Readers have been very supportive of my translations from Mandelstam, especially John Emerson, who periodically demands more of them. So I decided to return from my LH retrospective with a translation of his longest poem, the 1923 “Нашедший подкову“: “He Who Found a Horseshoe,” “Whoever Finds a Horseshoe,” or—as I choose to call it—”The Finder of a Horseshoe.” This is a complex and difficult poem, modeled after the Pindaric ode (when it was first published, it had the subtitle “A Pindaric fragment”), but I think its imagery and rhythm (both of which I have tried to preserve) make their impact even if the “meaning” (what the poet is “trying to say”) is endlessly debatable. To show you how debatable, I’ll quote from three critics, each of whom devotes a long essay to this poem. Clare Cavanagh, in the fifth chapter of her Osip Mandelstam and the Modernist Creation of Tradition, takes the pessimistic view:

The reality Mandelstam evokes in his poems of [the early twenties] forms a grim counterpoint to the resilient, resolutely hopeful tone of the essays, as the glittering golden currency of “Humanism and the Present” turns up, tarnished and diminished, at the end of one of his greatest and most pessimistic lyrics, “The Horseshoe Finder” […] The essayist insists that humanistic values, now hidden underground, will return again as common currency. […] The poet, though, tells us something else again. The past, he says, is dead and gone, and no amount of effort—the poem itself is a series of such efforts—will suffice to bring it back to life. […] “The Horseshoe Finder” is finally a magnificent lament on the failure of the poet and his tradition to find their place in what seems destined to become the glorious world economy of the future.

Steven Broyde, in Osip Mandel’stam and his Age: A Commentary on the Themes of War and Revolution in the Poetry 1913-1923, takes an opposite view:

“Našedšij podkovu,” then, is a complex synthesis of much of what Mandel’štam has said in other contexts. Essentially, the poet here is concerned with history and art, and the relationship of one to the other. It is difficult to see how one critic could have said of this poem: “What despair in this equation of the world’s process and creative impotence.” Aside from the fact that there is no such “identification” here, it is clear that the poem asserts rather the opposite; the contrast is not in the impotence of art, but in its permanency, as opposed to history’s permutations. For it is, after all, the horseshoe that is found.

Finally, Diana Myers, in her essay “The Hum of Metaphor and the Cast of Voice: Observations on Mandel’shtam’s ‘The Horseshoe Finder'” (mentioned in this post), takes a middle path:

In the middle of the twenties it seemed to many poets that the end of Russian lyric poetry was imminent. An atmosphere had built up in which either one’s poetic voice had to be disciplined to write on topical themes, or one was consigned, still living, to the archives. Mandel’shtam indeed found himself in the position of an exiled Ovid among a ‘youthful alien tribe’ which could not understand his language, culture or values. And it is Ovid whose presence permeates the mood, imagery and subtext of the entire poem […] However, the very fabric of the poem seems to negate this. The richness of the subtext, which is permeated with references to the Classics, affirms once more the principles of Mandel’shtam’s poetics. And its fundamental message is that a poetic word, once pronounced, becomes part of the texture of the poetic language and is retained in the memory; transformed by memory it can take on new life in a new time and in a new space, albeit metaphorical.

So make up your own minds. Without further ado:

(A Pindaric fragment)

We see a forest and we say
“That forest’s for ships and masts.”
Those rosy pines,
Free to their very tops from shaggy burden,
They should be creaking in storms
Like lonely stone pines,
In the furious forestless air;
Beneath the salty heel of the wind the plumb line stands fast, fitted to the dancing deck,
And the seafarer,
In unbridled thirst for space,
Dragging over humid ruts
The fragile tackle of a geometer,
Collates with the earth-womb’s attraction
The rugged surface of the seas.

And inhaling the smell
Of tarry tears that ooze through the ship’s planking,
Admiring the boards
Riveted, arranged into bulkheads
Not by the peaceful Bethlehem carpenter, but another –
Father of voyages, friend of the mariner –
We say:
“They too stood on the earth,
Awkward like an ass’s spine,
Their tops forgetting their roots
On the well-known mountain ridge,
And they thrummed in the freshwater downpour,
Unsuccessfully offering to the sky in exchange for a pinch of salt
Their noble load and burden.”

