but today was a day I felt I had to get something done, and didn’t have the energy to do anything else I had planned, so I finished the partial translation I had sitting in my drafts folder for months.
Anna Akhmatova being spiteful.
It’s not your love I’m asking for.
It’s now locked up for safekeeping.
Believe that letters jealous, weeping,
I do not send to your bride’s door.
But take some wise advice of mine:
Let her read all my poetry;
Let her preserve portraits of me —
New bridegrooms are all so kind!
While those fool girls would rather claim
A full victorious sensation,
Than friendship’s sunlit conversations
Or memory of first tender days.
Then when you spend the farthing’s worth
Of joy given with your little dear
And to a soul once filled with mirth
Suddenly all so dull appears —
Then don’t come to my festive night.
I know not you nor your appeal.
How could I help, in any right?
Of happiness, I do not heal.
Anna Akhmatova, 1914; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, 2016-January 2017.

At Evening – A. Akhmatova

Russian Silver Age poetry translation series (occasional) – 40/?

Deciding to re-awaken this dormant series last night, with a short poem from Anna Akhmatova’s 1914 collection “The Rosary.” It took me some time to “wake up” the translation skills (which to me feel like a combination of writing poetry and solving sudoku or crosswords). I am still not quite happy with a few of the word choices I made while trying to keep the rhythm (and compromised the rhythm slightly — the middle lines of the first verse should have feminine rhymes). But Akhmatova’s poem captures a sentiment I’ve felt myself: “At last, for the first time, you are alone with the person you love” — and he turns out to be, well, not seeing you that way.

At Evening

The music rang midst orchard trees,
Laced with such sorrow unreleased.
On ice-lined plates, a oyster feast
Smelled fresh and sharply of the seas.

He told me, “I’m a loyal friend!”
And touched my dress’s silk and lacing.
How little like any embracing
Is touch when coming from that hand.

So one pets kittens, or a bird,
So does one look at riders dashing.
Under the light gilt of his lashes
His calm eyes only laughter hold.

While fiddles sing their mournful tune
Past the smoke spreading on the ground:
“Bless and thank heavens for the boon –
Time with your love alone you’ve found.”

Anna Akhmatova, 1913; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya,
October 2016.

“All promised him to me…” – A. Akhmatova

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 25/?

Continuing the theme of love poems (with a twist): This poem by Anna Akhmatova, from her collection White Flock, was dedicated in manuscript to B. V. Anrep, which dedication was subsequently crossed out.

Boris Vasilievich von Anrep (1883-1969) was a poet and artist, who had quit law school to study art (specifically, mosaics) in France and England. By the beginning of the 1920s, he was getting multiple contracts for mosaics in British stately homes, and in 1923, he created the mosaic floor in the Blake Room of the Tate Gallery.

But he spent World War I in Russia, as a reserve officer, and there he met Akhmatova in 1915 in Tsarskoye Selo. She immediately began dedicating poems to him, and seventeen of the poems in White Flock are marked with his name. They would meet whenever he would return from active duty. However, he apparently only saw their relationship as a warm friendship. He had married Yunia Khitrovo, an aristocrat, in 1908, at the insistence of their families as she had been “compromised” by him. Akhmatova met her in 1916 and dedicated another poem to her. By 1911, he had started a relationship with the singer Helen Maitland, and lived with both Helen and Yunia in Paris, while also pursuing other relationships on the side.

He never returned to Russia after 1917, but in 1952, he was commissioned to create four large mosaics for the British National Gallery, and portrayed Akhmatova as Compassion in one of them. They met for the last time in 1965, shortly before Akhmatova’s death.


All promised him to me, it seemed:
The sky’s edge with its dull gold glister,
On Christmas Eve the sweetest dream,
The many-chiming wind at Easter,

The ivy’s curving scarlet vines,
Park waterfalls white-churning down,
The two great perching dragonflies
On the wrought-iron fence rust brown.

I couldn’t not believe, not hope,
That soon in friendship we’d be meeting
When I would walk on mountain slopes
Along a path of rocks sun-heated.

Anna Akhmatova, 1916; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.

“I’ll leave your home…” – A. Akhmatova

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 14/?

When Anna Akhmatova was asked which of her poems were addressed to Nikolai Gumilev, she named six. This is one of the six, and I’ve been pondering every word of it as to what a complicated relationship these two poets had even then.

The year 1913, when this poem was written, Gumilev himself spent many months in Abyssinia, leaving behind Akhmatova and their one-year-old son Lev. Earlier, he had had a brief affair with Olga Vysotskaya which resulted that October in the birth of a son, Orest, whom Gumilev may or may not have known about during his lifetime.

Akhmatova and Gumilev would end up divorcing in 1918, when the new post-Revolutionary government allowed divorce with the possibility of re-marriage, although according to sources, their relationship had soured long before.


(In the original, the first line is “white home/house and quiet garden,” and I’ve wrestled for a long time with how to fit “white” into the verse without messing up the rhythm, and finally decided to cut it. Again, compromises.)

I’ll leave your home and garden quietly lying.
Let life be empty, filled with only light.
You in my poems I’ll be glorifying,
I’ll bring you glory as no woman might.
And in the heaven you made just for her gazing
Your dear friend you will remember well,
While I, rare goods for buyers I’ll be praising —
Your love and tenderness I go to sell.

Anna Akhmatova, 1913; translated by me, July 2016

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.