Russian Poems in Translation


This page contains a few Russian poems that I have translated. Russian for me is essentially a hobby. I never studied Russian at university but did an intensive Russian language course prior to being posted to Moscow for three years. That was in the mid-1970s.

Becoming interested in and getting involved in Russian literature in the Russian language have happened more recently – post 2000. This new ‘enlightenment’ has introduced me to poets I previously had no knowledge of. I spent a few years simply enjoying the feel of understanding what they were saying by getting my head around their use of the Russian language. It was much later that I tried my hand at translating into something akin to translated poetry.

My translations are probably not likely to gain me entry to the halls of approved translators. I have not always retained the original rhyme or rhythm patterns; and maybe wandered beyond the bounds of the Russian phraseology. I take heart, however, at the comment from Vladimir Nabokov quoted in my Pushkin Poems page on this site. In the context of Pushkin’s poem titled simple “To ***” (one of a few with that illuminating title):

Nabokov lauded the deep meaning and poetic excellence of the opening line in Russian: "most exciting and soothing to the Russian ear." But derided the English rendition into "I remember a wonderful moment" as a "foolish and flat statement" that "no stretch of the imagination [could] persuade an English reader [to be] the perfect beginning of a perfect poem." He observed that the expression "a literal translation" is more or less nonsense citing that я помню - ya pomnyu - (the Russian literally for ‘I remember’) is "a deeper and smoother plunge into the past than 'I remember'." ("The Art of Translation" by Vladimir Nabokov, New Republic, August 4, 1941)


Anna Akhmatova 

Anna Akhmatova, (1889-1966) is one of the two greatest women poets in the history of Russian poetry, the other being Marina Tsvetayeva. She won fame with her first poetry collections (1912, 1914). Soon after the Revolution of 1917, Soviet authorities condemned her work for what they perceived as its narrow preoccupation with love and God, and in 1923, after the execution of her former husband on conspiracy charges, she entered a long period of literary silence. After World War II she was again denounced and expelled from the Writers Union. Following Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, she was slowly rehabilitated. In her later years she became the influential centre of a circle of younger Russian poets. Her longest work, Poem Without a Hero, is regarded as one of the great poems of the 20th century. Regarded today as one of the greatest of all Russian poets, she is also admired for her translations of other poets’ works and for her memoirs.

Squeezing My Hands out of Sight

Song of Our Last meeting

In Memory of 19 July 1914         (19 July 1914 was the date Germany declared war on Russia. This was the date in the Julian Calendar still being used in Russia
                                                         at the time.  The date in the Gregorian calendar was 1 August 1914)

Here is a video of my recital of the poem. My translation folows the recital in Russian.

YouTube Video




Aleksandr Blok

Aleksandr Blok (1880-1921) is considered the principal representative of Russian Symbolism*. He later rejected what he termed their sterile bourgeois intellectualism and embraced the Bolshevik movement as essential for the redemption of the Russian people. Influenced by early 19th-century Romantic poetry, he wrote musical verse in which sound was paramount. His preeminent work of impressionistic verse was his undoubted masterpiece The Twelve (1918), which united the Russian Revolution and Christianity in an apocalyptic vision. Blok was the first chairman of the Petrograd branch of the All-Russian Union of Poets organized immediately after the Revolution. But the chaos and disastrous disruptions of life that followed were more than his spirit could bear. Exhausted and disillusioned, Blok’s health and spirit declined rapidly; and he fell into silence. Whenever he was asked why he did not write poetry anymore, Blok answered: “All sounds have stopped. Can’t you hear that there are no longer any sounds?”

*Symbolism was a literary movement that originated with a group of French poets in the late 19th century and influenced Russian, European, and American arts of the 20th century. Reacting against the rigid conventions of traditional poetry, Symbolist poets sought to convey individual emotional experience through the subtle, suggestive use of highly metaphorical language.

A Dismal Scene at Night


Nikolay Gumilyov 

Nikolai Gumilyov (1886-1921) was marked by his early poems as a talented young poet under the influence of the Symbolist movement then dominating Russian poetry. In 1911 was a driving force in forming the nucleus of the emerging Acmeist* movement in Russian poetry.

After the first world war, he tried unsuccessfully to revive the Acmeist Guild of Poets as an association of writers unaffiliated with the Bolshevik party. He had never bothered to hide his antipathy toward the Bolshevik government, and in August 1921 he was arrested and shot for counter-revolutionary activities. He was posthumously rehabilitated in the Soviet Union in 1986.

Gumilyov’s lyric poetry ranges over a wide variety of themes. Many of the poems of his middle period are set in Africa or other exotic places and glorify a life of romantic adventure. Later poetry is characterized by greater stylistic complexity, enhanced philosophical depth, and a more intensely personal element. His poetic style is marked by the use of vivid imagery to convey sights, sounds, and colours to the reader with great clarity and directness.

