Bach – O. Mandelstam

Russian Silver Age poetry translation series, 52/?

Following Igor Severyanin’s Beethoven sonnet of last week, I am going to continue running a small series of poems about composers. This one, by Osip Mandelstam, works as a substitute for his “Ode to Beethoven” that I first wanted to do. It is interesting to see in it the fascination that Lutheran church culture has for a poet used to Russian Orthodox (and Jewish) church culture.

Bach

Children of dust, this congregation,
Here boards instead of icon saints
Where but psalm numbers mark creations
Of J. S. Bach, in chalk and paint.

The tumult of such different voices
In churches and in tavern halls —
While like Isaiah you’re rejoicing,
Oh, Bach, the shrewdest of us all!

When your grandchildren came to hear it,
Debater, playing your chorale,
Was it in truth support for spirit
You sought in proof and rationale?

What is a sound? Sixteenth note fractions,
The organ’s many-layered shout —
Laconic old man, all those actions
Are no more than your mumbling out!

The Lutheran priest as he preaches
On his black pulpit, over verse,
Mixes the sound of his speeches,
Angry respondent, all with yours.

Osip Mandelstam, 1913; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 22, 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.

“You who’d stayed in my beggar soul…” – K. Pavlova

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.
—Musset

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

Twins – F. Tyutchev

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.

Twins

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

“Windows steel-gridded, grim faces…” – A. Fet

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.

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.

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