“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

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.

Don Juan – V. Bryusov

Russian Silver Age poetry translations (occasional), 39/?

Valery Bryusov (1873-1924) was one of the founders of Russian Symbolism. Raised in a family of freed serfs who were against all religion, so that he was “raised with principles of strict materialism and atheism” and read Darwin rather than fairy tales, he received an excellent education but was expelled from his first high school for promoting atheist ideas (he finished his second). He was fascinated by Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, and translated them, as well as Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry (which translations I have read, and approve) and languages as far from Russian as Japanese: Wikisource has Bryusov’s translation of Matsui’s Basho’s famous “frogs in the old pond” haiku.

In his 1900 collection “Tertia vigilia” (The Third Watch; most of his collection titles were not in Russian), Bryusov had a cycle called “The Favourites of the Ages” in which he imagined poems either from the perspective of, or addressed to, famous historical and mythical figures: Essarhadon, Dante, Cleopatra, Mary Queen of Scots, Napoleon, Orpheus, Psyche… This poem is from the perspective of Don Juan. It is in the form of a Petrarchan sonnet, and this time I did succeed in having only two rhymes through the original eight lines. I took a few liberties with the wording (for example, the original mentions only “plateaus” but the double meaning of the word “defile” was too tempting to pass up).

If after reading this poem, you too want Don Juan to get punched in the face, read the previous poem about Don Juan in this series, Alexander Blok’s The Strides of the Commendatore.

 

***

Don Juan

Yes, I’m a sailor! A wanderer of the seas,
In endless waves a seeker of strange isles.
I yearn for new hues in a different breeze,
New tongues and alien plateaus and defiles.

And women come to my passionate pleas
Obedient, with but begging in their smiles!
As painful veils drop off their souls at ease,
They give their all — their wonders and their trials.

In love, souls open to the farthest side,
And brighter grow their sacred depths so wide
Where all things are deliberate and rare.

Yes! I destroy! Like Vampyre, lives I drain!
But each soul offers a new world again,
And tempts anew with secrets undeclared.

Valery Bryusov, May 12 – July 25, 1900; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 2016.