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Old poetry translations: “A Moral Man”

March 14, 2012

English translation of “Нравственный человек” (Russian text)
Original poem: Nekrasov, 1847
Translation: Alexander Koumanin, 1863 [updated 4/30/2013]
Source: volume 14 of The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia of the Classic Wit and Humor of All Ages and Nations (New York, 1906), pp. 71-72

A technical note: in the original volume this poem is split onto two pages, and the space after “wished to run away” is a remnant of that page break. The last 2+8 lines should be one 10-line stanza. Someday I’ll have an elegant and not too labor-intensive way to fix that.

The Russian poem is four 10-line stanzas, and this translation skips the first stanza entirely. Lines 1-2 and 9-10 of the missing stanza are the refrain (“A strictly moral man have I been ever…”), while lines 3-8 describe the narrator pursuing his wife to her lover’s house with the police, then being challenged by the lover to a duel and refusing to fight, after which the wife dies of “shame and sorrow.” Why was it left out of the 1906 American translation? Too risqué with the adultery theme, or too outmoded to be funny with the talk of duels? Or did someone decide the poem had more punch if it was shorter?

The stanza about the friend in debtor’s prison is 12 lines instead of 10 because the refrain is repeated to make up for the missing first stanza.

According to A. M. Garkavi’s commentary, it was the stanza about the cook drowning himself that ran into trouble with the censors in 1847 (when the line about drowning was changed to “Он сделался пьянчужкой… дурь нашла!..”) and 1861 (when the whole stanza was omitted from Nekrasov’s collected works).

I’m also filing this under poems that play up the difference between house slaves and field slaves. It’s not the only Nekrasov poem to touch on slaves singled out for education or special treatment who find it unbearable to return to the condition of an ordinary slave, and whose masters want to make sure they feel no more than ordinary (cf. George in Uncle Tom’s Cabin).

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