So where to start?
Everything cracks and rocks.
The air trembles from comparisons.
No word is better than another,
The earth hums with metaphor,
And light two-wheeled carts,
Garishly harnessed to bird flocks dense with effort,
Are broken into pieces
Competing with the snorting favorites of the hippodromes.

Thrice blessed is whoever places a name in a song;
A song that’s ornamented with a name
Lives longer among others –
She is marked out among her friends by a band on her forehead
That cures one of unconsciousness, of a too strong stupefying smell –
Whether it is the proximity of a man,
Or the smell of the hair of a strong beast,
Or simply the breath of savory rubbed between the palms.

The air is sometimes dark as water, and everything that lives in it swims like a fish,
With fins pushing aside the sphere,
Dense, springy, barely warmed –
A crystal within which wheels move and horses shy,
The humid black earth of Neaira, each night turned up anew
By pitchforks, tridents, hoes, and plows.
The air is kneaded as dense as earth –
It’s impossible to leave, and hard to enter.

A rustle runs through the trees like a green ballgame;
Children play knucklebones with the vertebrae of dead animals.
The fragile chronology of our era comes to an end.
Thanks for what existed;
I myself made mistakes, got mixed up, lost count.
The era rang like a golden ball,
Hollow, molded, supported by no one,
At every touch it answered “yes” and “no.”
So a child answers:
“I’ll give you the apple” or “I won’t give you the apple,”
His face an exact cast of the voice that pronounces those words.

The sound rings still, though the reason for the sound has vanished.
The steed lies in the dust and snorts in its lather,
But the sharp bend of its neck
Still preserves the memory of running with scattered legs,
When they were not four in number
But as many as the stones in the road,
Renewed in four shifts,
As many times as an ambler radiating heat thrusts back the earth.

The finder of a horseshoe
Blows the dust off it
And rubs it with animal hair until it shines;
He hangs it over the threshold
So that it can rest,
And no longer will it have to strike sparks from flint.
Human lips that no longer have anything to say
Preserve the form of the word they last said,
And in the hand remains the sensation of weight,
Although the jug
        has splashed out half its water
                while they were carrying it home.

That which I am saying now is not said by me,
But dug out of the earth like grains of fossilized wheat.
    on their coins depict a lion,
    a head.
Multifarious copper, gold, and bronze lozenges
With identical honor lie in the earth.
The age, trying to bite through them,
Has printed on them its teeth.
Time clips me like a coin,
And there’s no longer enough of me for myself…

  tr. Stephen Dodson


  1. Thank you, Hat. On my likee/nolikee dimension, this lies well towards likee. (I find my criticisms of art have simplified as I’ve aged.)
    A question: you’ve opted to use “pines” in both lines three and six. What was your motive?
    I ask because I’ve just been reading a book on woodland and learnt that in Britain the layman often referred to pines as firs: “firs” would have fitted in line three, at the cost of (I assume) botanical accuracy. But it’s “sufficiently accurate for poetry” (Babbage).

  2. I think that in the US the layman often refers to firs as pines.

  3. Trond Engen says

    dearieme: in Britain the layman often referred to pines as firs
    The word fir used to refer to members of the genus Pinus, presumably the _Scots_ Pine (Pinus sylvestris) in particular, so this would be a retention of the older usage.

  4. Jeffry House says

    Thank you! it is wonderful and I look forward to mulling it over at length. On the most prosaic level, I hadn’t known the word podkobka, which illustrates the economy of Russian word-building most delightfully.
    The effort and ingenuity that went into your translation is a privilege to witness. Thanks again.

