Friday, February 10, 2012

Happy Birthday, Boris

Today is the birthday of Boris Pasternak (Борис Леонидович Пастернак), who was born in Moscow in 1890. Although he had begun as a supporter of the Revolution, he later - after colliding with reality - became a quiet dissident. He ceased writing original work but supported himself as a translator. But towards the end of WWII he began to work in secret on his masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago. It took him approximately a decade, and when he was done he smuggled it out of the Soviet Union to a publisher in Italy. The novel came out in 1957. It was immediately banned in the Soviet Union, but it became an international best-seller, selling 7 million copies worldwide. The next year, Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he was forced to refuse it. (The Academy announced: "This refusal, of course, in no way alters the validity of the award. There remains only for the Academy, however, to announce with regret that the presentation of the Prize cannot take place.") He died, in 1960, without ever having seen his novel in print (it was only published in the USSR in 1988) - but he felt it was worth it.

What most Americans don't know is that he was a poet - quite celebrated in Russia, especially for his influential first collection, My Sister Life, written in 1917 and published in 1921. He wrote two other collections of poetry before his pen became secret, and then silent. I just recently read a novel about Mandelstam, one of Pasternak's friends - The Stalin Epigram. It covers that crucial point in Stalin's Russia when the arrests began to spiral out of control. Pasternak is a character in it, and I highly recommend it.

Here are a couple of his shorter ones. (They're an interesting look at translating poetry, too, if you read Russian):


Я кончился, а ты жива.
И ветер, жалуясь и плача,
Раскачивает лес и дачу.
Не каждую сосну отдельно,
А полностью все дерева
Со всею далью беспредельной,
Как парусников кузова
На глади бухты корабельной.
И это не из удальства
Или из ярости бесцельной,
А чтоб в тоске найти слова
Тебе для песни колыбельной.


I am no more but you live on,
And the wind, whining and complaining,
Is shaking house and forest, straining
Not single fir trees one by one
But the whole wood, all trees together,
With all the distance far and wide,
Like sail-less yachts in stormy weather
When moored within a bay they lie.
And this not out of wanton pride
Or fury bent on aimless wronging,
But to provide a lullaby
For you with words of grief and longing,


Зимняя ночь

Мело, мело по всей земле
Во все пределы.
Свеча горела на столе,
Свеча горела.

Как летом роем мошкара
Летит на пламя,
Слетались хлопья со двора
К оконной раме.

Метель лепила на стекле
Кружки и стрелы.
Свеча горела на столе,
Свеча горела.

На озаренный потолок
Ложились тени,
Скрещенья рук, скрещенья ног,
Судьбы скрещенья.

И падали два башмачка
Со стуком на пол,
И воск слезами с ночника
На платье капал.

И все терялось в снежной мгле,
Седой и белой.
Свеча горела на столе,
Свеча горела.

На свечку дуло из угла,
И жар соблазна
Вздымал, как ангел, два крыла

Мело весь месяц в феврале,
И то и дело
Свеча горела на столе,
Свеча горела.

Winter Night

It swept, it swept on all the earth,
At every turning,
A candle on the table flared,
A candle, burning.

Like swarms of midges to a flame
In summer weather,
Snowflakes flew up towards the pane
In flocks together.

Snow moulded arrows, rings and stars
The pane adorning.
A candle on the table shone
A candle, burning.

Entangled shadows spread across
The flickering ceiling,
Entangled arms, entangled legs,
And doom, and feeling.

And with a thud against the floor
Two shoes came falling,
And drops of molten candle wax
Like tears were rolling.

And all was lost in snowy mist,
Grey-white and blurring.
A candle on the table stood,
A candle, burning.

The flame was trembling in the draught;
Heat of temptation,
It lifted up two crossing wings
As of an angel.

All February the snow-storm swept,
Each time returning.
A candle on the table wept,
A candle, burning.


Translated by Lydia Pasternak Slater

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At 5:46 PM, February 10, 2012 Anonymous Kathie had this to say...

Since I don't know Russian at all, could you please tell me how closely the English translations you've reproduced mirror their Russian originals? I find that with Portuguese, rhymed translations diverge sometimes greatly in meaning. I don't even try to rhyme, just go for eloquence in the closest possible meaning (i.e, blank verse).

At 9:46 AM, February 11, 2012 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

Here are some very literal translations:


I have died (ended), while you are alive.
And the wind, complaining and crying,
Shakes the woods and the dacha.
Not each pine-tree separately,
But all the trees as a whole
With the whole limitless distance,
As (it does) the hulls of sailing ships
On the smooth surface of a harbor (a bay for ships).
And this is not from bravado
Or from fury with no goal,
But rather in grief * to find words
For you in a lullaby (cradle song).

* This word can mean yearning or care; I might have read it "a yearning to find words for you" but Lydia (his sister, by the way) clearly didn't.

A wintry (winter's) night

It swept, it swep over all the earth
Into every corner (end, limit, bound).
The candle burned on the table,
The candle burned.

As in summer in a swarm the midges
Fly at the flame,
The white flakes flew upward from the yard
To the window frame.

The snowstorm shaped on the pane
Circles and arrows.
The candle burned on the table,
The candle burned.

On the illumined ceiling
Lay shadows,
Tanglings of arms, tangling of legs,
And tanglings of fates.

And two slippers fell
With a thud onto the floor,
And wax like tears from the night-light
Dropped onto the dress.

And everything was lost in the snowy mist,
Gey and white.
The candle burned on the table,
The candle burned.

It blew on the candle from the corner,
And the fire of temptation
Raised up, like an angel, two wings
Crosslike in shape.

It blew for the whole month of February,
And again and again
The candle burned on the table,
The candle burned.


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