Posting is thin because I’m in the final throes of a rush editing job, but I’m happy to direct you to this fine translation by “F” of Gumilev’s “Жираф” (“Giraffe”), which I had a go at myself two years ago. Note the similarities, especially the fairly recherché word “caravel.” (An interesting difference: F takes the poem to be describing a particular example of the species, “an exquisite giraffe,” whereas I took it as a paean to all of giraffedom and thus wrote “the exquisite giraffe.”) The previous post has a translation of Nikolai Oleinikov’s “Бублик” as “The Bagel”; as F says, “a bublik is not the same as a bagel, but I’m guessing there are no places outside of maaaybe Brooklyn where you might get confused.” I hadn’t been familiar with Oleinikov (shot in 1937 and obscure enough he doesn’t have an English Wikipedia article [Mar. 2022: He does now, created December 9, 2011‎ by Pkeets]), but fortunately his oeuvre is online in Russian here, so I can investigate at my leisure (when I have some).


  1. So that’s what they are called! I’ve sometimes seen them here in Manhattan, but I had no idea of their proper name.

  2. (This comment transcluded from Fourteen Flowers and a Manatee:)
    The thing is, you can’t crumble a bagel, it’s too chewy; whereas you can and do crumble a bublik (which I, a mere Manhattanite, have long been familiar with, though not by name). I admit the problem’s a tough one: do you confuse those who don’t know what a bublik is, or those who do?

  3. (Gaaah, can’t get things together today to post just one comment:)
    Comparing the two versions now clarifies the point made by commentators on your “Giraffe” page: the exquisite giraffe is rightly it, whereas an exquisite giraffe is rightly he, a distinction doubly impossible in Russian. Obviously. Why couldn’t we see it before? —a fine example of why no translation, and indeed no poem, can ever be definitive.
    I also see what else I didn’t see before: in your version, anythíng must be given a false stress. It might work better as any voice. Indeed, F’s translation is more polished, but yours I think is mostly more true to the situation. Agreed that people don’t actually address one another in verse, but the voice in English is that of an anglophone comforter, a little hoarse but very sincere, whereas in F’s version it doesn’t quite seem like true metal.
    Lastly (I hope), there seems to be a substantive disagreement about the second stanza. What is it that is shattered: the reflection of the moon(light) on the lake, or the pattern of the giraffe’s skin as seen by moonlight reflected from the lake?

  4. @John Cowan – definitely that’s the Moon which is shuttering and swaying in the lakes. Not the skin pattern.
    What I particularly love about this verse is the entrancing rhythm of its syllables, accelerating and halting again in the middle of each line before taking off again. Hard to translate *that* I suppose.

  5. ‘the fairly recherché word “caravel”‘: but, but, but, people must have come across it at school when learning about the Portugese in the age of exploration – Prince Henry the Navigator and all that. OK, spotting the relationship with carvel-built (as opposed to clinker-built) boats might stem from an uncommon experience, but going to school shouldn’t be uncommon.

  6. I hate to tell you this, but I don’t think kids learn about Prince Henry the Navigator any more. In any case, having encountered a word once in high school and not thereafter is a clear indication that it is, in fact, recherché.

  7. How could anyone forget a word as beautiful as “caravel”? Still, if you say so; it’s your blog.

  8. Caravel was a French-built passenger jet of the 1960s. I went in one (Swissair) when I was ten, it had triangular-shaped windows and an unusual tail. So it’s a well-known word to Europeans of my generation.

  9. Oh, and I know it’s not a race but I prefer Language’s version.

  10. A caravel called Nossa Senhora das Necessidades appears in O’Brian’s The Reverse of the Medal. It’s described as “very old-fashioned” but can it be 400 years old-fashioned?

  11. ProudToBeAMammal says

    Knowing first-hand how it’s close to impossible to translate poetry, especially while preserving its meter and melody, I am reluctant to criticize the translation, but there’s a line which deserves a comment:
    “And your arms are especially vine-like entwining your calf.”
    The problem is that to entwine one’s calf ( the fleshy part of the back of the human leg below the knee) requires quite a contortion, creating an image of an exercise which is far from pensive “embracing your knees” of the original.
    Plus, there’s the unfortunate second meaning of “calf”, which creates an impression of a maiden embracing her favorite domestic animal, whom no exotic creatures like giraffe could rival. 🙂

  12. Really, you’re proud to be a mammal? I’m ashamed, but there’s not much I can do about it.

  13. ProudToBeAMammal says

    @ AJP Cordon Bleu
    “ProudToBeAMammal” was born ( years ago) as a jest on those who are seriously proud of their inborn qualities.
    But – what do you think about “calf”?

