I was looking over wood s lot to give myself the strength to dive into another day’s furious editing, as deadline approaches, when I was caught by a fragment of what purported to be a translation of Tsvetaeva. It looked like this:

I decline to exist in the crazy house
of the inhuman.
I decline to go on living
in the marketplace of wolves.

I won’t howl,
among the sharks of the field.
I won’t swim beneath
the waves of squirming backs.
I have no need of holes for hearing
or seeing eyes.
To your crazed world there’s
only one answer: No!

(The full translation is here.) It pissed me off. That’s not what Tsvetaeva sounds like. She’s not my favorite poet, but she has a unique combination of simplicity (here, short lines with hammerlike beats), complexity (Pasternak-like playing with sounds, odd lexical choices, and unexpected rhymes), and a rage and passion all her own. You couldn’t mistake a Tsvetaeva poem for anything else.

This translation, though, has no individuality, no rhythm, only as much force as is inherent in the matter (wolves, howling, refusal). Tsvetaeva has been turned into Miss Random Poetry Seminar Poet. Furthermore, a quick investigation revealed that the translators have taken two different poems and jammed them together. And the word choices are sometimes bizarre: why render Бедлам [Bedlam] as “crazy house” when English has Bedlam? And why “grabbed” for взяли [vzyali], the basic Russian word for ‘took’? (I note also that they didn’t notice, or bother to render, the distinction between imperfective брали [brali] in the first line, representing the ongoing process of taking, and the perfective взяли ‘they took’ in the rest.) But what really got me was “now’s the time to give the billet back to God.” The billet? The Russian word билет [bilet] means either ‘ticket’ or ‘identity/membership card’ (‘Party card’ is партийный билет); you have to pick one or the other here, but billet is ridiculous.

I’ve put the Russian texts below the cut, as well as a quick-and-dirty translation of the first stanza of each just to give an idea of the rhythm (the first poem rhymes AABB, the second ABAB, but I didn’t try to match that). I know “Hispania” is cheating—the Russian is just the normal word for Spain—but I needed to fill out the line, I didn’t want to use “in its own blood” like those other translators, and I figure Hispania works OK with Chekhia (there’s an odd gap in English where that word should be, so let’s get it into circulation).

I wish I had the time to do more, but I really have to do some work now!

Their taking was fast and their taking was lavish.
They took the mountains, they took the depths.
They took the coal and they took the steel
And took the lead from us, and the crystal.
* * *
O tears in all our eyes!
Weeping from rage and love!
O Chekhia in tears,
Hispania in blood!

Чехи подходили к немцам и плевали.
(См. мартовские газеты 1939 г.)
Брали – скоро и брали – щедро:
Взяли горы и взяли недра,
Взяли уголь и взяли сталь,
И свинец у нас, и хрусталь.
Взяли сахар и взяли клевер,
Взяли Запад и взяли Север,
Взяли улей и взяли стог,
Взяли Юг у нас и Восток.
Вары – взяли и Татры – взяли,
Взяли близи и взяли дали,
Но – больнее, чем рай земной! –
Битву взяли – за край родной.
Взяли пули и взяли ружья,
Взяли руды и взяли дружбы…
Но покамест во рту слюна –
Вся страна вооружена!
9 мая 1939
* * *
О слезы на глазах!
Плач гнева и любви!
О Чехия в слезах!
Испания в крови!
О черная гора,
Затмившая – весь свет!
Пора – пора – пора
Творцу вернуть билет.
Отказываюсь – быть.
В Бедламе нелюдей
Отказываюсь – жить.
С волками площадей
Отказываюсь – выть.
С акулами равнин
Отказываюсь плыть –
Вниз – по теченью спин.
Не надо мне ни дыр
Ушных, ни вещих глаз.
На твой безумный мир
Ответ один – отказ.
15 марта – 11 мая 1939


  1. Michael Farris says

    “Hispania works OK with Chekhia (there’s an odd gap in English where that word should be, so let’s get it into circulation)”
    I agree about the lexical gap (at least in formal registers) but certainly Czechia would be a better spelling…

  2. Michael Farris says

    And maybe España instead of Hispania?

  3. but certainly Czechia would be a better spelling
    Good point. I obviously had Russian on the brain! But España would wreck the rhythm, which requires a three-stress line.

