Russian Silver Age poetry translation series, 44/?
I have just been picking poems by browsing through the Wikisource list of eight-line Russian poems, and stopping at ones that I both like and see a way into translating. (I admit that this is a creative outlet I can do in downtime at work when I am bored.) However, people will doubtless point out to me that the this is the third one in a row to mention or feature storms, on sea or land, and my subconscious is trying to tell me something.
I am not sure what. I do like Konstantin Balmont a lot, and I liked the central image of this poem.
Sea roses are the whitest roses.
When gales toss the sea, they bloom
When furious breakers in opposing
Torture the turquoise with their boom
And beat and fling it up in rumbling,
Upset it with the thunder’s roars,
And with dead laughter, for a flash they bring
The splendour of a full white rose.
Konstantin Balmont, 1908; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 6, 2019
Russian Silver Age poetry translation series, 43/?
I was looking through short poems on Wikisource today, and stumbled upon this one by Mirra Lokhvitskaya, whom I had translated before. (https://vardomskaya.com/2016/08/04/some-wait-for-joy-some-seek-ovations-m-lokhvitskaya/ ) Again, this is quick and sensual, but I love the details she describes, that a hundred and twenty years later still occur before summer storms.
Thunder coming soon! I know it
In the poplars’ quivering tight,
In the alleys’ stifling gloam,
In the heavy wet half-light,
In the strength of white-hot glows
Clouds conceal in the skies,
In the weary dragging closed
Of your so-beloved eyes.
1896-1898; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 5, 2019
Russian Silver Age poetry translation series, 42/?
I am resuming this, because I was reading Andrei Bely this morning, and wanted to translate one of his shorter works.
This requires a great many interpretation decisions on my part, as Russian can omit possessives when they are of inalienable possessions like body parts or relatives. So in English, I have to make clear that the narrator is talking about his own body and that he is the object of the verbs in the last line, something that most interpreters of this poem agree is the case — that it narrates a subjective experience of fever or madness — but it is not actually in the Russian words. I also added some internal rhymes to try to preserve at least some of the internal rhymes in the original.
Flashes swarming. It’s morning: again I am free and at will.
Open the curtains: in diamonds, in amber, in fire
Are crossed steeples uphill. Am I ill? Oh no, I am not ill.
All silvered my hands from death-bed rising mountains higher.
Yonder purple the dawns, there are storms, there is purple-born storming.
See me, catch this: I’m risen, see, risen I am from the dead.
My coffin will float away, gold in the gold-azure dawning…
They caught me, brought me down, and laid a cold cloth on my head.
Andrei Bely, 1907; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 3, 2019.
Samir Khan asked me for a translation of this short paper by the mathematician Vladimir Arnold (1937-2010) on his foray into literary studies: http://www.math.nsc.ru/LBRT/g2/english/ssk/arnold_sll.pdf
News of the [Russian] Academy of Sciences, Literature and Language Series, vol. 56, no. 2, p. 63.
On the Epigraph To Eugene Onegin
V. I. Arnold, 1997
The French epigraph to “Eugene Onegin” goes like this:
Pétri de vanité il avait encore plus de cette espèce d’orgueil qui fait avouer avec la même indifférence les bonnes comme les mauvaises actions, suite d’un sentiment de supériorité, peut-être imaginaire.
Tiré d’une lettre particulière
Steeped in vanity, he had even more of the kind of pride that makes one acknowledge one’s good and evil actions alike with the same indifference, out of a sense of superiority, perhaps an imaginary one.
– From a private letter
It’s generally considered that this “private letter” is a hoax of Pushkin’s, who made up the epigraph text himself.
Recently re-reading “Dangerous Liaisons” by Choderlos de Laclos, I came across the following line (in letter L  from Madame de Tourvel to Vicomte de Valmont):
“Je n’ai pas la vanité qu’on reproche à mon sexe ; j’ai encore moins cette fausse modestie qui n’est qu’un raffinement de l’orgueil…
I do not have the vanity my sex is accused of; I have even less of that false modesty which is nothing but a refined form of pride…”
I was struck by the resemblance to Pushkin’s epigraph. I thought that Pushkin changed “I do not have” to “he had,” perhaps unconsciously bringing the phrase closer to describing himself than Onegin, in a line from a novel “in which reflected was the day / and modern man was there portrayed / clearly enough […] with his amoral mind / churning at empty action’s grind…”*
Tending to hoaxes, he could have tried even more to conceal a borrowing from a novel about which he’d said elsewhere, “a mother would tell her daughter to spit on this book” — out of a sense of caution, perhaps a justified one. A “modest author,” as Pushkin called himself, would let himself translate just half of the “glorious verse” or to delude the reader with hints understandable only to insiders (“I’ve heard they want to force the ladies…”, etc.*)
Someone among Pushkin’s friends and contemporaries could have known the source of the epigraph.
Pushkin’s borrowings (“Faust,” “Angelo”**, Tatiana’s letter — in the West, they think the whole of “Onegin” is a re-working of Byron’s “Don Juan”) are never exact translations. The epigraph’s text resembles the text of Madame de Tourvel’s letter no less than does Pushkin’s “Novel in Letters,” evidently inspired by “Dangerous Liaisons” (although not just by them).
