Pasternak the Untranslatable.

Back in December I posted about the wild-and-woolly early poetry of Pasternak; I’ve continued reading him in order, and having finished the masterpiece My Sister, Life (1922), I want to focus on the last two stanzas of the last poem in that amazing book, “Конец,” “The End” — of both the book and the love affair it recounts, that blazed up in the summer of 1917 and fizzled out in the fall. (Not that the first stanza is any easier; how do you translate “разгуливать,” in the very first line?) Here is the original:

Познакомь меня с кем-нибудь из вскормленных,
Как они, страдой южных нив,
Пустырей и ржи.

Но с оскоминой, но с оцепененьем, с комьями
В горле, но с тоской стольких слов
Устаешь дружить!

Here’s a transliteration, with stress marked only when it’s not on the penult:

Poznakóm’ menyá s kém-nibud’ iz vskórmlennykh,
Kak oní, stradói yuzhnykh niv,
Pustyréi i rzhi.

No s oskóminoi, no s otsepenen’em, s kóm’yami
V gorle, no s toskói stol’kikh slov
Ustayósh druzhít’!

Note the complex pattern of assonances: -KOM menya, s KEM-nibud’, -sKORMlennykh, -KOMinoi, s KOM’yami; straDOI, pustyREI, s tosKOI, STOL’kikh… Here’s a literal translation:

Introduce me to someone from those raised,
Like them, on the harvest labor of southern fields,
Wastelands and rye.

But with the bitter taste, but with the stupor, with the lumps
In the throat, but with the pangs of so many words,
You get tired of being on friendly terms.

That doesn’t sound like poetry, and it’s not meant to; the only poetic translation I’ve been able to find, by James E. Falen, renders those stanzas:

Acquaint me with one who was nurtured, as they,
By the labors of southern fields,
Of wastelands and rye.

But this bitter taste, this stupefied heart, these lumps
In the throat, the anguish of words. . . .
One longs for an end.

That rolls along more mellifluously, but it’s still not really poetry, to my taste, and the last line is just ridiculous, corresponding to nothing in the Russian. Here’s a couple of English stanzas that, while having nothing to do with the original semantically, attempt to give some idea of the sound play:

It’s as common as camping, or as cormorants,
Like a knee that straddles your knees,
It’s a ray of the sea.

Not as communist, not as some paynim, as companies
Quarterly, not as coy stalks; as love
You stay all too sweet.

I can knock that doggerel off in a few minutes, but I couldn’t English the poem in a million years. Pasternak boils down the resources of Russian too idiosyncratically and completely; there’s not enough that can be carried over in the leaky bucket of translation.

Comments

  1. Bring me a man born in the south,
    Raised to labor, to scythe the rye
    Harvest a crop
    From an empty field.

    Taste the bitterness piercing the mouth,
    Choke on words clotted and dry
    We open old wounds
    That have never healed.

  2. Perhaps you were just trying to be concise, but оскомина is not a bitter taste, it’s the sensation when you bite down on something very sour and your whole mouth kinda spasms. It certainly doesn’t have the clichéd resonances that “bitter taste” does in English.

    But yes… I wonder if this poem can become an English poem.

  3. Perhaps you were just trying to be concise

    Yes, I was. If you unpack every word, the translation gets very wordy!

  4. Oskomina has a strong figurative meaning, “something which lasts too long to be sufferable”, maybe repeated too much; together with otsepene’ye and lumps in throat, all three are telling of painful pauses, of longing to move on yet being unable to.

    Great verse, LH.

  5. Vladimir Diakoff says:

    I used to make money by translating English books into Russian. Many years ago. I’ve never done it the other way around. Here’s my pass.

    Present me to some of the nourished and cherished,
    Like them, by the hot summer toils of southern grasslands,
    Wastelands and ryefields.

    But with the pinch and the stupor, the lumps in the throat
    But gut wrenching wordiness
    Grinds friendship to naught.

    Interestingly, оскомина alternates with щемить. Nourished and cherished, grasslands and wastelands reproduces the P’s assonance.

  6. Vladimir Diakoff says:

    Steve, do you want to try this one?

    В мутной передней долго не влезет
    сломанная дрожью рука в рукав.
    Выбегу,
    тело в улицу брошу я.
    Дикий,
    обезумлюсь,
    отчаяньем иссечась.