  14. I have to agree about “calf.”
    Note to AJP: Goats are mammals, you know. Perhaps it’s being a primate (primacy?) you’re ashamed of?

  15. entwine one’s shin?
    I consider myself a fish, mammals being arguably a sort of specialized fish. I don’t know that I’m either ashamed of it or proud of it, though.

  16. And I can recall our caravel–
    A little wicker beetle shell
    With four fine masts and lateen sails–
    Its bearings on Cair Paravel.

  17. marie-lucie says

    And your arms are especially vine-like entwining your calf.
    I don’t know the original, but to me this sentence sounds extremely awkward.
    Caravel: I think the French plane was called “Caravelle” (a feminine word, an adaptation of a Spanish word, referring to the elegant Spanish vessels of the 16th century). In French too the sound of the word is extremely beautiful and elegant.

  18. Caravel is also feminine and mysterious in Russian (e.g. here on youtube, but it is a clear anachronism. To Gumilev’s character (essentially himself in his fav skin of African explorer who probably never got South of Cairo in reality), the Giraffe was happening *right now*, just as Her eyes filled with tears … not in the centuries past

  19. Yes, of course, I was thinking of primate. Thanks. Never mind.

  20. Robert Berger says

    I believe Bubliki are actualy more similar to pretzels than bagels.

  21. ProudToBeAMammal says

    @Robert Berger
    Not so. Bubliki are like bagels, they are not glazed (as I believe, all pretzels are), and they are not brittle (as many of them are).
    “Sushki” (~ “drylets”), being brittle, are close to some pretzels.

  22. MOCKBA: The sails of a ship, as in the original, (as opposed to, say, of a yacht) were themselves an anachronism in 1908, no? (I’m prepared to be corrected.)
    similarly, (marie-lucie:) the second line sounds awkward to me in Russian, so I had no qualms about translating it with a very similar syntactical construction which also sounds awkward in English.
    ProudToBeAMammal: yeah, I definitely hadn’t thought of the second meaning of ‘calf’, but it’s hard to get it out of my head now. (And it’s true that whatever entwining is going on is probably that of the arms with each other.)
    Everyone: thanks so much for the comments!

  23. Hi, all
    Let me contribute a point of view of a native Russian speaker for whom English is a second language (so please pardon my articles).
    Not to the detriment of LH’s fine translation, I still feel that F’s translation is far truer to the spirit of the original. Gumilev’s Giraffe is a largely self-referential poem, it’s as exquisite as its subject, and its rhythm is as exuberant as the Giraffe’s canter. So F’s elegant choice of words such as “retires to a grotto”, rather than “takes”, is perfectly right. It’s “merry tales from mysterious lands”, not “all those stories of maidens”, it’s “shatters and floats” rather than “smashed to pieces”, etc.
    I’m not qualified to compare the rhythms (English prosody is difficult for us), but LH’s 7th line definitely lacks a foot, and noticeably limps as a result.
    In the second line, where some doubted that it’s possible for arms to entwine, vine-like, your calf, let me remind you about hyperbole. Gumilev’s second line contains an anacoluthon. I’d say that it conveys a certain twistedness of a pose through its slightly twisted syntax, so that one is reminded of the famous Altman’s portrait of Akhmatova
    (, though at that time she wasn’t yet married to Gumilev.
    The homonymy of “calf” is indeed unfortunate, although I tend to dismiss such frivolous side readings, unless they really obscure the intended reading. But I know that many people differ here. On the other hand, the image of “chaff” seems to me rather foreign here.
    As for the caravel, though absent from the original poem, it’s perfectly acceptable. Remember, Russia is a largely inland country, so everything related to high seas and sea travel has a romantic flavor. Caravels are well-known to Russians as Columbus’ and da Gama’s ships, and their high-stern image is iconic.
    On a different note, I hope you do research Olejnikov — he is absolutely wonderful in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way. He might remind
    you some of the English nonsense poetry, although in a distinctively different way.

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