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Unread 05-14-2022, 02:06 PM
Carl Copeland Carl Copeland is online now
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Default Pushkin, “I think of school at life’s beginning”

I’ve just realized that I have threadstarter rights in this forum. Here’s a recent translation of an unfinished poem by Pushkin. Scholars think it’s the start of something rather longer, but they still debate what he was doing and where he might have gone with it. The translation was a struggle (remind me never to translate the Divine Comedy), and I eventually lost the ability to hear my own words, so I’d be grateful for your fresh impressions.


I think of school at life’s beginning, where
we lads—a motley family of fresh
and lively pupils—lived without a care.

A woman very meek, in shabby dress,
who had a nonetheless majestic poise,
was there to strictly guide our early steps.

Surrounded by our sprightly throng of boys,
she frequently instructed us and led
discussions in a sweet and pleasant voice.

I see the scarf she wore about her head,
recall her gaze, as clear as cloudless skies,
but I gave little thought to what she said.

I shrank before her stern and lovely eyes,
her brow and lips serene, her tone subdued
and words so full of sanctity and wise.

Her counsels and reproaches I eschewed;
their truthfulness and simple clarity
I willfully, perversely misconstrued.

I often stole away and, breaking free,
took refuge in a garden’s gloomy splendor,
beneath its manmade cliffs of porphyry.

The shady cool caressed me there; at leisure,
I let my youthful mind pursue its dreams,
and it was idle thought that gave me pleasure.

I loved the sound of leaves and sparkling streams
and frozen thoughts imprinted on the brows
of marble statues in the shade of trees.

The compasses and lyres beneath dark boughs,
the scrolls and swords in hands of marble white,
the mantled shoulders, heads with laurel crowns—

within my heart, these visions would excite
sweet terror; shining tears of inspiration
were born in eyes enchanted by the sight.

Another two miraculous creations
attracted me with their bewitching grace:
two images of demons, evocations.

The Delphic idol had a youthful face,
but wrathful, full of awful pride, exuding
an otherworldly power in his gaze.

The other, womanly, erotic, drew me
to follow an uncertain, false ideal—
bewitching demon, false but rich in beauty.

Before them I’d forget myself and feel
a shiver stand my hair on end and run
all through me, heart pulsating with the thrill.

My thirst for unknown pleasures would become
a torment; indolence and gloom assailed
and manacled me; vainly was I young.

Among the lads, for days on end, I strayed
morose and mute; the statues in the garden
upon my soul still cast their haunting shade.


В начале жизни школу помню я;
Там нас, детей беспечных, было много;
Неровная и резвая семья.

Смиренная, одетая убого,
Но видом величавая жена
Над школою надзор хранила строго.

Толпою нашею окружена,
Приятным, сладким голосом, бывало,
С младенцами беседует она.

Ее чела я помню покрывало
И очи светлые, как небеса.
Но я вникал в ее беседы мало.

Меня смущала строгая краса
Ее чела, спокойных уст и взоров,
И полные святыни словеса.

Дичась ее советов и укоров,
Я про себя превратно толковал
Понятный смысл правдивых разговоров,

И часто я украдкой убегал
В великолепный мрак чужого сада,
Под свод искусственный порфирных скал.

Там нежила меня теней прохлада;
Я предавал мечтам свой юный ум,
И праздномыслить было мне отрада.

Любил я светлых вод и листьев шум,
И белые в тени дерев кумиры,
И в ликах их печать недвижных дум.

Всё — мраморные циркули и лиры,
Мечи и свитки в мраморных руках,
На главах лавры, на плечах порфиры —

Все наводило сладкий некий страх
Мне на сердце; и слезы вдохновенья,
При виде их, рождались на глазах.

Другие два чудесные творенья
Влекли меня волшебною красой:
То были двух бесов изображенья.

Один (Дельфийский идол) лик младой —
Был гневен, полон гордости ужасной,
И весь дышал он силой неземной.

Другой женообразный, сладострастный,
Сомнительный и лживый идеал —
Волшебный демон — лживый, но прекрасный.

Пред ними сам себя я забывал;
В груди младое сердце билось — холод
Бежал по мне и кудри подымал.

Безвестных наслаждений ранний голод
Меня терзал — уныние и лень
Меня сковали — тщетно был я молод.

Средь отроков я молча целый день
Бродил угрюмый — всё кумиры сада
На душу мне свою бросали тень.


Literal translation:

At the beginning of life, I remember school.
There were many of us carefree lads there—
a varied and frisky family.

A meek, shabbily dressed
woman with a majestic air
kept strict watch over the school.

Surrounded by our crowd,
in a pleasant, sweet voice,
she would converse with the youngsters.