  7. Come to think of it, оскомина is a queer word: as far as I can tell it’s almost exclusively used nowadays in just two set phrases. The first one is набить оскомину – to have been unbearably boring. The other one is the Biblical quote from Jeremiah 31:29 and Ezekiel 18:2 – “Отцы ели кислый виноград, а у детей на зубах оскомина,” the English analog being “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”

    I believe no one would now say “у меня оскомина” to mean the actual taste or feeling in their mouth – it would rather be smth like “зубы сводит.”

  8. You can easily say “у меня оскомина на зубах”. Refer to http://moimedik.blogspot.com/2013/11/blog-post.html

    And one more phrase is “оскома на зубах”.

  9. Easily, no, not me. As for оскома, I’ve never heard it used; googling it mostly yields dentistry-related sites/forums. Dou you really use either in your speech?

  10. Yeah, I use “оскомина на зубах”. It is rather common phrase for me. And I’m not a dentist. But usually I live in Belarus, there are some regionalism here like шуфлядка и so on.

  11. OK, I stand corrected then.

  12. love this thread. pasternak’s my sister life is an amazing book–far too little known by american poets, in whatever translation–; even when blunted by translators’ understandingly desperate fumblings, the exuberance shines through.

  13. Yeah, it’s amazing how little Pasternak is translated — nothing like what’s available for Mandelstam and Akhmatova. I suspect most English speakers are only vaguely, if at all, aware that he was a poet; they know him only as the author of Doctor Zhivago (just as they know Chekhov only as the author of a few plays).

  14. To me, as a highly educated American who speaks no Russian, I was certainly most aware of Pasternak as the author of Doctor Zhivago, although I also knew that he was also a great poet. (My father, having been a devotee of Russian literature in his youth, probably taught me more than most Americans with similar educations would know about Russian writers.) I have no idea how much of his work is available in English, but he must be vastly more famous among English speakers than Mandelstam or Akmatova. (Honestly, outside this blog, I have never heard of either of them, I don’t think. I always feel like Manelstam is somewhat familiar, but this is really just a product of the fact that there was a famous physicist named Mandelstam, for whom the scattering variables s, t, and u are named.) Note that Pasternak was famous enough to get mentioned alongside Mickey Mantle and Jack Keruoac in “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

  15. Most Americans can read some of the Pasternak’s poetic works in English translation. Try Hamlet, King Henry IV and such. 🙂

  16. I have no idea how much of his work is available in English, but he must be vastly more famous among English speakers than Mandelstam or Akmatova.

    As the world-famous Nobel laureate and author of Doctor Zhivago? Sure. As a poet? I’d be very surprised if more than one of the first hundred people you stopped at random on the street were aware he was a great poet. You have the distinct advantage of having a father who was a devotee of Russian literature in his youth.

  17. Trond Engen says:

    I’ll have a go (in a language none of you read):

    Gje meg samband med einkvan som er uppvaksen
    Som dei, i stridbar solvarm jord
    Vide vidder og rug.

    Men med beiskskapen, men med blodsmaken, med blemmene
    I halsen, men med ein biesverm av ord
    Vise varsemd er drygt!

  18. I suspect most English speakers are only vaguely, if at all, aware that he was a poet; they know him only as the author of Doctor Zhivago

    But the poems are absolutely the best part of Doctor Zhivago!

  19. @F: “оскомина is not a bitter taste, it’s the sensation when you bite down on something very sour and your whole mouth kinda spasms” That’s not supposed to happen with healthy teeth. It’s only when you’ve been chewing on sour fruit or berries for some time that your teeth become sensitive to the acid. Hence the figurative meaning.

    Nekrasov uses оскома in Peasant Children: “Набили оскому: черница поспела!”

  20. Trond Engen says:

    Better, I think:

    Gjev meg venskap med einkvan som er uppvaksen
    Som dei, i strevsam, solvarm jord
    Vide vidder og rug

    Men med beiskskapen, men med blodsmaken, med blemmene
    I halsen, men med ein biesverm av ord
    Vere venleg er drygt!

  21. Andras T-Cz. says:

    In secondary school, I was member of a literature circle. One day my teacher brought us one of Anna Akhmatova’s poems and asked us to try and translate it into Hungarian – my native language -, but keep it just as concise as the original poem was in Russian. We did not get anywhere with it, and it was then revealed to us that the poem did not have a Hungarian translation. It felt strange: after all, the speakers of Hungarian, an agglutinative language often pride themselves on being able to be extremely concise. More than fifteen years later, I still haven’t seen a Hungarian translation of that very poem, although I have seen an English translation. Conciseness, just like Pasternak’s assonance patterns, is probably present in every language, but in ways that oftentimes cannot be matched. And this is when enthusiasts of linguistic diversity should feel triumphant.

