Meta-Post: Recommended Russian Poetic Translation Resources

A Russian student of mine asked me about online resources on Russian poetic translations, as she was interested in reading Russian poetry with the help of a translation, so I’m going to toss this up here in case other people care as well:

https://gumilev.ru/languages/ – Nikolai Gumilev’s online fan site has a collection of translations of his poetry. If I dare say so, many of the ones in English are not very good (I wouldn’t do my own if I believed there were already much better ones) but they are resources, and they link to the original so someone with, say, second-year Russian can puzzle out what is going on.

There’s a collection of Pushkin translations here:http://www.poetryloverspage.com/po…/pushkin/pushkin_ind.html

I’ve said my opinion of the most frequently cited translator of Akhmatova (in short: no rhyme = half the soul); but Akhmatova’s main site in Russian is here, and someone with, say, second-year Russian can read the simpler poems and work them out. That site, though, does not have a database of translations of Akhmatova, although it does have a database of translations she’d done, and I didn’t know she translated from Chinese, Korean, Tatar, Yiddish and Kabardian!:http://www.akhmatova.org/verses/verses.htm

Here is an index of translations of Akhmatova’s work: http://www.poetryloverspage.com/…/akhmat…/akhmatova_ind.html

I REALLY admire A. Z. Foreman, who posts his translations, including from Russian, here: http://poemsintranslation.blogspot.com/p/my-poetry-translat…His Russian translations are not faithful to the rhythm and metre, but are really good. I briefly corresponded with him online back when he was a UChicago student*, and offered to set one of his original poems (which are also excellent) to music,** but I didn’t secure permission, so alas, although my music setting exists, it won’t see the light of day.

*that was years before I even imagined my fate joining with that of this august institution.

**I am not a composer, but I do have a sense of what kind of melody I want for pretty much any poetry I read (if you’ve ever heard me read things out loud, you won’t find this surprising), and given a guitar, I can find chords to match it. I was surprised myself the other day when discussing poetics with the linguist Haj Ross. He showed me e. e. cummings’s “In Just-spring” and I started singing it. “I didn’t know there was a musical setting,” he said. “Oh, I think I made this one up,” I replied, but my mind now admits no other.

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Elegy – K. Ryleyev

Russian Golden Age and Romantic poetry translation series, 6/?

Kondraty Ryleyev (1795-1826) may be one of the most tragic figures of nineteenth-century Russian literature. Raised in genteel poverty, he managed to acquire a first-class education — which led him to have liberal ideas far ahead of their time, and so he turned his rhetorical talents to the organization of the 1825 Decembrists’ Revolt. When that failed, he was among the five sentenced to hang as ringleaders — he had volunteered to die alone, taking the blame for all of them. At their hanging, three of the ropes, including Ryleyev’s, snapped at the drop, and they survived…and were condemned to die a second time. He allegedly said, “Cursed country, where they don’t know how to hold a conspiracy, to judge a trial, or to hang you!”

He was married to Natalya Tevyasheva, the daughter of a landowner for whom he had worked as a tutor, and had two daughters, just toddlers at the time of his death. Even before his death, the Tsar assigned his wife two thousand rubles (a huge sum in those days) and later, a pension.

This poem is relatively simple and predictable compared to the complexity of other lyric poets of the time, and follows a very similar structure to the later A. K. Tolstoy poem we saw in this series: a sort of Thesis-Elaboration-Analogy that seems to have been as common in Russian love poetry as binary form in Baroque dance.

Elegy

My wishes have at last been granted,
My longtime dreams have now come true.
The pain with which my heart was branded
And my pure love is now with you.

In vain I caused you fear and trouble.
My passion has now found reward.
I’ve come alive for joy redoubled
And grief like dim dreams disappeared.

So, when east burns at the dawn hour,
Sprinkled with the relieving dew,
After a night’s cold, the cornflower
From wilting rises to bright blue.

Kondraty Ryleyev, 1824-1825, first published 1861; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, October 2016.

“The sun’s lowering rays slant askew…” – A. Fet

Russian Golden Age and Romantic poetry translation series, 5/?

When I first considered doing a Golden Age and Romantic series as well as the Silver Age one, my first thought was, “That means translating Afanasy Fet.” Often called Russia’s finest lyric poet, he is shamefully unknown in the West. 