*Acmeist refers to a small group of early-20th-century Russian poets reacting against the vagueness and affectations of symbolism. It was formed by the poets Sergey Gorodetsky and Nikolay Gumilyov. They reasserted the poet as craftsman and used language freshly and with intensity.

The Lost Tram

 The Lost Tram is a surreal and haunting poem that explores themes of time, loss, and longing. The speaker boards a mysterious tram that transports him through space and     time, encountering strange and unsettling sights along the way. It is a complex and enigmatic poem that reflects the tumultuous historical and social context of Russia in the early 20th century; and a meditation on the fragility of human existence, the power of memory, and the search for meaning in a chaotic and unpredictable world. (Taken from allpoetry.com)



Mikhail Lermontov

Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841) was the leading Russian Romantic poet, sometimes called "the poet of the Caucasus." He is considered the most important Russian poet after Pushkin's death in 1837 and the greatest figure in Russian Romanticism. His influence on later Russian literature is still felt in modern times, not only through his poetry, but also through his prose. He was the author of the novel A Hero of Our Time, which was to have a profound influence on later Russian writers.

On Aleksander Pushkin’s death, Lermontov wrote the controversial and widely popular elegy Death of a Poet (1837), which launched him to a new level of fame. This elegy accused the high courts of playing a role in Pushkin’s death and caused Lermontov to be arrested and exiled to Caucasus for two years. In 1838, through the intercession of his grandmother and the poet Vasily Zhukovsky, Lermontov returned to Moscow, where critics hailed him as Pushkin’s heir. He wrote prolifically during this time and enjoyed literary fame and friendships. However, his strong personality and boastfulness also produced several enemies.

Lermontov died in a duel at the age of 26.

A Sail


Vladimir Mayakovsky

Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893–1930) was a prominent Russian Futurist poet, playwright, and artist whose works reflect the turbulent period of Russian history that coincided with World War I, the October Revolution of 1917, and the building of a new socialist society in the Soviet Union. Mayakovsky began composing “Cloud in Trousers” (or “A Cloud in Pants” which I have used) in early 1914 and finished it in July.

The plot of “Cloud” was inspired by his romantic relationship with Maria Aleksandrovna Denisova. Post-revolutionary Soviet interpretations understood the poem as a lyrical composition, but Mayakovsky himself proclaimed “Cloud” to be “a catechises of contemporary art.”

Hounded relentlessly by the watchdogs of Soviet literature and beset by personal disappointments, Mayakovsky shot himself in his Moscow apartment on April 14, 1930. In 1935, Stalin declared that “Mayakovsky was and remains the best and most talented poet of our Soviet era.”

This is a short excerpt from Part 1 of the poem.

A Cloud in Pants


Here is a video of my recital of this excerpt of the poem:

YouTube Video




Boris Pasternak

Boris Pasternak, (1890-1960) was highly regarded in his native Russia as one of the country’s greatest post-revolutionary poets. He did not gain worldwide acclaim, however, until his only novel, Doctor Zhivago, was first published in Europe in 1958, just two years before the author’s death. His early poetry, though avant-garde, was successful, but in the 1930s a gap widened between his work and officially approved literary modes, and he supported himself by doing translations. The novel Doctor Zhivago, an epic of wandering, spiritual isolation, and love amid the harshness of the revolution and its aftermath, was a best-seller in the West but until 1987 circulated only in secrecy in the Soviet Union. Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, but he was forced to decline it because of Soviet opposition to his work.

In one of the poems included at the end of "Doctor Zhivago," Pasternak speaks through the voice of Hamlet in a poem of that title. The words might well have served as the poet's epitaph. (NYTimes Obituary)

Hamlet


Alexander Pushkin

Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837) is regarded by many as Russia’s greatest poet and the founder of modern Russian literature. With his political verses and epigrams, he became associated with a revolutionary movement that culminated in the unsuccessful Decembrist revolt of 1825. Banished to several provincial locations, he produced a cycle of romantic narrative poems that confirmed him as the leading Russian poet of the day and the leader of the Romantic generation of the 1820s. After Tsar Nicholas I allowed him to return to Moscow in 1826, Pushkin abandoned his revolutionary sentiments, turning to the figure of Peter the Great in poems such as The Bronze Horseman (1837). In his late works the motif of peasant rebellion is prominent. The object of suspicion in court circles, he died at age 37 after being forced into a duel. He is often considered his country’s greatest poet and the founder of modern Russian literature.

To ***

Pushkin titled this poem as "K ***".  It's usually printed in English as "To ***".  Pushkin gave that title to a few poems, presumably seeking not to disclose the object of the poem at the time he wrote them. 

Here's a video of my recital of the poem To *** alternating between Pushkin's Russian and my translation:


YouTube Video




To My Nanny

Pushkin was entrusted to nursemaids and French tutors, and mostly spoke French until the age of ten. He became acquainted with the Russian language through communication with household serfs and his nanny, Arina Rodionovna, whom he loved dearly and was more attached to than to his own mother. The poem was written in 1926 during the time Pushkin was exiled at his mother’s rural estate. It’s likely that being at the estate, which was his childhood home, brought back memories of the time spent with his nanny.