    As a bonus, here is the poem:

    Один идёт прямым путём,
    Другой идет по кругу
    И ждет возврата в отчий дом,
    Ждет прежнюю подругу.
    А я иду – за мной беда,
    Не прямо и не косо,
    А в никуда и в никогда,
    Как поезда с откоса.

  22. I was going to ask about Nabokov’s dismissal of Dr. Zhivago, then decided to not be lazy, and found this interview. Even if you think Nabokov was a snob, his interviews are interesting and lively. He loves Pasternak’s poetry and dislikes Dr. Ж., both as literature and for its politics. He explains his own machinations in refusing to review the book, out of concern for Pasternak’s welfare.

  23. As a bonus, here is the poem

    That is indeed concise! Here’s the translation by Judith Hemschemeyer:

    One walks a straight line,
    Another walks in a circle
    And awaits a return to the paternal home,
    Awaits his former love.
    But I walk — dogged by misfortune,
    Not straight ahead and not aslant,
    But to nowhere and to never,
    Like a derailed train.

    That’s so literal Nabokov might almost approve, but has nothing to do with poetry. I might try something like this:

    One walks straight, another walks
    In circles and awaits
    Return to the paternal home,
    And a love of former days.
    But when I walk, bane walks behind,
    Neither aslant nor straight,
    And to no other place or time,
    Like a derailed train.

  24. Even if you think Nabokov was a snob, his interviews are interesting and lively.

    They are indeed, but that one in particular did not impress me (and I’m not sure it was an actual interview — it seems quite possible to me that Nabokov himself was the “docile anonym”). It shows nothing so much as Nabokov’s pathetic paranoia about anything that smacked to him of Sovietism, and the way it drove esthetics right out of his mind.

    Any intelligent Russian would see at once that the book is pro-Bolshevist and historically false

    “Any intelligent Russian,” meaning “any Russian who thinks as I do.” What on earth does historical falsity have to do with whether it’s a good novel? And of course the question arises: if the book is so clearly “pro-Bolshevist,” why were the Soviets so enraged by it? Why were they trying to suppress it rather than promoting it proudly?

    When the novel appeared in America, her left-wing idealists were delighted to discover in it a proof that “a great book” could be produced after all under the Soviet rule. It was for them the triumph of Leninism.

    The triumph of Leninism! That’s completely insane. I wonder if he actually read any of the reviews, none of which treated it in terms remotely like that?

  25. Yeah, his refusal to review the book, out of fear that it would hurt its sales, which would then make Pasternak more vulnerable to persecution—I couldn’t tell if he’s cleverly two moves ahead of the Soviets, or if he’s just imagining things. That, unfortunately, is typical of what happens with repressive, secretive regimes. You can’t tell if you’re crazy or if they’re really after you.

  26. @LH: “And of course the question arises: if the book is so clearly “pro-Bolshevist,” why were the Soviets so enraged by it?”

    Assuming it was sympathetic to the Bolsheviks of the 1917 generation (a reasonable assumption to me), Doctor Zhivago was “pro-Bolshevist” in a deeply unorthodox, independent fashion, unapproved and unauthorized by the Party. Even praise for Bolshevism was treated as heresy if it was not duly rubber-stamped by communist censors.

    For those critics and scholars who see the Russian modernist novel/novelette – works such as The Petty Demon by Sologub, Petersburg by Bely, Goat-Song by Vaginov, Victor Vavich by Zhitkov, The City of N. by Dobychin – as the greatest achievement of Russian literature of the time, Zhivago is not particularly interesting, especially when compared with Pasternak's early povest', The Childhood of Luvers. I don’t share this view.

    Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote in 1982 of Pasternak’s “terrible ‘Soviet’ accent, or, perhaps, Soviet only to us.” Schmemann, born in 1921, never lived in Russia but I suspect his Russian was of the St. Petersburg variety. Perhaps he mistook Moscow accent for “Soviet.”

  27. Assuming it was sympathetic to the Bolsheviks of the 1917 generation (a reasonable assumption to me), Doctor Zhivago was “pro-Bolshevist” in a deeply unorthodox, independent fashion, unapproved and unauthorized by the Party.