I remember the scarf upon her brow
and her eyes bright as the heavens.
I understood little of her conversations.

I was disconcerted by the stern beauty
of her brow, her serene lips and gaze,
and words full of sanctity.

Shying away from her counsels and reproaches,
to myself I perversely misconstrued
the clear sense of her truthful discussions,

and in secret I often ran away
to the magnificent gloom of another garden
beneath artificial porphyry cliffs.

There the cool of shadows caressed me.
I gave my youthful mind over to dreams,
and idle thought was my joy.

I loved the clear waters and the sound of leaves,
the statues, white in the shade of trees,
and the imprint of motionless thoughts on their faces.

Everything—the marble compasses and lyres,
the swords and scrolls in marble hands,
the laurels on their heads, mantles on their shoulders—

everything instilled a kind of sweet terror
in my heart, and tears of inspiration
were born in my eyes at the sight.

Another two miraculous creations
attracted me with their bewitching beauty:
these were images of two demons.

One youthful face (the Delphic idol)
was wrathful, full of terrible pride,
and he breathed an otherworldly power.

The other, womanlike, sensual,
a dubious and false/lying ideal—
a bewitching demon—was false, but beautiful.

I forgot myself in front of them.
My youthful heart beat within my chest; a chill
ran over me and stood my curls on end.

The early hunger for unknown pleasures
tormented me; despair and indolence
bound/shackled me; I was young in vain.

All day among the lads, without a word,
I wandered gloomily; the garden’s statues
still cast shadows on my soul.

Last edited by Carl Copeland; 05-14-2022 at 04:44 PM.
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  #2  
Unread 05-15-2022, 02:11 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
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Hi Carl,

With long poems, I find it tough to compare the original with the English, so with your permission I'll just remark on S1.

В начале жизни школу помню я;
Там нас, детей беспечных, было много;
Неровная и резвая семья.

I think of school at life’s beginning, where
we lads—a motley family of fresh
and lively pupils—lived without a care.

I struggled through this with my limited Russian, noting two departures from the Russian I thought I'd point out, then saw that you've got them in your literal rendering: помню and много, I remember and a lot. I'd like to ask a translation philosophy question here, one I've batted around a bit with Susan McLean. It's this: how free can a translation be and yet render the original?
In this case, I'd argue for a distinction. "I think of school" to me does capture помню, though clearly it's not a literal rendering - necessarily, from context, we are looking back, ergo we are remembering not cogitating, for instance. OTOH, I'd say много, a lot/many, which Pushkin found important enough to rhyme on, is lost in your version, the word family doesn't carry the same weight. So, something is lost. A question then: could that information be kept? And if so, how?
I'm afraid my Russian isn't good enough for me to go through all your stanzas with pleasure, but I think, given that this stanza opens the piece, the general question of method can be asked. Must we keep all the information we are able to retain in our English? Or may we make allowances for an English version which reads like poetry. Obviously, the answer is up to you, I just wanted to ask the question here.
Let me add that your English does read smoothly and easily, at least in the opening. Props. The little I know of Pushkin - Onegin and some prose - I think demands that the English do that much.

Cheers,
John

Update: just to say, is детей not just kids? We can again assume they're male, knowing schools at the time, but that seems worth noting. And было seems to have fallen by the wayside. Again, I'm not sure you need it, but I don't see было много in your English, I think.

Last edited by John Isbell; 05-15-2022 at 02:15 AM. Reason: update
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  #3  
Unread 05-15-2022, 05:12 AM
Carl Copeland Carl Copeland is online now
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Thank you, John. Your question about how free a translation can be is one I’ve been asking myself for years. Of course, every translator finds their own compromise between accuracy and “readability,” as Roger Clarke calls it. I’m actually obsessed with accuracy and often wonder whether a freer approach might better capture Pushkin’s ease and fluency. But I might need to be more of a poet myself to pull it off.

To your specific points:

- You’re right about помню and много in S1. I couldn’t squeeze them in—simple as that. Both are implied, though without the weight they deserve, and both are belatedly spelled out with “recall” in S4 and “throng” in S3. Should I have stretched the meter to allow “I remember school at life’s beginning”? I’ve never allowed myself the license of an extra syllable, but it’s worth considering.

- Yes, детей is “children,” and “kids” would fit the line, but it’s a bit informal for this poem, don’t you think? And yes, we can safely assume they’re boys. Most scholars would probably agree that the poem is at least a little autobiographical, and Pushkin attended an elite boys’ school on the grounds of an imperial palace where there were gardens, ponds and statues.

- The past tense in S1 (было) I conveyed with “lived.”

