a site by John Cobley

a coppice gate


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Aleksandr Blok: Autumn Love

A translation of Blok's religious poem

  This mystical poem of Alexander Blok, written when he was almost 27, is not usually anthologized. It describes his relationship with Christ during his own crucifixion as he looks out over his homeland. Autumn Love When rowan clusters start turning redAmong the damp and rusty leaves, --When the executioner’s bony handHammers the last nail into my palm, -- When above the leaden ripple of riversOn grey, damp heights,Facing my harsh homelandI begin to writhe on the cross, -- Then—far and wide

Frank O'Hara: The Day Lady Died

Poem "The Day Lady Died" by Frank O'Hara is analysed

 Frank O’Hara: The Day Lady Died It’s 12:20 in New York a Fridaythree days after Bastille Day, yesit is 1959, and I go to a shoeshinebecause I will get off the 4:19 in Easthamptonat 7:15 and then go straight to dinnerand I don’t know the people who will feed me I walk up the muggy street beginning to sunand have a hamburger and a malted and buyan ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poetsin Ghana are doing these days                                                            I go on to the bank

Tyutchev's "When...": A Warning to Grumpy Old Men

Translation of a Tyutchev poem, with an introduction

   Basically, this Tyutchev’s poem is a warning to grumpy old men. It is written in five quatrains with abab, cdcd, etc. rhyming. The poem is notable for its repetition of  “from” five times in the last four stanzas—all of them starting lines. None of the translations I could find is faithful to this repetition, except for Eugene Kayden’s very loose translation in his Poems of Night and Day. And in this translation Kayden replaces “from” with “by”: “I pray we’ll keep ourselves untainted by…” instead of  my “Save us then, good genius, from.”

Lorand Gaspar: Extract from The Aegean Sea

Translation of an extract from Lorand Gaspar's The Aegean Sea

   EARLY MINOANThe hand spells out to the drowsiness of the rocksthe names and rhythms for an incantation. And this voice drawn from the opaque is so clear,the throat so simple that it opens what matters,that the hand trembles on the grooved slopes.Leaning against the night, it pauses again,so many subtle noises of water in the fingers,it follows a line still unknown in the world,from point to point where its touch breathes,where the wave of stone unbuttons its body,                                                10

Nekrasov's Poem "In the Capitals"

Translation and discussion of Nekrasov's poem "In the Capitals'

This 1857 poem by Nikolay Nekrasov illustrates how Russia since Peter the Great has always taken a close interest in European affairs--or to put it another way, how Russia became part of Europe through Peter the Great widespread reforms.  With this translation, I have tried to keep as close as possible to Nekrasov’s Russian and to his lineation. I have not attempted to replicate his rhyme scheme (ababcdccd) or his tetrameters. Nor have I followed the original punctuation. As is often the custom in Russian poetry, Nekrasov offers no title. I have chosen “In the Capitals.” Another common aspect of Russian poetry is the ellipsis; I have kept it here.

My Approach to Poetry Translation

Through a comparison of two translations of a Tyutchev poem, I demonstrate the efficacy of translating a poem with the greatest of fidelity.

   As an amateur translator of Russian poetry, I base my approach primarily on fidelity to the original. I find that many translators take too many liberties, often leading to a translation that is far from the original text. Of course these liberties are not usually taken because the translator thinks s/he can improve on the original. Rather, translators take liberties with the text because they want to duplicate the prosodic format. For example, if the original poem uses rhyme, many translators feel an obligation to duplicate that rhyme scheme. With many languages, especially those that employ inflection as Russian does, duplicating rhymes in English is difficult. As well, duplication of the line can be a challenge with respect to meter and the number of syllables.

Sergei Esenin's poem "Reaped Fields"

Translation of Esenin poem "Reaped Fields" with a short biography of the poet

   Following a common practice in Russian poetry, this poem has no title. I have added my own. Reaped Fields Reaped cornfields, bare woods,Mist and damp from the waters.Like a wheel, the silent moonRolls down behind the blue hills. The churned-up road slumbers.Today it noticesThat little by littleGrey winter is on its way. Yesterday in the resonant copseI saw through the mistA chestnut moon harnessed, like a colt, to our sleigh. 1917   Sergei Esenin (1895-1925) is still, one hundred years after his death, a popular poet in Russia. When he was young, he wrote poems about village life. At 28 he married the celebrated American dancer Isadora Duncan. Always unstable, Esenin hanged himself two years later, leaving behind a farewell poem written in his own blood: “ Goodbye, my friend, goodbye.”

Aloysius Bertrand: Two Books from Gaspard de la nuit

Translation of two books from Bertrand's Gaspard de la suit

 Gaspard de la nuit, Book III   The Night and Its Marvels I.  The Gothic Room Nox et solitudo plenae sunt diabolo      [The night and my bedroom are full of devils.]The Church Fathers  “Oh!” I murmured to the night, “The earth is an scented calyx whose pistil and stamen are the sun and the stars!” And eyes heavy with sleep, I closed the window inlaid with a cross of the Calvary, black in the yellow aureole of the stained glass. *** Still, if it were only at midnight—the hour emblazoned with dragons and devils!--that the gnome gorges on the oil of my lamp!

Paul Reverdy: "Toujours la" translated

Translation of a well-known poem by Paul Reverdy

This well-known poem describes a failed attempt to achieve self-knowledge. It has three mostly unrhymed stanzas of 10,12 and 8 unequal lines. Like Apollinaire, Reverdy doesn’t use punctuation. The first stanza describes the chaos in the poet’s mind as he tries to come to terms with himself. This can only be done if the noise of the world, especially from people, can be shut out or left far away. But life can’t be shut out or escaped; despite all efforts, “unforgotten memories” like cold draughts can still be felt. Throughout all this suicide lurks. Ultimately the poet fails in his attempt but lives on to try again.

Fet’s Two Late Poems on the Rose

Translation of two poems of Fet, with notes

Autumn Rose The forest has speckled its peaks,The garden has bared its brow,September has died, and the dahliasHave burned in the breath of night. But in the draught of frostAlone among the dead,There’s still you, queen rose,Fragrant and magnificent. Despite some cruel ordealsAnd the malice of fading days,You waft to me the imageAnd the breath of spring. 1886 September Rose After the morning sigh of frost,How strangely the rose smilesWith a flush of parted lipsOn a fleeting September day!

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