    OK, that makes sense.

    For those critics and scholars who see the Russian modernist novel/novelette – works such as The Petty Demon by Sologub, Petersburg by Bely, Goat-Song by Vaginov, Victor Vavich by Zhitkov, The City of N. by Dobychin – as the greatest achievement of Russian literature of the time, Zhivago is not particularly interesting, especially when compared with Pasternak’s early povest’, The Childhood of Luvers.

    That also makes sense — I haven’t read Zhivago yet, but I’m not expecting it to astonish me in the way that those books do (or the ones I’ve read do). But as far as I know VVN rejected Soviet literature in its entirety, with the exception of Olesha, so I’m not sure his rejection of Zhivago can be ascribed to such grounds.

  28. @Y, you are still paranoid if they are out to get you. But you have to be.

  29. @Trond, there were no real problems in reading either version though I did check up on the specific shades of meaning of dryg in Norwegian, just to be sure.

    Nicely done,

  30. Trond Engen says:

    Thanks, Lars. Yeah, both are readable for those able to read, I hope. The difference is partly in assonance patterns, partly in that the latter has the word ‘ven’ “friend”. Twice. That might well be too much. My non-existing Russian can guide me on assonance but not on level of clarity, or finer shades of meaning.

    Also, I invariably find myself using Nynorsk for translation of poetry. More monosyllabic words and fewer reduced vowels.

  31. Trond Engen says:

    One will set a distant target
    Another like the moon above
    Go in rounds in hope of reaching
    A childhood home, a youthful love
    Me, I go — no home, no lover —
    Not ahead and not around
    But to nowhere and to never
    Like a trainwreck, just unbound

  32. Trond Engen says:

    Nokon strener strakt mot målet
    Andre krinsar som i tjor
    Fast i kjære barndomsminne
    Fast i unge elskhugsord
    Sjølv går eg — for lagnads skulder —
    Utan lekkje, utan leid
    Men mot aldrig og mot inkje
    Som eit tog fer ut på sneid

  33. Nogen styrer lige
    Andre kredser rundt
    Fanget i barndom
    Fanget i elskov
    Mig leder ulykken
    ikke lige eller skævt
    men mod aldrig og intet
    som et tog over skrænten

    Combination of Trond and g.co/translate

  34. Trond Engen says:

    Boiled down to terse free verse. I like that.

  35. Thanks. I often find it easiest to improve my text by pruning.

  36. @languagehat: I didn’t mean to separate fame as a poet from fame as a novelist. In fact, I don’t think they can be separated. Was John Updike more famous as a poet or a novelist?

    I don’t know if I learned about Pasternak as a poet from my father of from this blog. However, if you asked an educated American off the street about Pasternak’s poetry, they would likely have no opinion, not having read any of it; on the other hand, if you asked about the other poets you mentioned, the response would be pure “WTF?” Pasternak is a known writer, even if almost nobody has read his work in this country, and it would be a reasonable inference that he wrote poetry as well as fiction. The other two are completely unknown.

  37. it would be a reasonable inference that he wrote poetry as well as fiction.

    Why? Most famous novelists don’t. And if he hadn’t written Doctor Zhivago, he’d have been as unknown here as the others.

  38. Was John Updike more famous as a poet or a novelist?

    Wikipedia says Updike was “an American novelist, poet, short story writer, art critic, and literary critic”, and I think that’s a fair summary of educated American opinion: novelist first.

    Hat: I think Brett merely means that if you ask someone about X’s poetry, it’s a reasonable inference that he in fact wrote poetry. Few people who know Thomas Hardy (or L. Sprague de Camp, for that matter) as a novelist have opinions about his poetry, but it wouldn’t provoke a “WTF?” to ask about it, either. Indeed, Hardy thought of himself primarily as a poet, dictated his last poem on his deathbed, and even wrote The Dynasts, a trilogy of plays in verse about the “war with Napoleon”; its three parts are of six, six, and seven acts respectively and comprise 131 scenes altogether.

  39. Trond Engen says:

    Here’s a go on Pasternak in English:

    Let me be with somebody who was born and raised
    Like them, ploughing hot southern fields
    Miles and miles of rye

    But the bitter taste, but the utter boredom, the blisters
    In the throat, but the battering words
    Mild manners will dry!

    I’ll stop now.

  40. David Marjanović says:

    @Y, you are still paranoid if they are out to get you. But you have to be.