  5. I also have a version of this poem up, though Hat’s is obviously in many ways superior.
    I was actually thinking about this relatively recently, as I was translating my new favorite Mandelstam poem—”Полночь в Москве. Роскошно буддийское лето…” My attempt at it is here—I think it gets across the really peculiar feeling Mandelstam conveys of being embedded in history, conscious of that embedding, yet simultaneously obsessed with distancing himself from it. I think this stanza from “Midnight”—
    It’s time for you to know: I too am of your time,
    I’m from the age of Moscow Sewing Trusts—
    Just look at how my jacket bulges out,
    How well I’ve learned to chatter and to stride!
    Just try to tear me from the century I live in—
    I promise you, you’ll suffer if you do!
    makes it hard to defend the idea that “Horseshoe” is just a kind of generic complaint about living in the wrong time or not fitting in or whatever, especially given the alienated things Mandelstam says about the old regime in “The Noise of Time” and elsewhere. (It’s true that “Horseshoe” and “Midnight” are separated by almost a decade, however.)
    On the other hand, the bit about “Human lips that have nothing left to say” is to me one of the most poignant expressions of untimeliness or obsolescence in all of literature, and I find that much less difficult to reconcile with the pessimistic view, even given the ironic tinge of the lines.

  6. I think the pines are an allusion to Catullus 64, so it’d be wise to keep them.

  7. (It’s true that “Horseshoe” and “Midnight” are separated by almost a decade, however.)
    With respect, your parenthetical concession knocks the props out from under your comparison; the intervening decade was, shall we say, intense, and I doubt anyone in Russia felt the same about things in the early ’30s as they had in the early ’20s. It’s fair to use his contemporary essays as comparative material, but a poem he wrote almost a decade later is (to my mind) completely irrelevant.

  8. Well, that’s open to interpretation. Look at Blake, for instance–he lived through some of the most turbulent times ever, yet the sense of time and history in the prophetic poems seems fairly constant. Maybe that’s not the best example, but eight years isn’t always enough to turn one all the way around.

  9. John Emerson says

    Through Ondemand books or Lulu your Mandelstam translations can easily be published (coast $150 at OnDemand, much less at Lulu, but OnDemand books are more attractive). Marketing will still be up to you, but I’d gladly spend $10-15 for your translations.
    This is self-publishing (shudder) but you could use a nicely produced book to promote your stuff to a legit publisher. (It’s not vanity publishing though, vanity publishers pretend to be real publishers and soak you for all they can get).

  10. John Emerson says

    Wonderful, and it does remind me of a Pindar translation, except better than the ones I’ve seen. (“So this is what Pindar is really like!”)

  11. Not always, but barring firm evidence that M’s views didn’t change I think it’s safer to assume they did. And Blake, though he certainly lived in turbulent times, didn’t personally go through anything remotely comparable to the Civil War, NEP, and everything associated with the “Great Turn” (collectivization, dekulakization, etc.). It’s been a while since I immersed myself in M’s life, but I’m pretty sure there’s considerable evidence that he did change his mind about things.

  12. Er, my “Not always” was to slawk; JE snuck in there while I was struggling with my computer (which has an annoying tendency to freeze up for random lengths of time).

  13. John Emerson says

    To continue, I often look at Mandelshtam translations and am usually disappointed. Yours are among the best.

  14. A question: you’ve opted to use “pines” in both lines three and six. What was your motive?
    Forgot to respond to this: I actually used “pines” in line three (for Russian сосны) and “stone pines” in line six (for пиниями). It’s annoying that there isn’t a more distinctive equivalent for пиния (the alternative translation is “Italian pine”), but it’s a marginal word in Russian itself: the National Corpus only finds nine “documents” (books, articles, and other prose works) that use it in the history of Russian, starting with Bunin, Господин из Сан-Франциско (Gentleman from San Francisco, 1915: “берег со всеми своими обрывами, садами, пиниями, розовыми и белыми отелями”) and ending with Marina Vishnevetskaya’s Вот такой гобелен (1999: “какая-то очень для него важная пиния, под которой, например, похоронен Рафаэль”). It’s not in Dahl or even in Ozhegov. I wonder if the average Russian even recognizes the word?

  15. To continue, I often look at Mandelshtam translations and am usually disappointed. Yours are among the best.
    Thank you! Your encouragement keeps me working at it.

  16. Although I don’t know Russian beyond the alphabet, pronouns, and a few stock phrases, my translating hat is off to you, LH! Judging by others’ comments, you clearly have great talent in this area.

