A while back wood s lot had a translation of this Mandelstam poem that didn’t appeal to me, so I thought I’d try my hand at it. I’m not crazy about my version either, but I think it’s about as baked as it’s going to get, so I’ll post it here for the benefit of those who have enjoyed my previous translations (like these):
A meager ray in a cold measure
sows light in the damp woods.
In my heart I slowly carry
sorrow like a gray bird.
What can I do with a bird so wounded?
The firmament is silent, dead.
From the belfry, fogged-in, blurry,
someone’s taken down the bells,
and the height of it stands orphaned
and the height of it stands mute,
where the fog is filled with silence
like a tower, empty, white.
Morning, bottomless in tenderness,
half reality, half dream,
thoughts’ foggy chime…
Don’t ask me what “in a cold measure” means, because I don’t know, but it’s the best I can do with Mandelshtam’s “холодной мерою,” which as far as I can tell sounds equally odd. But it’s very characteristic; in other poems he uses “in the golden measure of the age” (“Мерой века золотой,” from Век, “The Age”) and “a leonine measure” (“мера львиная,” from Рим, “Rome”). And here’s an odd thing: in both this poem and “Rome,” the “measure” phrase is not far from a form of the word сырой ‘damp; raw’ (in “Rome,” “Ночь, сырая от слез”: ‘night, raw from tears’), and another poem begins “Пою, когда гортань сыра, душа — суха,/ И в меру влажен взор, и не хитрит сознанье”: ‘I sing when my larynx is damp and my soul is dry,/ and my glance is moist in moderation [literally ‘in measure’], and my consciousness isn’t being cunning [or ‘isn’t dissembling’].’ Did his linguistic-poetic self really make some kind of association between the words мера ‘measure’ and сырой ‘damp; raw’? Who knows, but that’s the kind of thing I like to discover and chew on.