Not being a literary scholar by profession (and even less a Pushkinist), but a mathematician, in my work I must constantly depend not on proofs, but on sensations, guesses and hypotheses, moving from one fact to another by means of the kind of insight that lets one see commonalities in things that an observer may think completely unrelated.
A correct guess goes hand-in-hand with a feeling that further proofs would be completely useless, an almost painful feeling that’s unforgettable, but difficult to convey.
Above, I’ve tried to make the reader relive the sense of having seen this already, similar to what I felt on reading Letter L of “Dangerous Liaisons.”
I’m referring to “Madame de Tourvel” following the English translation rather than “the presidentess Tourvel” (la Présidente Tourvel) as she is called both in the original French and in the Russian translation.
*Arnold was almost certainly working from memory, and this is actually a slight misquotation from Chapter 7, Verse XXII of Eugene Onegin: the original says that Onegin, though mostly tired of reading, had kept “two or three novels / in which [plural; Arnold has the singular] reflected was the day / And modern man was there portrayed / Clearly enough, with his amoral soul / Self-loving and dry / Infinitely given to fancy, / With his infuriated mind / Churning at empty action’s grind.” (I’m not going to try to make it all rhyme and scan.)
** This is also a slight misquotation of Chapter 3, Verse XXVII: “I know, they want to force the ladies to read in Russian. Horrors, true! Could you imagine ladies holding / ‘The Well-Intentioned’ in their hands?” — in the section when he explains why Tatiana wrote her letter to Onegin in French, Pushkin mocks the poor Russian grammar of contemporary noblewomen, as well as putting in a dig (according to his own footnotes) against a notoriously poorly-edited magazine of the time.
(I Googled the original text in both cases, and found that both of these are misquotations, but very common ones.)
*** Pushkin’s re-write of “Measure for Measure”
Russian Golden Age and Romantic poetry translation series, 9/?
I introduced Karolina Pavlova to this series a few days ago, telling about the harassment she faced as a woman writing poetry in Russia in the nineteenth century. She finally left Russia and settled in Derpt — what is now Tartu in modern-day Estonia. This poem expresses her feelings, powerful but mixed, once she settled in her new city and felt free to write poetry again.
Salut, salut, consolatrice!
Ouvre tes bras, je viens chanter.
You who’d stayed in my beggar soul,
Hail to thee now, my poor rhyme!
My bright ray over ash and coals
Left from my sweet and joyful time!
The one that even the desecration
Of all shrines could not ravage through.
My curse! My riches! My vocation!
The sacred work I’m called to do —
Awake, arise, o word unspoken!
Sound once again from my sealed lips!
Descend down to your chosen token
Again, my fateful tragic bliss!
Still with your hand the mad complaining
And doom again my heart entire
To boundless suffering and pain, and
To endless love, endless desire!
Karolina Pavlova, February 1854, Tartu (Estonia); Translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, October 2016
Russian Golden Age and Romantic poetry translation series, 8/?
Fyodor Tyutchev (1803-1873) spent most of his career as a diplomat, much of it in Germany, and wrote poetry on the side, not valuing it as more than a hobby. It was only later that his lyric gifts were appreciated. His poems reflected his complicated life (he had both wives and mistresses, and seemed to dearly love them). He also struggled with depression recurrently throughout his life. This poem expresses his attitude towards both issues.
There are two gods for mortal creatures,
Two twins that we call Death and Dream
Wondrous alike in many features —
One gentler, one would grimmer seem…
But other gods are also twain.
The world knows no lovelier pair,
And hearts who yield to their charms fair
Will not know of more desperate pain.
Their bond is tight, not chance, not wild.
Only on fateful days are we
Charmed by their secrets and beguiled
By their persistent mystery.
And who, when flooded by sensations
When blood would freeze and boil inside,
Has not known of your joint temptations,
Twin sisters Love and Suicide!
Feodor Tyutchev, c. 1850, first published 1886; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, October 2016
Russian Golden Age and Romantic poetry translation series, 7/?
Later in his life, now legally Shenshin at last, Afanasy Fet adopted a practice of spending his winters in Moscow and his summers at his manor at a village near Kursk, where he was very inspired by the surroundings. He produced four new volumes of poetry called “Evening Lights”, but others criticized him as his deep lyric poetry with its beauty and pain did not match his appearance as a sober well-to-do landowner, family man, justice of the peace.
This poem is in the first volume.
Windows steel-gridded, grim faces so pale,
Hatreds from brother to brother all glare.
I will acknowledge your stone walls, o jail:
The feast of youth had rejoiced once in there.
What has flashed yonder with beauty undying?
Ah, ’tis my spring flower lovely and dear.
How did you stay whole, meek, piteous, drying,
Under the feet of inhuman mobs here?
Joy had been shining, immaculate, pure
When you were dropped by the maid bridal-dressed.
No, I won’t abandon you; safe and secure
Your home and place now will be on my breast.
Afanasy Fet, 1882; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, October 2016.