February.

The first poem in my handy one-volume collection of Pasternak is “Февраль. Достать чернил и плакать!” (you can hear Sergei Narovchatov read it or Russian-born Regina Spektor sing the first stanza halfway through “Après Moi”); it’s perennially popular, and for good reason — it’s a splendid showcase for the virtues of early Pasternak. I fell in love with it immediately (especially, for some reason, the phrase “обугленные груши” [carbonized pears]), and on this first day of the month it occurred to me to see if there were any translations out there. Here are three.

Translated by A.Z. Foreman (“A language nerd obsessed with literary translation and anthropology, and an incurable addiction to historical phonology”):

February. Get ink. Weep.
Write the heart out about it. Sing
Another song of February
While raucous slush burns black with spring.

Six grivnas for a buggy ride
Past booming bells, on screaming gears,
Out to a place where rain pours down
Louder than any ink or tears

Where like a flock of charcoal pears,
A thousand blackbirds, ripped awry
From trees to puddles, knock dry grief
Into the deep end of the eye.

A thaw patch blackens underfoot.
The wind is gutted with a scream.
True verses are the most haphazard,
Rhyming the heart out on a theme.

(There’s a footnote “Grivna: a unit of currency”; specifically, a grivna was ten kopecks.) It’s lively, but perhaps too lively for its own good (it loses much of the poetry), and I don’t like “(Write/Rhyming) the heart out.” Also, грачи are rooks, not blackbirds.

Translated by Lydia Pasternak Slater (Boris’s sister):

Black spring! Pick up your pen, and weeping,
Of February, in sobs and ink,
Write poems, while the slush in thunder
Is burning in the black of spring.

Through clanking wheels, through church bells ringing
A hired cab will take you where
The town has ended, where the showers
Are louder still than ink and tears.

Where rooks, like charred pears, from the branches
In thousands break away, and sweep
Into the melting snow, instilling
Dry sadness into eyes that weep.

Beneath — the earth is black in puddles,
The wind with croaking screeches throbs,
And — the more randomly, the surer
Poems are forming out of sobs.

This is too free; it loses the specificity of the cab fare and opens with “Black spring” rather than “February,” making the fourth line redundant.

Translated by Alex Miller:

February. Get ink, shed tears.
Write of it, sob your heart out, sing,
While torrential slush that roars
Burns in the blackness of the spring.

Go hire a buggy. For six grivnas,
Race through the noice of bells and wheels
To where the ink and all you grieving
Are muffled when the rainshower falls.

To where, like pears burnt black as charcoal,
A myriad rooks, plucked from the trees,
Fall down into the puddles, hurl
Dry sadness deep into the eyes.

Below, the wet black earth shows through,
With sudden cries the wind is pitted,
The more haphazard, the more true
The poetry that sobs its heart out.

This is better, capturing something of Pasternak’s poetic style, until the end, when Miller gets sloppy and doesn’t bother even slant-rhyming (“pitted”/”heart out”). I might add that I’ve spared you some horrible versions (“While bombinating slush doth smoulder/ With promise of spring’s sunlessness”); you’re welcome.

Why don’t I give it a try, you ask? I did. It didn’t work. If I ever get it to work, I’ll let you know.

Comments

  1. Stu Clayton says:
  2. Grivna is normally 10 rubles. Much too much for a cab fare. 10 kopecks is grivennik. Either Pasternak’s native idiom was slightly different from mine (you think?) or he took a little poetic liberty.

    I like Pasternak Slater’s translation the most, but then it is the closest to the unrelenting rhythm of the Russian original, which English readers might not care that much about. Yes, I do agree, giving away the punchline of the first stanza is a drawback… On the other hand, it creates WTF moment right away, which might be a plus.

    No one, of course, attempted several internal rhymes/alliterations of the original. Most notable
    ……………………………груши,
    …………………………………….
    Сорвутся в лужи и обрушат
    but no complaints. This is way beyond any reasonable requirement of translation.

  3. A quick search in the Russian national corpus shows that grivna indeed was used for 10 kopeks way back when.

  4. Surely, one can do better than “a myriad of rooks.” What’s the proper venery term? [checks] “Parliament” or “building.” Parliament would work better, though one thinks first of owls.

  5. A quick search in the Russian national corpus shows that grivna indeed was used for 10 kopeks way back when.

    Yup. Дмитрий Кошевар in Монеты мира: “гривна (10 копеек).” And that’s the definition given (and marked obsolete) in my Oxford dictionary.