Afanasy Fet (1820-1892) had much of his career shaped by his early struggle for legitimacy. His German mother had left her husband to marry a Russian landlord, but when their son Afanasy was fourteen, their marriage was judged void and Afanasy had to change his name from Shenshin to Foeth, that of his mother’s first husband — even as Johann Foeth, back in Darmstadt, refused to acknowledge the boy as a son. Although he escaped being considered officially an illegitimate child (which would have been far worse for his social standing), he was very depressed at this brand on his identity, and it may have set the course for suicidal thoughts for much of his life. While at German boarding school, he started to write poetry, and continued throughout army service. He made a name as Fet (a possible typo for Fёt, the way Russian would transliterate Foeth), a name that he hated.

This poem, written when he was already an established landowner, showcases his tremendous lyric gifts and powers of observation.Yet even here, there is a hint at a desire for self-destruction in the third verse that grows more and more ominous the more I look at it.

***

The sun’s lowering rays slant askew;
By the edge of the colour-spread skies
Vapour streams shake and shudder the blue.
O, you wood in your dense leafy guise,
Spread your arms so I may embrace you.

So your sigh, like the ocean’s cold sting
Would hit my heated breast and my face,
So sweet breath to my throat, too, I’d bring,
Let me sip with my lips and my gaze
By your roots at a cool crystal spring.

So I’d vanish in this sea of blue,
Drown in these scented shades that comprise
Your grand rafters that darken all hue,
O, you wood in your dense leafy guise,
Spread your arms so I may embrace you.

Afanasy Fet, 1863; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, October 2016.

“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.

“Don’t go with dull tread…” – K. Pavlova

Russian Golden Age and Romantic poetry translations, 3/?

I learned of the existence of Karolina Pavlova (1807-1893; nee Janisch) only four days ago, and immediately realized that there had been a gap in my life before. As a home-schooled child, she already knew four languages and helped her father, a professor of physics and chemistry, with astronomical observations — yet her husband squandered her inheritance and, after her marriage broke down, he was found with many banned books and scandalously exiled, to her shame. Her poetry was highly respected by A. K. Tolstoy, and Goethe approved her translations of his poetry when he saw it. But other contemporaries mocked and harassed a woman writing poetry so much that she was forced to leave the country, finally settling in Dresden and rarely visiting Russia.

It was Valery Bryusov (who has appeared in the Silver Age series) who drew attention to Pavlova’s works again and republished her poetry, so for a while her work influenced Silver Age Symbolism. However, she remains shamefully understudied. Even Wikisource has only a few of her poems entered, with many more as merely links under construction.

This poem caught my eye with its edged bite. For those who, like me, need to know the rhythm of a poem and may get disoriented without establishing it first, the way a musician may get disoriented not knowing where the tonic is — this is in iambic trimeter.

***

Don’t come with dull tread here
To that grave of fate’s resting
In which all life’s storm testing
Has silent now laid.

I’ll spurn your fruitless tears,
Your hymns and flower posies.
What use two tears, two roses
Now for a fleshless shade?

Karolina Pavlova, March 1851;
translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, October 2016

Love And Friendship – E. Baratynsky

Russian Golden Age and Romantic poetry translation series, 2/?

Evgeny Baratynsky (sometimes spelled Boratynsky in both alphabets as that was the spelling in the original Polish of his family name) (1800-1844) was a contemporary of Pushkin who strove to write differently than Pushkin did. He was a close friend of Pushkin and Anton Delvig during their army service at the time this poem was written, as each of them strove to develop his own voice in poetry. His poetry lacked the striving for social justice seen in many other poems at this time when the Decembrist revolt was in the air. He was shy and poor at showing off while others were developing an effective image in self-promotion. However, Pushkin greatly admired his lyric gifts, as did the Symbolists when they rediscovered him.

In this translation I’ve had to use a few more terms and constructions anchored to older modern English than Baratynsky actually uses in the older modern Russian of the original. But I will allow this compromise as it gets at some of why the Golden Age of Russian poetry (1810s – 1840s) feels different from the much later Silver Age (1880s – 1920s). Its message still remains applicable.

Love and Friendship (An Album Inscription)

Friendship and Love they split, in speaking,
But how’d one tell apart the twain?
Both equally we all are seeking,
But one we’re told to hide again.
Vain is that thought! Deceit is erring!
Friendship may be so blazing, caring,
Moving the blood, clenching the heart,
And though it hide its dangerous flaming
Yet with a maiden fair, its naming
From Love can fain be told apart.

Evgeny Baratynsky, 1818 — beginning of 1819; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, October 2016

“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