  17. I wonder if the average Russian even recognizes the word?
    I’m pretty sure most Americans wouldn’t recognize “stone pines” either. I know I didn’t.
    It’s a tough one, because making a simile while using the same word (pines) feels weak. The only thing I could suggest would be to use something more generic for the first “pines” (evergreens? conifers?).
    I was wondering why you used a French form for Neaera (Neaira)? (presumably refers to the nymph who was the Sun’s lover, not the prostitute described by Demosthenes).
    Otherwise, I think you did a fine job. Some very evocative phrases (“thrummed in the freshwater downpour”).

  18. I assure you I don’t take these decisions lightly!
    No, I assumed you had a reason, I just didn’t know what it was.
    Chenier’s poem is interesting. Reminds me a bit of the text to Monteverdi’s Lamento della ninfa. A sort of generic nymph, I would suppose, not necessarily a particular one from mythology.
    Anyway, again, I think your translation is very good.

  19. Was wondering if you were aware of this blog, LH, on Russian learning:

  20. “the salty heel of the wind”: unfortunately in English this invites one to think both of a metaphorical foot of the wind, and the wind’s effect in making a boat heel over.
    “the plumb line stands fast”: is that a reference to a plumb line used as an inclinometer or to a sounding line? I take it that it’s the former, but I still don’t see what he’s driving at. That’s “see” as in understand, and “see” as in apprehend a visual image.

  21. Was wondering if you were aware of this blog, LH, on Russian learning
    No, I wasn’t, and it looks useful for learners. Here‘s the direct link.
    “the plumb line stands fast”: is that a reference to a plumb line used as an inclinometer or to a sounding line? I take it that it’s the former, but I still don’t see what he’s driving at. That’s “see” as in understand, and “see” as in apprehend a visual image.
    It’s an image for the mast (ex-pine tree), straight as a plumb line and firmly fixed to the deck.

  22. making a simile while using the same word (pines) feels weak. The only thing I could suggest would be to use something more generic for the first “pines” (evergreens? conifers?).
    I can’t help it if the English translation of пиния uses the word “pine,” but it doesn’t feel weak to me. And I’m not going to use a generic if M. doesn’t.

    I was wondering why you used a French form for Neaera (Neaira)?

    As I told slawk when we were discussing it via e-mail some time back: I never did like “Neaera,” because it’s impossible to know how to pronounce it (and it barely exists as a Greek name anyway), so when I discovered that M. had almost certainly taken it from André Chenier’s poem I gratefully grabbed the French version, which is easily pronounceable for anyone with even a modicum of French. I assure you I don’t take these decisions lightly!

    [Oct. 2018: I have given up on Néère and changed over to Neaira; see my comment below.]

  23. Sashura tells me that пиния “may not be widely known or used… but it has been regularly used to evoke the atmosphere of the South, Italy or Crimea, Caucusus,” whereas “сосна in Russian has a definite northern flavour (‘На севере диком росла одиноко сосна’).” So “Italian pines” would be better than “stone pines”; “Italian pini” might be even better (eliminating the repetition of “pines”), except that “PEE-nee” sounds stupid in English. “Like the lonely pines of Italy”? I don’t know. It’s a crux.

  24. slawkenbergius says

    The pines in this case are Greek, though.

  25. “LIke the lonely pines of Italy” does at least eliminate, to my ear, the problem with the repetition of “pines” (which is not huge, anyway, just a slight awkwardness). Having the qualifier after the second “pines” rather than before, and in a phrase rather than a simple adjective, makes the comparison smoother.

  26. slawkenbergius says

    Besides the Greek thing, I’m not sure “lonely” is really true to the image – lonely pines aren’t used for building ships.

  27. slawkenbergius says

    Which always confused me about the original poem….

  28. slawkenbergius says

    So yeah, “lonely Attic pines” would work, I guess.

  29. Isn’t the contrast being drawn between the forest of pines in the first instance and the “lonely” (or “lone” or “solitary”) pines of the South, which don’t grow in forests? That’s how I take it, anyway.

  30. slawkenbergius says

    Actually, I think they’re lonely because they are masts. My mistake.

