Don’t make comparisons: the living are incomparable.
I had come to terms with the flatness of the plains
with a sort of fond fear.
The curve of the sky was a disease to me.
I would turn and wait for some service or news
from my servant the air.
I would get ready for a journey
and sail along the arcs of travel that never began.
I am prepared to wander where there is more sky for me,
but the clear anguish will not let me go
away from the youthful hills of Voronezh
to the civilised hills, that I see so clearly in Tuscany.
    —Osip Mandelstam, 18 January 1937
tr. Richard McKane and Elizabeth McKane
(from The Voronezh Notebooks: Poems 1935-1937)

The Russian original:
Не сравнивай: живущий несравним.
С каким-то ласковым испугом
Я соглашался с равенством равнин,
И неба круг мне был недугом.
Я обращался к воздуху-слуге,
Ждал от него услуги или вести,
И собирался плыть, и плавал по дуге
Неначинающихся путешествий.
Где больше неба мне — там я бродить готов,
И ясная тоска меня не отпускает
От молодых еще воронежских холмов
К всечеловеческим, яснеющим в Тоскане.
18 января 1937
(Interesting discussion of the poem’s relation to Pushkin here.)


  1. I’ve been looking for a good Mandelstam translation for awhile. This is the best I’ve seen.
    Scattered glimpses have convinced me that he’s one of the best poets of the century, along with Rilke and two or three others, but I’ll never learn Russian and he’s apparently hard to translate.

  2. Available for about $20. I love
    It can be had for $7 in Britain, but British mail is expensive and slow.

  3. He is hard to translate (I’ve made attempts, some more successful than others), and I think this (along with The Moscow Notebooks, same publisher) is the best available version. It also has excellent notes.

  4. LH, how can you call it a good translation?
    It’s at best word-to-word (and not always).
    M. is a poet whose magic comes not from words by itself. He communicates that ‘different plane’ extra through music of the verse.
    In this translation there is nothing left of his music. Not even his rhythm, let alone rhymes.
    Look at this, f.ex. – “тоска меня ….в Тоскане” – you suddenly can’t breath when you read it. Anguish doesn’t come close. “Clear anguish” in English doesn’t imply choice of words, poet’s work, his language genius. “Clear” just sounds like a chance filler.
    In original word “яснеющим” there is a sense of receding dusk, or rather fog – in connection with “холмов” it is enough to describe hilly landscape of the dreamed, faraway magnet country.
    When he uses same word in “ясная тоска”, it means his situation is clear to him and he’s helpless to change it – just in those two words. True, close to Pushkin’s “светлая тоска” – but there is no hope in M.
    All that – and more- is lost.
    The article you link, though, is excellent, especially the last example. I, too, as many-many others, had caught myself thinking Pushkin’s thoughts – not necessarily in his terms or in verse. It is in our blood.

  5. Tatyana, I’m conparing it to other English translations, not to the Russian. I have seen very few Mandelstam translations that worked.

  6. John, I didn’t mean you, I understood you don’t know Russian. But LH does.

  7. LH, how can you call it a good translation?
    I didn’t — I called it “the best available version.” Just think what the others are like! I agree with everything you say, but the fact is that something of M’s greatness comes across (as can be seen from John’s reaction), so I recommend it faute de mieux. And it does have good notes.
    Glad you liked the article!

  8. To support Tatyana, here is an article (in Russian, so I skip the details as it’s probably of no interest for other):
    But his example speaks for itself.
    Poem by E.Rein “Monastery”
    За станцией “Сокольники”, где магазин мясной
    И кладбище раскольников, был монастырь мужской.
    Руина и твердыня, развалина, гнилье –
    В двадцатые пустили строенье под жилье.
    Такую коммуналку теперь уж не сыскать.
    Зачем я переехал, не стану объяснять.
    Я, загнанный, опальный, у жизни на краю
    Сменял там отпевальню на комнату свою…
    Translation n 1.
    Beyond Sokolniki Station, where there’s a meat store
    And the Old Believers’ cemetery, there was a monastery.
    A ruin and a sea of mud, wreckage, disintegration:
    In the twenties they set to turning into a dwelling.
    There’s no other communal house like it today.
    Why I did it, I’ll not explain. I, worn-out, scandal-ridden,
    Bum and lout, exchanged Leningrad for a monastery cell.
    Translation N 2.
    Behind Sokolniki Station, by the raskolniki cemetery
    And a butcher’s shop, stood the remodeled monastery.
    It was a folly and a fortress, a shambles and a dive –
    They made the building “co-op” in nineteen twenty-five.
    Communal pads like that one doesn’t find these days,
    And why I ended up there I won’t begin to say.
    Harassed and out-of-favor, I was living on the edge,
    And so I tossed my pillow on some old friar’s ledge.

  9. The first translation was published, and the second was made by the author (when he was a student) in his free time for fun. I used to think that poetry can’t be translated anyway, so what’s the difference… But I enjoy I. Brodsky’s poems in translation as much as in Russian, and the above translation (n 2) is very good also. I don’t think it’s impossible to adequately translate Mandelstam — something will probably be lost, but not everything!

  10. On some level, I guess I don’t care. I don’t read Russian and yet I have been astounded by Mandelstam’s work, which has only been available to me in what everyone says are inadequate translations. So until LH gets busy and publishes some of his own, I have to be grateful for what exists.

  11. Well, let’s put it in perspective — he comes off a lot better in translation than poor Pushkin. It’s not so much that he doesn’t sound like a great poet (it would be hard to cover that up!) as that the specifics of his style are lost.

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