Here's a video of my recital of the poem To My Nanny. My translation follows the recital in Russian.


YouTube Video





If Life for You is Breaking Bad

I Loved You Once

Here is a video of my recital of the poem. My translation follows the recital in Russian.


YouTube Video


 

Marina Tsvetayeva

Marina Tsvetayeva (1892-1941) is considered one of the finest 20th-century poets in the Russian language. She spent her youth predominantly in Moscow, where her father was a professor at the university and director of a museum and her mother was a talented pianist. The family travelled abroad extensively, and at the age of 16 she began studies at the Sorbonne. Tsvetayeva met the Russian Revolution with hostility (her husband, Sergei Efron, was an officer in the White counterrevolutionary army), and many of her verses written at this time glorify the anti-Bolshevik resistance. During the epidemic and famine crises (1918-1922) brought about largely by the civil war, Tsvetaeva was forced to place her daughters in a state orphanage, where the younger, Irina, died of hunger in 1919. Tsvetayeva left the Soviet Union in 1922, going to Berlin and Prague, and finally, in 1925, settling in Paris. In the 1930s Tsvetayeva’s poetry increasingly reflected alienation from her émigré existence and a deepening nostalgia for Russia, At the end of the 1930s her husband—who had begun to cooperate with the communists—returned to the Soviet Union, taking their daughter with him (both of them were later to become victims of Joseph Stalin’s terror). In 1939 Tsvetayeva followed them, settling in Moscow, where she worked on poetic translations. The evacuation of Moscow during World War II sent her to a remote town where she had no friends or support. She committed suicide in 1941.
 

Hands on My Children's Heads        Tsvetaeva expresses her devastation at the death of her younger daughter from starvation (see para above)

My Poems


Fyodor Tyutchev

Fyodor Tyutchev (1803-1873) was remarkable both as a highly original philosophic poet and as a militant Slavophile, and whose whole literary output constitutes a struggle to fuse political passion with poetic imagination. Tyutchev served his country as a diplomat in Munich and Turin. His protracted expatriate life, however, only made him more Russian at heart. Though the bare and poverty-stricken Russian countryside depressed him, he voiced a proud, intimate, and tragic vision of the motherland in his poetry. He also wrote political articles and political verses, both of which reflect his reactionary nationalist and Pan-Slavist views, as well as his deep love of Russia. He once wrote, “I love poetry and my country above all else in the world.” He is regarded as one of the three greatest Russian poets of the 19th century, making a trinity with Aleksandr Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov.

Early Autumn

Memories_of_You


Sergey Yesyenin

Sergey Yesyenin (1895-1925) celebrated what he called “wooden Russia” (traditional culture) over modern, industrialized society. His poetry showed the influence of the Russian folk traditions as well as a love of the beauty of the landscape which seemed to strike deeply into the famous Russian soul. It was sentimental, but also displayed a sophisticated knowledge of the Russian folk traditions and religious heritage. Right after the Revolution, he wrote several poems which embraced not so much the revolution itself, but the spirit of change which would sweep away the dull stupidities of the past. Yesyenin, like many of his contemporaries, placed his own personal hopes upon the revolution, only to reject it later after realizing the direction that it would take. While his poetic range proved to be limited, his best poetry is a fine example of Silver Age poetry. The last two years of Sergei Yesyenin's life were filled with constant erratic and drunken behaviour, but he also created some of his most famous pieces of poetry. At the age of thirty, he allegedly cut his wrist and wrote a farewell poem in his own blood. The following day hanged himself from the heating pipes on the ceiling of his room in the Hotel Anglettere.

Praise_to_You_Rus

Winter


The_Birch_Tree

Farewell   Yesenin's final and farewell poem written in his own blood before hanging himself.


Yevgeny Yevtushenko


Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933-2017) was a poet and spokesman for the younger post-Stalin generation of Russian poets. His internationally publicized demands for greater artistic freedom and for a literature based on aesthetic rather than political standards signalled an easing of Soviet control over artists in the late 1950s and 1960s. He achieved fame in the Soviet Union during the cultural “Khrushchev Thaw” that occurred following the death of Stalin in 1953. Yevtushenko rose to prominence following the publication of his long poem Babi Yar, a work about the Nazi massacre of Jewish citizens in Kiev; and the Soviet Union’s refusal to acknowledge it. As with several other poets of his generation, Yevtushenko had the odd distinction of being a celebrated dissident during a fairly repressive time. This notoriety brought him some success, leading to performances in packed stadiums and frequent reading tours abroad, but also left him open to criticism from both the Soviet government and those that felt his criticisms didn’t go far enough.

My_Dog

Here is a video of my recital of the poem. My translation follows the recital in Russian.

YouTube Video




A Take Away - or take Out - version for the poems and bio notes in PDF form can be accessed here: Book of Translations






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