  31. This is wonderful. I don’t care what it means. I am happily carried along.
    My Russian is awful, but in trying to find the original of
    “A rustle runs through the trees like a green ballgame”
    it seems to be – “Шорох пробегает по деревьям зеленой лаптой,”
    and Google Translate (I know, I know…!) tells me something about “basts”. So where does the ballgame come from?

  32. Oh, lapta. Sorry! *hangs head*

  33. The pines in this case are Greek, though.
    Why do you say that? It may be a Pindaric ode, but it’s in Russian, by a Russian, for Russians, and as far as I can see it’s Russian associations with the word пиния that should count. And besides, “Italian pine” is a dictionary definition of пиния.

  34. As I said, the allusion is to the opening of Catullus 64 (, which is talking about the pines of Mt. Pelion, and presumably the feminine “pinea” in line 11 of that poem is the source of Mandelstam’s usage. Пиния/stone pine/”Italian pine” is just the common name for Pinus pinea (as opposed to e.g. Pinus nigra) and doesn’t really imply a geography, as the species is found throughout parts of the Mediterranean.

  35. (Pelion is in Thessaly, so I suppose “Attic pines” wouldn’t be correct either…)

  36. I agree with Alan Shaw’s first suggestion, i.e. to use something generic for the first instance of pines. But ‘rosy conifers’, does it work? Maybe rosy trunks?
    And also in the line
    Beneath the salty heel of the wind the plumb line stands fast, fitted to the dancing deck,
    I think ‘the plumb line’ means the mast here – отвес, the mast standing as vertically as the plumb line?

  37. (Also, I wonder if the reference to the Eumenides having “snaky hair encircling the forehead” in Catullus 64 isn’t actually the source of the puzzling “headband” passage further down in the poem.)

  38. Interesting!

  39. The Pelion/Argonaut connection is mentioned in the Diana Myers essay as well. The whole poem is full of these connections: Neaera, if the one referenced is a nereid or a nymph, is related to Thetis, whose wedding took place on Mt. Pelion (the “well-known mountain range”) and is the frame for C64. The apple could be the apple of discord, tossed by Eris during that same wedding. The “tackle of the geometer” is the ruler with which Jason measures the crossbeams of the Argo (mentioned in Myers, not referenced in C64). Someone really needs to do a proper critical edition with all the allusions marked out…

  40. I’ve just read Catullus LXIV (in Russian), and struggled to see parallels with the Horseshoe, apart from the pine.
    Catullus is strongly narrative, while M’s is richly symbolic.

  41. Hat, this plumb-line business has me thinking, irrelevantly, of the fact that somewhere in the interminable story of Lucky Jack Aubrey, on one of those of occasions when he has the crew disguising the vessel for the amusement of the enemy, they somehow use a thick taut rope to give the appearance of an additional mast.

  42. Well, among other things, there’s the end of the poem, which explicitly marks it as a reflection on a bygone age.
    I think my claim is more that the Catullus poem is part of the soup of classical references that give Horseshoe its texture, many of which are identified in the Myers essay. Obviously it’s not an Odyssey-Ulysses kind of deal.

  43. I’m still wondering who Neaera is. What does the name mean to Mandelstam?
    Earliest mention in Greek poetry is probably Odyssey XII, where Circe tell Odysseus:
    “Then you will coast Thrinakia, the island
    where Helios’ cattle graze, fine herds, and flocks
    of goodly sheep. The herds and flocks are seven,
    with fifty beast in each.
    No lambs are dropped,
    or calves, and these fat cattle never die.
    Immortal, too, their cowherds are – their shepherds –
    Phaethousa and Lampetia, sweetly braided
    nymphs that divine Neaira bore
    to the overlord of high noon, Helios.
    These nymphs their gentle mother bred and placed
    upon Thrinakia, the distant land,
    in care of flocks and cattle for their father.”
    (Fitzgerald transl.)
    She then warns them against stealing or eating these cattle, which we know, from the first lines of the epic, they have already done.
    Later Neaera’s appear in pastoral; it’s one of many conventional names in that genre. Both Virgil and Horace have one, portrayed as fickle in love. The Neaera in Milton’s Lycidas seems to come from this tradition; ditto probably Chenier’s Néère.
    Just as a guess, I would find it unlikely that M. would be referring to a conventional pastoral character; it seems more likely, both from the kind of allusion he makes here and from his general predilections, to be a mythical figure like the one Circe alludes to (or some such: this is not the only Neaera in myth, either).