John, if you think the opening reads smoothly and easily, I’m very pleased. If you have time, maybe you could run your eyes over the rest of the English, not bothering to check it against the original. As I said, I can’t hear my own words any more, and I’m especially eager to know where this translation does and doesn’t sound like poetry in English.

Carl

Last edited by Carl Copeland; 05-15-2022 at 05:15 AM.
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Unread 05-15-2022, 05:51 AM
David Callin David Callin is offline
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Hi Carl. I have an ignorant question for you: what is the metre in Russian? Is it best - or even sensibly - rendered in IP?

I'm genuinely interested. And if the answer to my question is "That is not a sensible question", I'm happy to be told so.

Cheers

David
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  #5  
Unread 05-15-2022, 05:57 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
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Hi Carl,

As you say, you've got throng later and that seems to cover mnogo. The rest I think does not leave glaring gaps in the Russian you are rendering, but I think it's good to zero in on the exact process by which you are making sure each word is rendered, at least for a stanza. On balance, I think your choices can be justified fairly readily, which is nice.

I've done as you said and skipped the Russian for the remaining stanzas, to focus on the English and how it reads. To my mind, you have good, smooth, off-rhyme terza rima trotting along throughout, and that off-rhyme habit is pretty common, I think , in modern English-language formal verse. I do have one nit: in this line - "in hands of marble white" - I don't think you've got working modern English. "... like marble white" I think might be easier to get away with, if the Russian permitted it: you'd be saying, effectively, "like marble, white," for a perfectly ordinary word order. I don't have any more obvious solution, sorry, though I do like to provide solutions when problems occur to me.
So: Yes to your treatment of the Russian, at least the snippet I pored over and Yes to your English throughout, with one small nit. I like what you've got here.

Cheers,
John
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  #6  
Unread 05-15-2022, 07:51 AM
Carl Copeland Carl Copeland is online now
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Hi, David. It's a perfectly sensible question. Languages like French don’t have strong word stress and can’t do IP. Russian does and can, and I followed the original meter and rhyme scheme with one exception: terza rima was murderously difficult for me, and I had to give up the alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes, which is standard in Russian poetry even today. That’s one of the things I love about Russian verse: they never had their Walt Whitman and never lapsed into non-rhyming non-metricality. (I’m all for free expression in any or without any form. It’s just that my eyes glaze over after about three pages of Leaves of Grass. It all seems so bushy and random.)

Carl

Last edited by Carl Copeland; 05-15-2022 at 08:24 AM.
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Unread 05-15-2022, 07:59 AM
Carl Copeland Carl Copeland is online now
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John, what I meant grammatically is “hands of white,” with “marble” modifying “white.” I confess, though, that “white” is for the rhyme; the Russian simply says “marble hands,” so I can’t very well say “like marble.” But whether or not what I did here is natural English, the fact that it presented an obstacle for you is exactly what I wanted to know. I’ll take it into consideration. Thanks again, John. Much appreciated.

Carl

Last edited by Carl Copeland; 05-15-2022 at 08:06 AM.
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Unread 05-15-2022, 08:21 AM
Carl Copeland Carl Copeland is online now
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David, the place name was new to me, but I see you now on that fairy shore.
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Unread 05-15-2022, 01:35 PM
David Callin David Callin is offline
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Thanks for the explanation, Carl. That being the case, I am full of admiration for what you have achieved.

Having said that, I don't think that the result is that compelling as English verse. In order to arrive at the desired IP result, you've had - it seems to me - to introduce a fair bit of filler compared to the crib. (As often here, I prefer the crib ro the translation proper. The crib can be regarded, I suppose, as "essence of Pushkin". The translation is something a little bit different than that.)

Which takes nothing away from my admiration of your skill in coming up with the IP result, which clearly retains the sense of the original.

Does everybody render Pushkin - and others - into IP?

I enjoyed the read anyway.

Cheers

David
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Unread 05-15-2022, 04:10 PM
Carl Copeland Carl Copeland is online now
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Thank you, David. Pushkin actually favored iambic tetrameter, which has been the standard for Russian verse ever since—as IP was in English. In over 900 lyrics, he experimented with different forms. From what I’ve seen, most English-language translators have followed his meter and done various things with the rhyme. Twentieth-century Russian poetry has more often been translated into free verse.

The French have traditionally preferred prose translations of poetry, so you’re in good company, but for me that’s like extracting the lyrics from a song and calling them music. If my crib is “essence of Pushkin,” then it’s like vanilla extract—good stuff, but I wouldn’t want to drink it. Nabokov, by the way, did an immensely learned translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin in over 5,000 lines of unreadable blank verse, attempting—some think—to prove that Pushkin is untranslatable.

Carl

Last edited by Carl Copeland; 05-16-2022 at 03:45 AM.
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