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Translation comparison: Who Can Be Happy in Russia?

September 23, 2013

[Update 4/7/14: when I wrote this post I didn’t know about the 1898 partial translation by Leo Weiner with A. C. Coolidge. See this post.]

J. Alexander Ogden translates a few passages from Nekrasov’s Who Can Be Happy in Russia? in his recent article, and I thought I’d compare them to how Juliet M. Soskice handled the same lines in 1917. As far as I know she’s the only person who’s translated the whole 8,862-line poem. (Her version somehow only has 36 downloads at Project Gutenburg, where you should all get a free copy. You’ll rarely find an 8,000-line poem that’s a quicker, livelier read! Check out Part II, where a nobleman’s heirs conspire with his freed slaves to convince him the nationwide emancipation has been rescinded.) Ogden does about 34 non-consecutive lines, printed parallel with the Russian in a scholarly article. So keep in mind that his isn’t a full translation for English-only readers. Neither translator opted for free verse or prose, but they used two different meters.

In Russian most of the poem is in unrhymed iambic trimeter. Several lines (but a varying number) will have a dactylic ending, so the last stress falls on the sixth syllable and two more unstressed syllables follow, like this:


And then one line will have a masculine ending, with the last stress on the sixth and last syllable, like this:


And then start again. The stresses on syllables 2 and 4 can be omitted.

Ogden follows this pattern closely, which means he has to end the long lines with words like “respectable” or with phrases like “itself denotes” or “fellows dear” where we’re supposed to stress the third-to-last syllable.

Some features of Soskice’s line are more common in Russian poetry than English poetry, but do not match the basic meter of this particular Russian poem. She writes in amphibrachic dimeter with feminine endings, that is:


What’s surprising is that she rarely simulates Nekrasov’s short lines; the Russian 8- and 6-syllable lines almost all come out to this 6-syllable pattern. Even when there does seem to be some variation, as with “‘The woods are not closed to us./We have seen all kinds/Of trees,’ say the peasants,” which is graphically 7/5/6 syllables, it’s really 6/6/6 but with “us” moved from the beginning of the second line to the end of the first as a concession to enjambment (there are cases where words would be split over lines if not for this convention). On the other hand “Of who can, in Russia,/Be happy and free?” is a true 6/5 with no extra syllable hiding in the next line.

Mme. N. Jarintzov must have read Soskice’s translation right when it came out, or perhaps she knew drafts of it, because she uses it in her own 1917 book to attack the practice of not recreating Russian meters in English:

It is not a bit difficult to give such a merciless twist to any musical rhythm: you can easily turn the Funeral March into a polka or a valse, without altering the succession of the melody notes or changing any chords in it: but what will there be left of the music of the originals? “Who can be happy and free in Russia?”—a translation of N’ekràsov’s epic poem by Juliet M. Soskice—does not convey the national stateliness of the dactylled lilt at all. (xv)

Jarintzov’s position (she complains about another translator, John Pollen, for “the un-Russian monotony of the beat falling on the last syllable of each line,” xv) is roughly that meter should be kept the same: amphibrachs and masculine rhyme in Russian should be amphibrachs and masculine rhyme in English. Iambs and dactylic rhyme should be iambs and dactylic rhyme.

There are several arguments against this view.

You can believe with Nabokov that it’s mathematically impossible to preserve the meaning of the words of the original while fitting them into any strict form (Gasparov’s ratios back this up). That’s an argument against meter as well as rhyme.

But let’s say you think the benefits of having a clear rhythm in the translation are worth the cost. The next objection is difficulty: compared to English, Russian has longer words, fewer stresses per word, fewer vowel sounds, more morphological endings, more words that rhyme, and so on. By this line of thought, it’s hard for linguistic reasons to preserve formal elements, but you should if you can find a way to.