  4. I think that that translation is of the Bly-Merwin school, which tries to bring over the images and basic argument while formulating a contemporary English poem following contemporary styles.
    I don’t read translations of poetry in languages I know except as cribs, and in that case I prefer flat literal translation. For languages I don’t know and never know, all options are unsatisfactory. But I have gotten value from Bly-Merwin translations.
    The problem with trying to match the original technically is that if something is difficult in the original language, it’s presumably impossible in the target language. In Chinese poetry translation, the two sides have split entirely. Schafer taught scholarly translators to actively ignore literary qualities, but there remains an active Pound-Waley-Rexroth tradition of literary translation. (Rexroth and Schafer’s teacher Boodberg feuded during the 50s.)
    With classical Chinese poetry there’s an additional level of difficulty: there is a lot of doubt about how the originals sounded (except that they didn’t sound like modern readings), but many of them are known to have been organized according to strict tonal patterns which are only imperfectly recoverable. So most English translations are translations from distorted modern Chinese readings.

  5. michael farris says

    “But España would wreck the rhythm, which requires a three-stress line.”
    I’ve since decided España would be too frivolous sounding, but thought “Hispania” would have the same number of syllables (abstracting from Polish Hiszpania where -nia is one syllable in practical terms) but now I see the Russian is Ispanija with four syllables, hmmm maybe “The Spanish land in blood” or “The Spanish earth in blood” kind of a cheat and maybe trite but it does avoid the artificial sounding “in it’s own blood” (which is also at least as trite).

  6. Trying to change my login.

  7. Success!

  8. After racking my brain for five minutes or so, I produced this for the next verse:
    О черная гора,
    Затмившая – весь свет!
    Пора – пора – пора
    Творцу вернуть билет.
    O, mountainous eclipse
    That made the whole world black
    The time has come, O Lord
    To give my ticket back.
    It’s no Tsvetaeva, but at least it’s not “and what a dark mountain now shades the earth from light. Now’s the time, now’s the time, now’s the time to give the billet back to God.”

  9. Michael Farris says

    “Пора – пора – пора”
    What’s wrong with:
    It’s time, it’s time, it’s time

  10. Five minutes’ worth…
    Отказываюсь – быть.
    В Бедламе нелюдей
    Отказываюсь – жить.
    С волками площадей
    Отказываюсь – выть.
    С акулами равнин
    Отказываюсь плыть –
    Вниз – по теченью спин.
    Не надо мне ни дыр
    Ушных, ни вещих глаз.
    На твой безумный мир
    Ответ один – отказ.
    Refuse to be
    In Bedlam of non-humans
    Refuse to live
    With wolves of city blocks
    Refuse to howl
    With predators of steppes
    Refuse to swim
    Along the stream of backs
    No need for earholes to hear
    Or eyes to see the light
    To universe’s insanity
    My answer is: denied!

  11. Czechia would be a better spelling
    No, Chekhia would be a better spelling, since Czech is neither Czech nor English but Polish. Of course, you’d have to call the people and the language Chekh to match.
    Myself, I’d prefer Czechland, since Czechia should properly be inhabited by Czechians speaking Czechian. I hypothesize that the good old English -land suffix has been discredited by association with British colonies in Africa: Bechuanaland, Basutoland, Togoland, and Nyasaland all changed names on independence; though Swaziland did not, and S0maliland has resurfaced amid the ruins of S0malia.

  12. michael farris says

    “Czech is neither Czech nor English but Polish”
    Actually IINM it’s an old Czech spelling that’s still current in Polish since the word is the same in both languages and Polish spelling (based on old Czech) wasn’t reformed when Czech switched from cz to č.

  13. For the Poles rejected the Hussite heresy, and Hus’s heretic script too.
    Jan Zizka, a veteran of the battle of Tennenburh / Guenwald, did offer Jagiello the Czech throne, but Jagiello had just renounced paganism for Catholicism and didn’t want to become a heretic so soon. Damn, that would have been a good story.

  14. Tannenberg / Gruenwald. Sorry.

  15. David Marjanović says

    It’s always refreshing to see what problems I miss by not being interested in poetry. =8-)
    Regarding the lexical gap, in German it was filled by the neologism Tschechien. There is an older word Tschechei (compare Slowakei, but it’s tainted by the fact that Hitler used it and that AFAIK few used it before him.

  16. David Marjanović says

    Damn, that would have been a good story.

    Indeed! It has been spun a bit farther in a recent post at

  17. I don’t see what’s wrong with the Czech Republic. We don’t have a problem with the Dominican Republic, and if we tried to change it to a single-word form, we’d probably confuse it with Dominica, the name of a different country altogether (stressed on the penult rather than the antepenult).
    As for -land being discredited, we seem to have no problem with Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland (for Pole-land), Switzerland, and Thailand (which has displaced Siam).

  18. Michael Farris says

    IME Spanish speakers say “Santo Domingo” more than “La Republica Dominicana” (at least in informal speech) so that might be an option.
    The Czech Republic is just too long and out of whack with other names in the region.

  19. John Emerson-
    Robert Bly and W.S. Merwin are two entirely separate, distinct and not conflatable poet/translators. There is no Bly-Merwin school, except in your head. You can unite them by some general intent, I guess, but the poetic results of that intention aren’t easily mistaken one for the other.

