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New poetry translations: Batiushkov, Baratynskii, Lermontov

May 21, 2013

Interlitq (or The International Literary Quarterly) has published some nineteenth-century Russian poems translated by Peter France. “New Year’s Day” (1-е января, 1840) is a Lermontov poem many Russians know by heart, and “To Dashkov” (К Дашкову, 1813) is probably among Batiushkov’s better-known poems. (See this post on N. V. Fridman on “To Dashkov” and Batiushkov’s war poetry in general, and these on related work by Fridman and Monika Greenleaf.)

The two Baratynskii poems are more surprising choices (at least to me): “Ultimate Death” (Последняя смерть, 1827) and “Steamship” (Пироскаф, 1844).

At first reading the translations seem excellent, although in “Steamship,” for “my tumultuous heart has carried me/ over the free realms of the watery god” I really want “pulled me toward” instead. They have the timeless quality many translations have: “To Dashkov,” for instance, is in thoroughly contemporary (if high-style) English. The Russian is full of words and constructions that were marked at the time, and in some cases sounded grand in 1813 but could only be used ironically even later in the nineteenth century. Besides everyday poeticisms like placing the genitive first (Врагов неистовых дела) or vocabulary with an Old Church Slavic feel (златоглавая Москва), there is the special poetic lexicon that insists on перси ‘breasts’ instead of грудь, as well as short-form adjectives used attributively (я видел… гибельны пожары instead of гибельные пожары). If the Russian had none of these features, I’m not sure how the English would have to change. I take this as a sign of humility on France’s (and most other translators’) part. None of us are native speakers of 1813 English, and we’ll run into trouble if we try to make our translation sound authentically old. We’ll run into more trouble if we try to make it so specifically 1810s that it’s different from 1750s and 1840s and 1870s English. But I also think it’s a real problem, and if it were feasible to translate Batiushkov into 1813 English, it would be worth doing. On the other hand, the transparency of the language to modern readers makes it easy to follow the poet’s thought through a long Baratynskii poem!

I like this, from the Lermontov poem:

And as I feel on my cold hands the touch
of brazen hands of city beauties who
have learnt the art of never blushing,
while seeming to admire their busy gleam,
I dwell in secret on an ancient dream,

its sacred sounds now half-forgotten.

France changes enough that the words seem like they could have been written in English first. “Have learnt the art of never blushing” captures the idea of Давно бестрепетные руки ‘long untrembling hands’ better than keeping the hands central to the image would have. You can see in this excerpt how France stays close to the meter (iambic, with two lines of hexameter alternating with a shorter tetrameter line in the original) and the aaBccB rhyme scheme while allowing himself to deviate from both as necessary, and I think he makes this approach work very well.

Thanks to Olga Livshin for pointing these translations out on SEELANGS!

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