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Languages differ not in what they can express…

April 16, 2013

but in what they must express. Notes of an Idealist has been publishing lots of recent Russian poems with what I think are original English translations. Here are some of them. One that caught my eye was “Evenki Funeral” (“Эвенкийские похороны,” 2010) by Sergei Stratanovsky. I like the poem and the translation, but the articles in it show how much interpretation there has to be at every turn. Here’s the first stanza:

В утреннем мире мертвых
                сыновей уложите спать.
Пусть им солнце иное
                застывшие лица омоет.
Солнце утра беззвучного
                пусть омоет…

So far, given the title, it sounds like the poet is addressing the Evenks. NoaI has “In the world of morning put/ your dead sons away to sleep./ Let another sun/ wash their frozen faces./ Let the sun of a soundless/ morning wash them.”

Так и уходит народ. 
                Погибает народ. Молодые
Раньше старых уходят
                в края голубые, иные…
Ибо хвоя земная
                уже побелела, больная.

Is narod in stanza two “the nation” or “a nation”/“a people”? Russian doesn’t have to specify, but English “must convey” definite or indefinite. I can’t help taking it as “a”: Thus a people goes away. A people dies. The young go away to blue lands, other lands, before the old. But NoaI has “The nation is also passing away thus./ The nation is perishing. The young/ sooner than the old they are passing away/ into grey-blue lands, ones that are different…” so that it still sounds like it’s about the Evenks, while my reading is that the poet is extrapolating a general rule in stanza 2 from a specific case in stanza 1. Now, there are some details in stanza 2 (mainly the needles from the trees, but perhaps also the “blue lands” – why blue?) that suggest the speaker is either talking about the Evenks or speaking from a culturally Evenki point of view, albeit in Russian. My reading may be worse. Even so, it’s a case where it seems impossible to make the translation as ambiguous as I believe the original is. The last two lines, since I’ve quoted the rest:

В утреннем мире мертвых
                сыновей уложите спать.

Click through for the full translation.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 30, 2013 3:46 am

    Great to see someone translating Stratanovsky. There’s a problem with the first line too – what does “мертвых” relate to, “мире” or “сыновей”? Is it “In the morning world, put the dead sons to sleep,” or “In the morning world of the dead, put your sons to sleep?”

    “Края голубые” sounds so different from just “blue lands.” First, “края” is more like parts of the world, sections of the universe, realms or domains than just lands. Second, “голубые” may suggest a light blue sky, clear and frosty, or a calm sea. Or, perhaps, a land of blue-needled fur-trees. Overall “голубые” hints at something dreamlike, otherworldly and probably cold.

    The poem comes from a collection titled “Оживление бубна.” All of its poems are tales of some sort from Russia’s ancient minorities, from the Karelians to the Chukchi. Stratanovsky explains the purpose and meaning of the poems in a preface so I would strongly suggest getting down to it.

    • May 30, 2013 10:57 pm

      Good point about the first line. I hadn’t thought of that ambiguity. The line break after мертвых seems to make the “world of the dead” reading more likely than it otherwise would be, though even as it is I personally lean toward the “dead sons” interpretation – on rereading, it seems to fit with солнце иное, погибает, молодые раньше старых уходят later on.

      I’ll check out Stratanovsky’s collection – thanks for mentioning it!

      • May 31, 2013 1:54 am

        I’ve just realized this particular poem is NOT part of Оживление бубна but it sounds so much like one of those poems.

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