But here’s the real problem: if against all odds you produce a translation with the same meter and rhyme as the original, and you don’t even have to change what the words mean to do it, your work is still flawed. Why? Speakers of different languages perceive meters differently, apparently both because their ear has been trained by local poetic traditions and for pure psycholinguistic reasons. Somewhere Mikhail Gasparov uses the ternary meters Nekrasov was fond of (in other poems, not the main part of Who Can Be Happy in Russia?) as an example. What sounds mournful, slow, languorous to Russian readers may sound quick and amusing to speakers of Germanic languages. (I can’t find it now, but I think he claims that English and German speakers read a three-syllable foot in about the same amount of time as a two-syllable foot, while Russians don’t.) If you don’t believe Gasparov, listen to the episode of NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me where an isometrical translation of Mandel’shtam’s Stalin epigram (anapestic tetrameter) comes up in a question, and one of the panelists instantly compares it to “‘Twas the night before Christmas.” Feminine rhyme in Russian poetry is ordinary and doesn’t make you smile the way I do at “Ungrateful, perjured, barbarous Don Alfonso,/ How dare you think your lady would go on so?

To get back to the case at hand: I personally like Ogden’s approach because I hear Nekrasov through it – it really does sound like the same meter. But I have trouble hearing Jarintzov’s “national stateliness” in it, and this may have something to do with how dactylic rhyme sounds in different languages, and also something to do with how easy it is to find good dactylic line-endings.

I also like Soskice’s translation. She devised a meter that you can go on and on with in English without it sounding either artificial or overly familiar, at least to me. Given the rhythmic restrictions she imposed on herself I think she succeeds at making speech sound like speech. I do wish she did more with the long line/short line contrast, which I think is used to wonderful effect in the original, to end sections with a bang at unforeseeable intervals.

Here are Ogden, Soskice, and the original Russian, for the same passage toward the end of Part I:


“I gave my word in honesty
To answer conscientiously,
But easy that is not!
You’re all men most respectable,
If not exactly erudite,
But how to talk to you?
To start, you’d better understand
Just what the word itself denotes:
Landowner, nobleman.
Now kindly tell me, fellows dear,
About such things as family trees
Have you heard aught at all?”
“The forests aren’t forbidden us,
We’ve met with trees of every kind,”
The muzhiki replied.

Here’s Soskice:

  “I gave you my promise
To answer your question….
The task is not easy,
For though you are highly
Respectable people,
You’re not very learned.
Well, firstly, I’ll try
To explain you the meaning
Of Lord, or Pomyéshchick.
Have you, by some chance,
Ever heard the expression
The ‘Family Tree’?
Do you know what it means?”

  “The woods are not closed to us.
We have seen all kinds
Of trees,” say the peasants.

And the original Russian:

«Я дал вам слово честное
Ответ держать по совести,
А нелегко оно!
Хоть люди вы почтенные,
Однако не ученые,
Как с вами говорить?
Сперва понять вам надо бы,
Что значит слово самое:
Помещик, дворянин.
Скажите вы, любезные,
О родословном дереве
Слыхали что-нибудь?»
— «Леса нам не заказаны —
Видали древо всякое!» —
Сказали мужики.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 23, 2013 9:01 am

    I gave up on Ogden at “But easy that is not!” If you find yourself resorting to that kind of thing, you should stick to prose translation.

    • September 23, 2013 9:11 am

      Fair point. I should stress again that he’s providing a gloss in an article, not offering a free-standing translation, so it’s a little unfair of me to do a post like this.

  2. September 23, 2013 11:34 am

    But it seems very odd to do such a gloss poetick’ly; surely this is exactly the sort of circumstance where prose translation is ideal. (How I love the old bilingual Penguin Book of X Verse series, with the modest prose translations at the bottom of the page — I have them for Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian, and Russian — and Stanley Burnshaw’s superb The Poem Itself, which taught me so much about how to read and understand poetry!)

  3. September 23, 2013 11:37 am

    And in fact, now that I leaf fondly through that battered half-century-old paperback, I realize that the Blok poem included as an appendix (“Черный ворон в сумраке снежном”) must have been the first Russian poem I ever read, even though I didn’t know Russian at the time, thanks to the transliteration provided en face and the thorough explication.

  4. September 23, 2013 3:12 pm

    It is a bit odd; I certainly go for a prose translation when I’m in that situation, if anything keeping the line breaks in place as possible, for ease of comparison. Ogden has a modest footnote where he says “my translations attempt to preserve at least a hint of Nekrasov’s rhythms.” I just wanted to note that even if it’s more ambitious than a straightforward gloss, it’s in an article that’s not primarily about how to translate the poem.

    I also love the prose translations in Obolensky’s The Heritage of Russian Verse (which I think is just another edition of The Penguin Book of Russian Verse).

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