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Old poetry translations: “The Leaves and the Roots”

June 18, 2020

from The Arbitrator: Organ of the Workmen’s Peace Association (no. 113, June 1881)


In case it’s hard to read in the picture, here’s the text of B. Britten’s 1881 free translation of Krylov’s verse fable “The Leaves and the Roots” (Листы и корни, 1811) in 16 lines of amphibrachic trimeter with an ababcdcd rhyme scheme (lines 13–15 have an extra syllable at the beginning, so they scan as anapests):



How merry we live, O we leaves,
As gaily we swing to and fro,
Or flirt with the sweet summer breeze.
And laugh at the creatures below ;
The tree trunk, grim, ugly and bare,
Full surely our beauty perceives,
No notice at all would it share,
Were it not for its glory of leaves !

Nay, Nay, said the roots from below,
Pray, how would your brave worships live
If we did not grope to and fro,
For all the kind earth has to give ?
E’en the fair light of heaven denied,
How we work, how we manage to fare ;
So your Lordships live on in your pride,
You know—just as much as you care!

And here is the Russian text (34 iambic lines, with line length varying from 1 to 6 feet and a mix of masculine and feminine rhymes occurring at unpredictable intervals, aaBcBcDDDeeFgFg…):

II. Листы и Корни

‎В прекрасный летний день,
‎Бросая по долине тень,
Листы на дереве с зефирами шептали,
Хвалились густотой, зеленостью своей
И вот как о себе зефирам толковали:
«Не правда ли, что мы краса долины всей?
Что нами дерево так пышно и кудряво,
‎Раскидисто и величаво?
‎Что́ б было в нем без нас? Ну, право,
Хвалить себя мы можем без греха!
‎Не мы ль от зноя пастуха
И странника в тени прохладной укрываем?
‎Не мы ль красивостью своей
‎Плясать сюда пастушек привлекаем?
У нас же раннею и позднею зарей
‎Насвистывает соловей.
‎Да вы, зефиры, сами
‎Почти не расстаетесь с нами».—
«Примолвить можно бы спасибо тут и нам»,
Им голос отвечал из-под земли смиренно.
«Кто смеет говорить столь нагло и надменно!
‎Вы кто такие там,
‎Что дерзко так считаться с нами стали?» —
Листы, по дереву шумя, залепетали.
‎«Мы те»,
‎Им снизу отвечали:
‎«Которые, здесь роясь в темноте,
‎Питаем вас. Ужель не узнаете?
Мы корни дерева, на коем вы цветете.
‎Красуйтесь в добрый час!
‎Да только помните ту разницу меж нас:
Что с новою весной лист новый народится;
‎А если корень иссушится,—
‎Не станет дерева, ни вас».

What’s lost in the shortened translation? The poet-narrator’s speech is reduced to almost nothing. A bit of back-and-forth vanishes where the leaves find the roots’ first humble intrusion into the dialogue impudent, and there’s a different ending: in the Russian, the roots point out that the tree gets new leaves every year but dies if its roots die, while in the English the roots declare that the leaves’ ignorance of the roots’ contribution to the health of the tree is deliberate.

I don’t know who “B. Britten” could be. This translation appeared well before the famous Benjamin Britten was born. There was a William Britten from Boston who published books on spiritism in the 1870s. The B. Britten listed as the author of the words to this musical score from 1879 might be the same person as the translator here; the English text above is crying out to be sung. On the same page as the Krylov translation, we read that at a meeting of the Council, B. Britten was “unanimously re-elected as Treasurer,” apparently of the Workmen’s Peace Association that published The Arbitrator.

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