    “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not coming after you!”

  41. Anonymous Fool says:

    Mostrami un altro, come loro, avvezzo
    A mieter le messi del mezzogiorno,
    La sterpaglia e la segale.

    Ma con l’amarezza, ma col torpore,
    Con la tristezza di troppe parole,
    Ma col groppo alla gola …
    Basta con l’amicizia!

    *****

    C’è chi va in linea retta,
    C’è chi va in cerchio
    E torna alla casa paterna
    E torna all’amore che fu.

    Ma io, per mia sventura,
    Non vado avanti
    Né indietro, da nessuna parte
    Mai, come un treno deragliato.

  42. Exactly. Given that the Men in Black exist and are out to get one citizen in ten thousand (to use a low number), that half the targeted citizens will develop paranoia before they disappear, and the incidence in the rest of the population is 1% — what then is the probability that the man on the corner screaming that they are out to get him is right?

    (I make it one in two hundred).

    Paranoia is a survival trait if you live in a forest with tigers.

  43. Hat: I think Brett merely means that if you ask someone about X’s poetry, it’s a reasonable inference that he in fact wrote poetry.

    Oh, OK. I missed that. But I still think his poetry is entirely irrelevant to his reputation outside of Russia.

    Here’s a go on Pasternak in English

    I like that, all but the last line.

  44. Trond Engen says:

    Thanks. And I can see your point with the last line. Problem is, it has to play with the last line of the previous stanza as well as being softer in sound than the rest.

  45. @Brett: “I have no idea how much of his work is available in English, but he must be vastly more famous among English speakers than Mandelstam or Akmatova.”

    Paradoxically or not, Doctor Zhivago would not have caused so much controversy and become so famous thanks to it if Pasternak had not been the number one Soviet poet at the time of the novel’s publication. In the 1950s, he was one of the very few living poets who had published critically acclaimed work before 1917. Pasternak’s pro-Revolution credentials were strong and his beliefs probably sincere and deeply held. He was once a member of LEF with Mayakovsky and had penned long poems about the 1905 revolution and one of its martyr-heroes, Lieutenant Schmidt (mostly remembered today for his fake children, courtesy Ilf and Petrov). Akhmatova was not quite Soviet, simply put. At least two old Futurists were still alive then but they had never quite left the margins. Gorodetsky, once a prominent Acmeist, was pretty much finished as a poet.

    So Pasternak was the only master poet alive in the 1950s who had made it at a time when Russians were churning out first-class innovative poetry like there was no tomorrow (and there was no tomorrow), who had never stopped writing and who was loyal to the spirit of 1905 and even of 1917 (although, obviously, not of 1937). If he led the way with a deeply personal assessment of the 1910s-20s, however sympathetic to the original Bolshevik cause, others would follow and the phony orthodox history of the revolution would soon be in shambles.

  46. Very well put!

  47. Trond Engen says:

    I was pondering “Making nice is a dread” before settling for the manners. That was better for lack of final rhyme, and for not overdoing the alliteration, but a miss on register. Now I think the nasal, the diphtong and the sibillant of ‘nice’ is enough to evoke the memory of ‘miles’, so maybe “Being nice eats you”.

  48. I wonder if my mimicking the inversion in the Russian has misled you? The last line logically/semantically comes before the rest: “You get tired of being on friendly terms with the bitter taste, the stupor, the lumps in the throat, and so many words.” In other words, you’re sick of that stuff. “Making nice” doesn’t come into it.

  49. Trond Engen says:

    Ah! I was afraid of being too clear on something ambiguous, and of being obviously foreign, but instead I missed the mark entirely. I’ll see what I can do.

    In the end, of course, it’s about me committing a cardinal sin for vanity or kicks — translating a poem from a language I don’t understand into another one that’s not native to me.

  50. Oh, no, that’s not a sin at all — you were doing great work, it was just a misunderstanding that caused the last-line problem.

  51. And since I dislike inversion in general, if I were doing anything other than a literal trot/translation, I would have gotten rid of it.

  52. Trond Engen says:

    No it is a sin, but certainly a sweet one.

    If inversion was what Pasternak intended, to build up to the counterpoint to the previous stanza, it’s worth keeping. But the final line has to make clear what’s going on.

  53. Trond Engen says:

    But you’re right. Inversion doesn’t seem to be used for emphasis here, only to get r and zh at the end.

