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,
unalleviated drowsiness—
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.


  1. John Emerson says

    I always like your Mandelstam translations better than anyone else’s, and you should gather and publish them even if you have only a dozen or so.

  2. Vance Maverick says

    Well, if one’s sowing light, then one would like to know whether it’s cold or hot light, and also how much (e.g. a peck). Thus, a cold measure.

  3. Could his use be related to the мера of “принять меры”?

  4. I’m not sure how. After all, we talk about “taking measures” in English too, but that doesn’t help me understand “in a cold measure.”

  5. Wouldn’t “мера” (measure) also mean a standard vessel to measure volume, as well as a unit of volume used to measure the amounts of grain (“три меры овса”)? I thought that’s what is being meant here. Here’s what some cursory googling yelds:
    So this is, to me, an image of meager light being shed like a parsimonious farmer would sow – by strict (cold?) measure…

  6. Further, “твердь” – literally, “hard (surface)” – most probably refers to “celestial sphere(s)”(“небесная твердь”), not “firmament”, and the word has been used like that elsewhere (e.g. Gumilev, “не избегнешь кончины кровавой, что земным предназначила твердь” – roughly, “lowly creatures to bloody disaster the celestial spheres have doomed”).

  7. “твердь” – literally, “hard (surface)” – most probably refers to “celestial sphere(s)”(“небесная твердь”), not “firmament”
    But that’s what “firmament” means; the first definition in Webster’s is “the vault or arch of the sky.”

  8. oops, sorry, I have confused it with something else…

  9. I understood the meaning as maxim explained it. Of course, I don’t understand Russian, but the sense of the English seemed to be that of measuring something out. ‘Meagre (light)’, ‘cold’, ‘damp’ fit together well.
    I’m afraid the poem doesn’t do that much for me personally, though. The woods and the belfry are good, but somehow the lines about the grey bird spoil it, both because the grey bird seems discordant with the other imagery, and because the directness of ‘In my heart I slowly carry sorrow’ is too bald and melodramatic.

  10. Those lines don’t sound as melodramatic in the original:

    Я печаль, как птицу серую,
    В сердце медленно несу.

    The verb that corresponds to carry is несу. If it was ношу, the sentence would be the banal “I carry around some sorrow in my heart.” But the verb in the poem is the… telic?… form, so it reads more literally and weirdly, “At this moment, right now, I’m using my heart to carry some sorrow, which is like a grey bird, untidy and damp with forest dew, that’s scratching around in my chest.”

  11. “What can I do with a bird so wounded?” is excellent, and I like your repetition of “the height of it”– it kind of makes up for the loss of “умолкла, умерла.”

  12. The first thing that comes to mind about measure is Pushkin’s “ума холодных наблюдений и сердца горестных замет” (observations of cold reason and saddened notes of heart).
    A meagre ray of sun throws cold light on what’s happening in the woods, cold as in sober, hard thinking. I think it is this ‘cold measure’ that is meant here, figuratively. Literally, it’s portioned, rationed, not enough of it. And heart is in both, Pushkin and Mandelshtam.
    I like the translation, really great, even without the rhyme.

  13. Is there any reason why you switched around these lines
    “where the fog is filled with silence
    like a tower, empty, white.”
    from the original?
    Как пустая башня белая,
    Где туман и тишина…
    To me, that changes the sense – what was an attribute of the tower in the simile has become an attribute of the height.

  14. Well, since the two are being compared to each other with regard to that attribute, I’m not sure it makes a great deal of difference which it’s grammatically linked to. In any case, the answer to your question is that that’s the only way I could make it fit my loose rhythmic scheme.

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