With No Pointless Weeping.

I’ve been haunted by this poem, written by Marina Tsvetaeva in October 1916, ever since I read it; I mutter it to myself as I’m drifting off to sleep, and phrases from it keep bubbling up into my consciousness. So, since translating Tsvetaeva isn’t quite as impossible as translating Pasternak, I thought I’d try to bring into English at least a hint of its mysterious power. The original rhymes abba; I haven’t tried to preserve that, but I’ve happily accepted off-rhymes when they came naturally, as in the last stanza.

And with no pointless weeping
for father and mother — arise and go (for God’s sake),
take the open road
into the night — without dog or lantern.

The night’s maw is a thief’s:
it swallows shame and separates you from God.
But it teaches you
to sing, and smiling face to face, to steal.

And to call someone
with a drawn-out whistle, at a dark crossroads,
and under the trees to kiss other people’s
compliant wives.

The field fills with ice,
or with ears of grain — on the road, everything’s magical!
Only in fairy tales does the prodigal
son return to his father’s house.

    —Marina Tsvetaeva
    tr. Stephen Dodson

Comments

  1. Thank you, this is great. Any comments on the opening “And”? Does it imply something particular that came before, or gesture towards a folk tradition or something?

  2. No idea! I guess I sort of assumed that she was making it seem as if the poem were an extract from a longer tale, but I welcome any suggestions. (And I’m reminded that Pound’s “Canto I,” first published in 1917, begins “And then went down to the ships…”)

  3. I don’t know enough of English connotations of “go with God!” but in Russian this imperative isn’t really a blessing, it’s more like an impatient nudge, “Get going at last!”, and it can even be a malediction, like “Get lost”. And the words translated as “main roads” have a negative connotation, bringing up the clearest association with “highway robbers”, разбойники с большой дороги (if there is anything desirable or affectionate about the main road, then it may be a bol’shak or a trakt instead).

  4. I don’t know enough of English connotations of “go with God!” but in Russian this imperative isn’t really a blessing, it’s more like an impatient nudge, “Get going at last!”, and it can even be a malediction, like “Get lost”.

    I know, and “go with God” doesn’t convey that, but I felt it was more important to keep the repetition of “God.” I might reconsider, though, especially if I can figure out a way to keep god in there. (Maybe “and go, for God’s sake”?)

    And the words translated as “main roads” have a negative connotation, bringing up the clearest association with “highway robbers”

    Ah, that I didn’t realize. Hmm… The problem is that I can’t think of any useful English expression that would have a similar connotation, and again I want to preserve the repetition of “road” in the first and last stanzas. Translation is hard!

  5. Maybe “on the robbers’ roads”? Is the connotation strong enough that that would make sense?

  6. Quiz around, LH, to make sure that it isn’t a one man opinion, or, possibly, an anachronism (as in, a connotation which is stronger now than it might have been then – which I don’t think is the case). I instantly realized that “highway” won’t work, of course. You got a great translation and my point wasn’t to critique, more like to add a bit more complexity to an already daunting thing

  7. No, I understand and appreciate your effort to add a bit more complexity — I love complexity!

  8. You might sacrifice the direct repetition for a slant repetition involving road and raid.

  9. It always gives me goosebumps btw, how palpable must have been this feeling of inevitable, primal social upheaval and violence in 1916

  10. Yes, me too.

  11. The first И in the poem is there for rhythmic reasons — a usual device in Russian poetry. If you reformat the first stanza as (/ shows where I forced new line):
    И не плача зря
    Об отце и матери — встать, и с Богом
    По большим дорогам
    В ночь —/
    без собаки и фонаря.
    Then the stress pattern looks like this (in Russian verse, one-syllable “service” words like и, об, по, без usually don’t carry a stress)
    – – ‘ – ‘
    – – ‘ – ‘ – – ‘ – ‘ –
    – – ‘ – ‘ –

    – – ‘ – – – – ‘

  12. What’s wrong with “highway”? It certainly can have an implication in English of a road where one might be robbed (at least in a historical context). The OED has: “1 c. The public road regarded as the realm of highwaymen or footpads; (hence, by metonymy) a career as a highwayman or footpad. Chiefly in to take (to) the highway: to become a highwayman or footpad. Also †to go upon the highway (obs.). Now hist.”