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    Surely, one can do better than “a myriad of rooks.”

    You might make them into a murder of crows, maybe. Fits the mood, anyhow.

  7. What do you mean by “fits the mood”? It’s a celebration of sorts. The spring is coming. Every Russian knows this picture.

  8. David Eddyshaw says:

    I’m just not Russian enough.

    (I see that they have to be rooks, though.)

  9. January First-of-May says:

    Grivna is normally 10 rubles. Much too much for a cab fare. 10 kopecks is grivennik.

    Grivna was 2 rubles way back in the Middle Ages, but by the 19th century it became a synonym for grivennik (10 kopecks). I don’t think it was ever 10 rubles.

    I’d say that 60 kopecks also sounds a bit too much for a pre-1914 cab fare, but I’m not really that familiar with cab fares. An online service tells me it’s about $7 in modern currency, which does seem about right for a cab fare?
    (It appears to be roughly 30 cents in contemporary currency.)

  10. I’m guessing Pasternak would have taken one of the nicer cabs.

  11. Probably the most noticeable feature of rooks, as compared with other various crow species, is the way they nest together in large groups. So rooks (not merely crows) are definitely called for in any translation of that poem.

  12. By the way, one of the things I love about the poem is the recessed stress in за́ шесть; Pasternak was addicted to that sort of thing.

  13. European blackbirds (solitary songsters) would be quite inappropriate there, for sure. But the unrelated American blackbirds (Icterus spp.) seem a rather apt substitution for rooks — similar conspicuous noisy flocking behaviour at feeding sites and nesting colonies, and comparable habitats and associations in general. If the translator wanted a bird more familiar to US readers, they seem not a bad choice at all; certainly better than any North American corvid. Of course, that intention hardly fits with keeping “six grivnas” rather than, say, “a couple of bucks”.

    Another tempting option would be grackles.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    seem a rather apt substitution for rooks —

    Are they migratory? Because rooks migrate from Russia to west-central Europe every mid-December, and their return in early spring is what the painting in the link above is about.

  15. Grivna was 2 rubles way back in the Middle Ages…. I don’t think it was ever 10 rubles.

    Right. Mixed it up with chervonetz. Sorry.

    Pasternak probably meant that he is taking a cab out of town. Might have been costlier.

    I don’t know whether I said it here on LH yet, but Russian poetry is sort of amazing when it comes to the seasons. I was learning Russian poetry from a young age through adolescence because that’s how things worked (and I liked it, sure, but that was not necessary), but leaving in Ukraine, all the nature poems were kind of just words (words, words). And then at 17 I came to the Moscow region. Boy oh boy, everything that I’ve learned in previous years appeared to be spot on. It was sort of a culture shock. Not sure whether it’s just Russian poetry or other poetries are just as good.

  16. Grivna in Croatian has the meaning of “bracelet”. The etymology connects it to “griva” = “mane” ie. a decoration around the neck / necklace.
    Krause’s Standard Catalog of World Coins has 10 kopeks = 1 grivna, grivennik. There are also:
    1/4 kopek = 1polushka
    1/2 kopek = 1 denga, denezhka
    3 kopeks = 1 altyn, altynnik
    25 kopeks = 1 polupoltina, polupoltinnik
    50 kopeks = 1 poltina, poltinnik
    10 rubles = 1 imperial, chervonetz

    From the Coin Atlas: “From the twelfth to the early fourteenth centuries Russia ceased to use coins almost completely. Silver ingots, known as grivnas, became the principal form of precious metal circulation.”

  17. At various times, 2 kopeks was semishnik, 5 was pyatak, and 15, pyatialtynnyj ~ 5 altyn.
    20 was dvugrivennyj ~ 2 grivna.

  18. There is also chetvertak (quarter) = 25 kopecks or rubles as the things might be.

  19. The wonderful book An Exalation of Larks gives “a building of rooks”.

    Other notable examples for future avian poetry:

    a deceit of lapwings
    a siege of herons
    a mutation of thrushes
    a sorde of mallards (from Lat. sugere:to rise)

  20. John Cowan says:

    similar conspicuous noisy flocking behaviour at feeding sites and nesting colonies, and comparable habitats and associations in general.

    “Thirteen Ways of Eradicating Blackbirds”

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