  44. I would also be curious to know – given M’s acuteness to sound and his love of wordplay – what if anything the name might suggest to Russian speakers?

  45. She then warns them against stealing or eating these cattle, which we know, from the first lines of the epic, they have already done.
    Just to avoid confusion: “She” = Circe, “them” = Odysseus and his men.

  46. “I’m still wondering who Neaera is. What does the name mean to Mandelstam?”
    the link says
    “Влажный чернозем Нееры — здесь: море и время (Неера — дочь Океана, возлюбленная Гелиоса, символизирующая целину).”
    the sentence continues about being plowed by different instruments
    great translation imo, word for word, if to use once fir and next pine, that would solve the rosovye sosny and odinokie piniyi problem, maybe
    just neudobnaya spina as awkward spine sounds a bit different to me, that’s the ass’ spine inconvenient to sit on, no? awkward would mean more like odd, strange

  47. ne spina a khrebet, sorry,
    they too stood on the earth inconvenient as a donkey’s spine, well, doesn’t matter, sounds the same

  48. Влажный чернозем Нееры — здесь: море и время (Неера — дочь Океана, возлюбленная Гелиоса, символизирующая целину).”
    Yes, from the gloss in the RVB edition that Hat links to. “Here: the sea and time (Neaera is the daughter of Ocean and Helios’ lover; she symbolizes the virgin soil).”

  49. Alan,
    Neaera very obviously (to me) plays with ‘era’. Неера in Russian reads like Non-Era – neh-ehra (Не-эра).
    Whatever the Greek symbolism – there were about a dozen different Neeras? – to M. it’s the end of time and the beginning of a new time.
    Look, first there appears a sphere (sféra – water environment). Three lines later sfera becomes Neera (neh-ehra, or even neh-yeh-rah, symbolically, water and time). Then, a few lines later: Хрупкое летоисчисление нашей эры подходит к концу. (fragile years of our era are coming to an end). And then again Эра звенела, как шар золотой, (The era was ringing like a golden ball), where the ball is, of course, another sphere.

  50. Slawk: I see!
    I’ve lost the bookmark, but I’ve read that the line
    Дети играют в бабки позвонками умерших животных.
    Children play knucklebones with the vertebrae of dead animals.
    is a reference to Heraclitus B 52: ‘Time is a child at play, moving pieces in a board game; the kingly power is a child’s.’ A Russian translation: “Вечность есть играющее дитя, которое расставляет шашки: царство (над миром)
    принадлежит ребенку”.
    M. used it several times in his poems.

  51. Sashura,
    “Non-era” was what occurred to me too, but because of the difference between е and э I wasn’t sure how close the resemblance was. Certainly it makes perfect sense thematically.
    Interesting that after the very pindaric-sounding line “Thrice blessed is whoever places a name in a song” M. places this – and only this – name in his. (Pindar himself is of course chock full of names) And that even that name is a sort of non-name (or at least something that suggests a negative).
    Vertebrae of course also figure very prominently in another great poem of M’s from around this time: the poem “Vek,” which could be translated as “The Era.”

  52. Re: John Emerson’s comment — at Phoenicia Publishing we’d always be happy to talk to Mr. Hat about a volume of translations.
    Personally, I love the poem and thank LH for opening it up to me.

  53. marie-lucie says

    A powerful, enigmatic poem. I regret that I know so little Russian.
    Just a spelling note: the French poet’s name is André Chénier NOT André Chenier. Perhaps people here are influenced by the title of the Italian opera Andrea Chenier: according to Italian spelling conventions, using é here would imply stress on that syllable, which would be incorrect in either language.

  54. Having thought it over, off and on, for six years, I’ve reluctantly decided to give up my hobbyhorse Néère and change over to the obvious and, alas, preferable Neaira, a name among whose many bearers several might be relevant here.

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