  20. I blame Elaine Feinstein.

  21. Roy: Ya think?
    They are similiar in the respect I said, producing poems in an American idiom and style not very similiar to the original style, but preserving images and argument. At least that’s how I read them. Their own styles are dissimiliar to each other, of course.
    I like their translations, but (not knowing Russian) I liked the translation LH was objecting to which, though I had no way of knowing, clearly butchered the original.

  22. I may add that back in the day, before the drum circles, Bly was very influential in the American poetry and translation community. That he influenced Merwin is only a surmise, but a reasonable one I think.

  23. The Czech Republic is just too long and out of whack with other names in the region.
    Some Americans only say “The Slovak Republic” these days, rejecting “Slovakia” as somehow inappropriate. Maybe Reagan mythology has something to do with it.

  24. In a pinch, one could use ‘Bohemia’ instead of ‘Czechia’ and dispense with the vocative…

  25. Wouldn’t the Moravians object?
    OT: I just found out that Dukakis’s family in Greece are Vlach.

  26. michael farris says

    Bohemia (Čechy in Czech I think) is just the westernmost half (roughly) of the ČR, with Moravia (Moravy?) in the Southeast and Czech Silesia (?) in the Northeast.

  27. Bohemia (Čechy), Moravia (Morava) and Silesia (Slezsko) were historical lands of the Bohemian Crown (one state with the Bohemian king as its sovereign; a situation similar to England + Wales + Scotland = United Kingdom, I suppose).
    There is a one-word name for Czech Republic – “Česko” (in English probably “Czechia”, although in my opinion “Bohemia” might do as well), although many people in ČR resent it for no good rational reason (a matter of habit, it looks too much like a rump of “Československo”).
    The problem here seems to be, though, that Tsvetaeva uses the word Чехия/Czechia as a pars pro toto, to refer to Czechoslovakia (взяли и Татры – “they took the Tatras too”). So, Bohemia or Czechia, same thing here, really.

  28. Maxim Afanasiev says

    > O tears in all our eyes!
    > Weeping from rage and love!
    > O Chekhia in tears,
    > Hispania in blood!
    as translation of
    > О слезы на глазах!
    > Плач гнева и любви!
    > О Чехия в слезах!
    > Испания в крови!
    I believe one should use use “Spain” instead of “Hispania”. In my
    opinion, this would be important because, in this poem, it should
    probably be a word that does not attract attention to itself. It should
    also clearly designate the country in connection with the political
    events that Tzvetaeva had in mind. This probably leaves the translator
    with “Spain” as the only choice in English: “civil war” and “Hispania”
    lead to Julius Caesar, not Franco, on Google.
    If I am right about “Spain”, then, by the same token, and for good
    balance, “Czechia” could have been replaced by some other well-known
    name that would stand for Czechoslovakia (again, in connection with the
    political events Tsvetaeva was writing about). So, a Czech toponim, or
    city, not sounding strange or being too far-fetched or fancy in English
    and, somehow, being associated with both Bohemia and Moravia, at least
    for foreigners — how about “Prague”?
    And now, of course, an attempt — I know that substituting “pain” for
    “love” is lame, but I couldn’t think of anything better to rhyme with
    “Spain”, and I only want to show what I have in mind anyway, not really
    propose it literally:
    O tears in the eyes!
    Lament of wrath and pain!
    O Prague that now cries!
    Awash in blood is Spain!

  29. Michael Farris says

    While we’re here … Bohemia? How did that get established in other languages when there’s no comprable word (at least not that I know of) in Czech?
    Can anyone enlighten?

  30. It’s from before the (Slavic) Czechs arrived. As Online Etymology Dictionary says, it’s “from M.Fr. Boheme ‘Bohemia,’ from L. Boiohaemum (Tacitus), from Boii, the Celtic people who settled in what is now Bohemia (and were driven from it by the Gmc. Marcomans early 1c.).”
    Maxim: Of course you’re right about “Spain” being preferable, and if I were doing a “real” translation I’d find a way to use it; I was just dashing off something to give a sense of the rhythm of the original.

  31. John E.-
    I don’t know enough about either poet’s early life to say for sure, but Merwin’s got some memoirs out that treat at least glancingly his beginnings as both poet and translator, recalling influences and mentors – including a semi-surreal and profound session or two with E. Pound when he, Pound, was in the D.C nut house. He never mentions Bly to my knowledge, not that Bly’s a particularly unmentionable poet/translator.
    Billy Joel’s a professional piano player, so was Glenn Gould. More like that kind of thing.