    (Of course, it wouldn’t work to replace “on the road” with “on the way” later on, but another phrase ending with “way” might work.)

  13. I am not sure this is about robbery. There is steal in it, but most probably it is about “begging on the highways” (I don’t know how standard this expression is in English) . Compare Pasternak “Как бы тайно и вопреки его воле они побираются Божьим именем по большим дорогам…” = As if secretly and against his will they are begging in God’s name on the highways.

  14. OK, I’ve changed it to “for God’s sake” and (at the suggestion of a learned friend who loves Tsvetaeva) made it “take the open road,” which provides a spice of adventure without pinning it down to robbery.

  15. Anywhere I can hear the original read aloud?

  16. David Marjanović says:

    in 1916

    Or in 2016, elsewhere. :-/

    1 c. The public road regarded as the realm of highwaymen or footpads; (hence, by metonymy) a career as a highwayman or footpad.

    Oh, is that where “my way or the highway” comes from? “Do it my way, or you’re out of a job and can look for a new career that doesn’t require a lot of skill?”

  17. the quidnunc kid says:

    languagehat, dear stranger, I am the lowliest ear in your classroom, but I’m glad to read your voice this evening (and thus to feel another’s voice). And I pray you are always indegestible to night.

  18. Thanks, quiddy, and you’ll always be #1 to me.

  19. David: Indeed.

  20. @David Marjanović: That’s an intriguing idea, but it seems fairly unlikely. Wikipedia identifies “my way of the highway” as a twentieth-century American expression (which agrees with my gut feeling about the expression), and both the time period and the location suggest any connotation of highway robbery as unlikely. The highwayman is not a very American trope, after all.

    Relatedly, the only American use of, “Stand and deliver,” that I can think of offhand is its use as a movie title. And the movie had nothing to do with the highwayman’s use of the phrase. I saw the movie when it first came out, and I recognized the name as a fixed phrase, but I had forgotten that it was associated with highway robbery

    EDIT: Apparently, John Cowan gets a rather different read from that Wikipedia article than I did.

    EDIT #2: And I just used “read” completely naturally as a noun.

  21. I agree with Brett, the US phrase has no connection to highway robbery. It just means “If you don’t like it, hit the road.”

  22. I meant no reference to robbery, highway or otherwise. The highway in “my way or the highway” is simply the road leading away from the speaker’s place of business. I simply meant that David’s paraphrase of the phrase is correct, if not necessarily its implications. (Highway robbery requires at least physical courage, and while this is perhaps the commonest of the virtues, it is a virtue.)

  23. David Marjanović says:

    I dunno. Cowardice is underrated.

  24. And outvoted.

  25. David Marjanović says:

    Fear is a great motivator for turnout.

  26. In both camps.

  27. David Marjanović says:

    That’s what I expected, but it hasn’t come to pass. Fewer people voted Democratic this time than in 2012.

  28. Fewer people voted altogether, not only absolutely but in terms of the (still growing) population: 61.6% of eligible voters in 2008, 58% in 2012, 56% in 2016.

  29. I’m reading Saltykov-Shchedrin’s Губернские очерки, and I just came across this:
    Так вот-с какие люди бывали в наше время, господа; это не то что грубые взяточники или с большой дороги грабители; нет, всё народ-аматёр был.
    [So that’s what sort of people there were in our time, gentlemen; they weren’t crude bribe-takers or robbers from the main/great/open road — no, they were all amateurs.]

  30. @ D. O.: That takes me back to when my daughter was a little girl…

  31. The lyrics to the song in D.O.’s link “Пусть нету ни кола и не двора.”

  32. It’s wonderful.Thank you.

  33. I’m very glad you liked it!

  34. Many thanks for this. I know virtually nothing of the country, language or period, but it is a striking poem – at least in your version, so presumably …
    One small point niggles with me, but may simply be different ways people use commas: last line of second verse, I would put the comma after “and” rather than before. (Or just remove the second comma.) But there, I don’t know the rhythm of the original.
    I particularly like the way the second half of the last verse undercuts its first half. Thanks again

  35. One small point niggles with me, but may simply be different ways people use commas: last line of second verse, I would put the comma after “and” rather than before.

    Hmm, that’s a good point. I was basically carrying over the Russian punctuation without paying much attention to whether it worked in English. In any case, I’m glad you like the poem!

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