  54. Trond Engen says:

    English:

    Let me be with somebody who was born and raised
    Like them, ploughing hot southern fields
    Miles and miles of rye

    But the bitter taste, but the utter boredom, the blisters
    In the throat, but the battering words
    Will not let me be!

    Norwegian:

    Gjev meg venskap med einkvan som er uppvaksen
    Som dei, i strevsam, solvarm jord
    Vide vidder og rug

    Men til beiskskapen, men til blodsmaken, til blemmene
    I halsen, men til ein biesverm av ord
    Vil eg seint venjast!

  55. Ooh, I like that!

  56. Trond Engen says:

    Thanks. Yes, I think it worked out well.

    Now back to … what was I doing?

  57. What does the “like them” do? Let me meet a hypothetical person with certain characteristics who is like some other group of hypothetical persons with the exact same characteristics? By definition, the first person is alike to the latter group. Why bring “them” into it?

    Sorry if this sounds snarky, but I really don’t get it. In all these translations, the “like them” sounds really jarring. Is that the point? Is it supposed to sound jarring? Or are we supposed to imagine that, as the speaker says “them”, he gestures in the direction of some southern fields in which can be seen workers ploughing rye?

    EDIT: I reread this and maybe it still sounds too harsh. I get that y’all are all enjoying this poem and I’m not trying to spoil that–I want to join in. But the “like them” keeps keeping me away.

  58. Will, Pasternak’s early poetry is not known for it’s clarity, but grammatically speaking, Как они/Like them refers to someone/something who was nursed (or raised) on “Souhtern fields, wastelands, and rye” just like somewhat mysterious “them” were. From reading the whole poem, my best guess is that “them” are leaves. But I’m sure there are at least 1000 other hypotheses.

  59. Was John Updike more famous as a poet or a novelist?

    As an educated American, and a New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly reader since childhood, I can honestly say I had no idea Updike even wrote poetry. And my initial assumption would be that he was a dilettante. Was he a serious poet?

  60. He has a page at the Poetry Foundation, with 27 poems listed there (you need some extra clicks to get the full list). In a 2009 interview with the editors, he says:

    Had poetry paid as well as fiction, I would have written more of it. In the first decade of my free-lancing, the checks from The New Yorker for my (mostly light) verse were not, in my budget, insignificant. Back then, Robert Frost and Ogden Nash were still living examples of professional poets. I would not call poetry’s present marketplace position a “failure,” since no contemporary poet expects to make a living by it. He or she teaches, rather, or has an independent income. While making my living elsewhere, I have never stopped writing and reading poetry, as the exercise of language at its highest pitch. But let me add that I am dismayed by the recent rise of the term “literary fiction,” denoting a genre almost as rarefied and special and “curious” in its appeal, to contemporary Americans, as poetry.

    I’ve just read a few of the poems, and they are clearly by the same person as the novelist, and even have the same narrator with the same sensibility. It’s not work that specially interests me, but it is certainly high-quality work.

  61. What does the “like them” do?

    What D.O. said. Pasternak’s early poetry is full of stuff like that; he privileged sound over sense, and someone who wants everything to be clear will probably prefer Mandelstam or Akhmatova. But it’s glorious stuff.

    Was John Updike more famous as a poet or a novelist?

    Unquestionably the latter. I’m quite sure most Americans, like Vanya, have no idea he even wrote poetry.

  62. Present me a southern soul–
    Mahogany–scything neatly, meanly,
    Trying in the rye.

    But the common weight and the stupor come with me.
    Words give worse stings.
    Stay, let them shatter in the street!

  63. one walks straight
    another goes round clockwise
    yearning for the old estate
    for lost love’s first butterflies
    while I walk–troubled forever–
    neither line nor arc across terrain
    but to nowhere and to never
    like a derailed train

  64. Updike wrote the best poem ever about elementary particle physics: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1995/illpres/cosmic-call.html

  65. For attempts to translate Akhmatova, two things are important. First, she uses 4 and 3 foot iambs and ABAB CDCD rhyme. These features are very distinct for Russian reader. If you translate it as vers libre it would have not only a completely different rhythmical effect, but somewhat confusing, because vers libre was very much in use in Russian poetry of the time and if Akhmatova decided to go with a more classical set-up, she might have had a reason. Russian “serious” poetry is not done and over with rhyming and classical meter and there is a difficulty to match that with English poetry, where the two are relegated to the second class. But because Akhmatova was contemporary of, say, Frost, I don’t think the translator should shy away from them.