  32. He wouldn’t, would he? I certainly wouldn’t.
    All the Merwin translations I’ve read read like Mewion, even more than the Bly translations read like Bly. That’s all I meant.

  33. The worst national name I know of is the German “Griechenland”.

  34. Robert Rowland says

    Griechenland is better than ON “Grikkland.” 🙂

  35. “Spain” colloquially is “Ispanya” (construed as three syllables). This is the garbled and syllable-swallowing street pronunciation especially in the North like Norilsk and Dikson, Tajmir Penninsula areas. As for translations, what is the general opinion on Elaine Feinstein’s
    What tears in eyes now
    weeping with anger and love
    Czechoslovakia’s tears
    Spain in its own blood
    (Ispaniya v krovi). [Not ‘svoej’ krovi].
    Cf. the translation in the Shveitzer bio:
    (P. 343, Noonday Press edition).
    O tears in the eyes!
    The sob of love and anger!
    O land of the Czechs in tears!
    The land of Spain in blood!
    Shveitzer mentions that this cycle of poems drew from epigraphical texts drawn from newspapers.
    As for the etymology of “Bohemia”, it may come from a Germanic word referring to a Celtic tribe called “Boi” who once occupied the region.

  36. Robert: Thanks for those alternative translations. I like the second one better; it preserves more of the straightforward simplicity of the original, and I think “land of the…” is a good compromise, helping the rhythm without cluttering the meaning.

  37. Been going over these postings and have discovered deeper levels- such as ternary meters in some of M. Ts. verses. Recently discovered: According to R. Jakobsen in Scherr:1985, Russian monosyllables are often unstressed, others, such as pronouns are a gray area and nouns verbs adjectives have their standard stresses. Monosyllabic words as free morphemes don’t serve the function of distinguishing homonyms, and so often appear in weak positions of lines. One-syllable adverbs (na, v, po) and other particles are often unstressed and bear a sort of zero-place in the beginning of the line and I suppose this will wreak havoc with attempts to translate the sense of rhythm in the anacrusis, viz.:
    ESli duMA rodiLAS’ krylaTOJ-
    CHTO ej khoROmy i CHTO ej KHAty!
    CHTO ChingisKHAN ej – CHTO OrDA!
    DVA na miRU u menYA vraGA,
    DVA blizneTSA – nerazRYVno SLItykh:
    GOlod goLODnykh – i SYtost’ SYtykh!
    If the soul was born with (by? on?) [the] wing-
    [instrumental case?]
    what to it are palaces and what to it huts!
    What is Genghis Khan to it – and what is the Horde!
    Two enemies have I on earth,
    Two twins jumbled together:
    Hunger of the hungry – and fullness of the full.
    Any comment? By the way the most finely pronounced Russian I ever heard in 39 years was that spoken by E. German air traffic controllers.
    The worst was in the Ural/Ob River region. It would be a joy to have recordings of the idiolects prevalent in the time of M. Ts.

  38. Thanks, that transcription should give non-Russian-speakers a good idea of what she sounds like. But you’ve got the stress wrong on kryLAtoi (rhymes with KHAty), and the meaning is straightforwardly “if the soul was born winged” (with the normal predicate instrumental, as in Пушкин был величайшим русским поэтом ‘Pushkiin was the greatest Russian poet’ or записался добровольцем ‘he signed up as a volunteer’).
    The bit about the traffic controllers cracked me up, and yes, I’d love to hear recordings from the time (other than poets reading, which are great but not exactly normal speech).

  39. i’ve noticed translators of Rilke, too, don’t want to make him sound in English like the sort of poet he reminds me of, i. e. Hopkins.
    but this suggests a new idea for translation: what poet does the original correspond to (more or less)–here, at any rate, is the language register you can use.
    Tsvetaeva–oh, i don’t know–: Mina Loy?
    And Mandelshtam–isn’t he a kind of Browning?

  40. That slim volume of Mandelshtam in English translation of c. 1975 made a salient point: even Mandelshtam translated “into Mandelshtam.”
    How about Mayakovsky and Eliot? Solzhenitsyn and LeCarre? For the pitfalls of translation read the nice article in a recent New Yorker about translating Dante. For those of you who want the plot spoiled, yes, the New Yorker essay does mention the fine Ciardi translation towards the very end — personal favorite in English — I do use a side-by-side Italian/German translation for personal reading.
    My mistake on “krylatoj.” Again, my provincial and military pronunciation.
    Speaking of translations… Douglas Hofstadter’s version of Onegin? Reminds me of Robert Service and Dirty Dan McGrew, but I’m liking it anyway. Thoughts please.

  41. Keep in mind, too, that the return of the ticket is a reference to Dostoyevsky (“Rebellion” in the Brothers K), and by this horrendous translation American readers are prevented from getting the poem’s beautiful skill at all.

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