Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Bronze Horseman and Other Poems by D.M. Thomas

Poetry translations are very difficult especially from a language so different from English as Russian. When D.M. Thomas set out to translate works from Alexander Pushkin he put aside the idea of rhyme and meter (for the most part) and focused fully on meaning and emotion. I have always found his translations to be my favorites as I find he captures the essence of the poems so well and for years I have been looking for a copy of his wonderful book. Yesterday to my surprise I found a copy in the used section of our locally owned bookstore and snatched it up with great pleasure. Here is a short poem from the collection and thank you to D.M. Thomas.


I love you - though it enrages me,
Though it is toil and pointless shame;
This hopeless stupidity
I pour out at your feet!
It doesn't become me and I'm too old! . . .
It's high time I was sensible!
Yet I recognize all the symptoms
Of the illness in my soul:
Without you I am bored - I yawn;
With you I am sad - I endure it:
The unendurable! What I'm saying,
My angel, is . . . I love you!
When I hear, coming from the drawing-room,
Your light step, or the rustle of
Your dress, or your innocent girlish voice,
Suddenly I'm like a simpleton.
You smile - it is joy;
Your turn away - it is grief;
For a whole day of torment
Your pale hand is a recompense.
When, diligently yet nonchalantly,
You sit over your embroidery-frame,
Your eyes lowered, your locks swinging,
I gaze at you, content to be quiet,
Tenderly, like a child! . . .
Should I tell you of my unhappiness,
My jealous sorrow, when,
Sometimes even in bad weather,
You set out for a long walk - alone?
And the tears you shed in solitude,
And our talks in the corner,
And the journeys to Opochka,
And the piano in the evening? . . .
Alina! Have pity on me.
Perhaps, because of my sins,
I am not worthy of your love.
But pretend! Your glance can express
Everything so wonderfully!
Ah, it's not difficult to deceive me!
I want to be deceived!

Pushkin wrote this poem in 1826 when he was around 27 years old.   It's a wonderful example of his love poems.

Of all the great masters in literature Pushkin is perhaps the least studied in the United States.  I'm not sure how they view him in Europe.  Pushkin, though he died very young, did enough to make himself the Shakespeare of Russian literature.  It's hard in some ways for us to imagine but when he was beginning to write there was in essence no Russian literature.  It simply didn't exist.  By the time he died at age 37 he had created the basis of what would become Russian literature.  What he did in such a short amount of time and at such a young age, similar to Shakespeare, is simply stunning. 

This particular collection of his work has a collection of short poems as well as a collection of narrative poems and dramas.  For instance if you've ever seen the movie Amadeus you may enjoy the short play Mozart and Salieri on which the movie is based. If you'll recall the movie you'll enjoy how the play begins.

Men say there is no justice on earth;
I say there's none in heaven either.
. . . I was happy:
In peace I enjoyed my toil, success,
And fame, as well as the toil and
Successes of my friends and comrades
In this woundrous art.  Never did I
Know envy - oh, never - neither when
Piccini captivated the ears
Of the philistine Parisians,
Nor when I heard for the first time
The opening chords of Iphigenia.
Who will say the proud Salieri
Was a contemptible envier,
A serpent trampled on by men, yet,
Still alive, impotently gnawing
Sand and dust?  But now - I will say it
To myself - I am envious.  I
Envy.  O heaven!  where is justice,
When the sacred gift, when immortal
Genius, is sent not to reward
Self-sacrifice, burning love, toil,
Ardour, supplications, but illumines
The head of a madcap, an idle rake?
O Mozart, Mozart!

I'm sure there have been dissertations written on the topic, but I've always wondered if Pushkin saw himself in the version of Mozart he created.  Pushkin was a genius but he also was a bit of a buffoon it seems.  He had many love affairs, spoke out when he should have stayed silent, and died fighting in a duel over a woman who didn't seem to really love him.  Perhaps he saw both Salieri and Mozart in himself.  Two sides of his own personality the more disciplined self hating the genius that seemed to create new art that would inspire generations seemingly without effort.

What I do know is that Pushkin should be one of the most prominent figures studied in literature in the United States, but he is not and that is a shame.  If you ever stumble upon a copy of this book for $3 as I did, snatch it up because it is a real treasure.

1 comment:

  1. This is all very interesting, and I didn't know a lick about Pushkin.

    I would think foregoing concerns like rhyme and meter would be the way to go in translating poetry across languages; in fact, with media capabilities such as they are today, I might be inclined to get a voice actor of the poet's native language to simply read the poem (in order to convey the music of the verse) and present that with a translated, prose summary of the poem's perceived meaning.

    One of the casualties of the big life shift that we undertook over the last five years, that included the move back to Kentucky and the arrival of our daughter, is that I've shuffled poetry and music largely out of my life. On balance, the shift was absolutely good and right; being back here is correct, and the daughter is a star, and parenting has been good for our marriage. However, I'm definitely worse for the negligence of poetry and music, and that's something I need to rejigger.

    Anyway, this post was another reminder of that, so thanks for it.