    The second feature is that Akhmatova’s words are not fancy at all. It’s everyday words, expressing almost everyday thoughts (exception, отчий дом, which is from “poetic register”), the translator must keep wording as simple as possible.

    That’s just my two cents.

  66. Trond Engen says:

    Register: Check
    Rhyming: Check
    Rhyme scheme: Check
    Iambs: Che… damn.

  67. Updike wrote the best poem ever about elementary particle physics

    From the December 1960 New Yorker. I must have read it not long after that, and I’ve never forgotten it. Sheer genius.

  68. @Trond Engen: Apart from the generally permissible pyrrhics and spondees, I’ve only been able to spot one departure from the standard iambic tetrameter: the choriambus in “Infiltrate you and me!” My problem with it is not the metric shift but its apparent lack of purpose. In contrast, say, to one of my favorite lines ever, “Silently we went round and round.”

  69. Trond Engen says:

    I was confused there, until I found out you were commenting on Updike’s Cosmic Gall.

    The “Infiltrate” line is halting, but so is the one before. A little context:

    […]
    They snub the most exquisite gas,
    Ignore the most substantial wall,
    Cold-shoulder steel and sounding brass,
    Insult the stallion in his stall,
    And, scorning barriers of class,
    Infiltrate you and me!
    Like tall
    And painless guillotines, they fall
    Down through our heads into the grass.
    […]

    I think the whole bolded sentence is meant to be read out of meter, as an exclamation of disgust bursting out in the middle of the controlled regularity.

    Also, I looked up Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol (thanks for that). While the meter is iambic with alternating four and three feet, he’s breaking it freely all the way through.

  70. M-W lists in-FIL-trate as the only AmE pronunciation; AHD puts in-FIL-trate first and IN-fil-trate second. I say the latter myself, but probably Updike did not, making the line plain trochaic tetrameter. As for the preceding line, it only requires promotion of “ers” in barriers to a stress, which is normal, or at least not abnormal: the line before does the same thing to in, and the line after the same to “tines” in guillotines. The last line you quote has two inversions: DOWN through our HEADS INto the GRASS. Without this sort of variation, English trochaic tetrameter would be jangling and monotonous; as Pope put it (in and for iambic pentameter) “when ten low words oft creep in one dull line.”

  71. The “Infiltrate” line is halting, but so is the one before.

    No, as JC says, they’re both perfectly regular.

  72. Trond Engen says:

    I didn’t know the in-FIL-trate pronunciation (but thought it might be an archaism until I saw it together with the preceding line). BARR-i-ERS sounds really weird to me. As for the other examples, both before and after, I read those as ” generally permissible pyrrhics and spondees”, or pairs of syllables where the stress may vary naturally without much change of meaning. Or maybe it’s me not being native again.

  73. I didn’t think about the in-FIL-trate option: if it’s legit, I take my comment back – it’s a regular line with nothing to marvel at. As for “barriers,” it’s OK to skip a stress or have a weak, secondary stress. If “barriers” were supposed to rhyme with “careers” or slightly off-rhyme with “hers,” the case would be more interesting. (As in Yeats: “What voice more sweet than hers // When, young and beautiful, // She rode to harriers?”)

    I think the poem could be mistaken for one by Ogden Nash – it would fit neatly in a musical. Only the ending alludes to Updike’s favorite subject.

  74. In most English verse, promotion of a slack to a stress (pyrrhic → iamb or trochee) is much more acceptable than demotion of a stress to a slack (spondee → iamb or trochee). But inversions of iambs to trochees are standard (typical iambic pentameter lines have 0 to 1 inversions), and inversions of trochees to iambs are, as I say, not abnormal if not precisely normal. When reading verse, a promoted stress isn’t pronounced like a natural stress, but with less expiratory force, if not as weakly as a slack.

  75. Brett: I once found a book in a professor’s office that explained the Standard Model via poetry. I don’t remember the name of the book but I did save one of the “poems”:

    The wavefunction

    (with apologies to lovers of “Frère Jacques”)
    What is waving, what is waving?
    I don’t know, I don’t know.
    Probability is, probability is.
    That is so, yes that’s so.

    I’m not a fan of the Updike poem, but with competition like that, it’s probably not hard to claim “best poem ever about elementary particle physics”.

    EDIT: The book is Remnants of the Fall by William B. Rolnick. You can see more of the poems at the link.

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