Sokolov’s Monument.

I’m still dipping my toes into Sokolov’s Между собакой и волком, translated by Alexander Boguslawski as Between Dog and Wolf (see this post from July) — I find the “Hunter’s Notes” poems excellent bedtime reading. I’ve gotten to one called Архивная [Archival] that is uniquely (for this Finneganesque book) transparent, with nary a dialectal or invented word; more than that, it’s funny, touching, and a clever twist on a longstanding tradition in Russian poetry, updatings of Horace’s Exegi monumentum. Lomonosov in 1747 rendered it in iambic pentameter, keeping the Roman references; Derzhavin’s version is in stately Alexandrines and adds mention of the Volga, Don, Neva, and Urals; Pushkin’s “riff on (and in some ways gentle parody of) his elder Derzhavin’s Russian imitation of Horace’s ode” is well analyzed by Alex Foreman in this extended blog post, which itself is well worth your while (he delights me by pointing out Nabokov’s blunder in saying it is in “exactly the same verse form” as Derzhavin’s, which it totally isn’t); and there are versions by Kapnist, Batyushkov, Fet, Bryusov, and most recently (as far as I know) Brodsky. Sokolov’s poem is not about a bronze monument, but it presents a similar, if more modest, idea; here’s my translation:


Oh, how it will be stifling
for me one day in dust
amid the archive shelving —
boring for me, yeah.
One day in his pince-nez
an archivist will come;
he’ll root around and dig in me
and figure out my scribblings,
and this is what he’ll find:
a drawing and a portrait,
an old museum ticket,
and mixed in with the rest —
why, this here very note;
he’ll read about himself.
And then he’ll start to laugh,
ha ha, for the whole archive:
a hunter, so archaic
and really too indecent,
but a sagacious chap.
And oh how he’ll be happy
with his discovery.
And he will be, just be,
but me, I will not be,
on holidays nor weekdays,
but how I’ll be eternal
far away from time,
far from obligations,
in straitened circumstances,
amid the stifling dust!

  –tr. Stephen Dodson

And here’s Boguslawski’s:


Oh, I will feel so stuffy
Filling the dusty shelves
Of the archival stacks.
Eh, I’ll be bored to death.
One day and out of breath
An archivist will come.
He’ll start to excavate me,
My doodles he’ll decipher,
And dig up in old files
A ticket to Kunstkammer,
A petal from some summer,
And ‘mid the other notes,
This one he’ll find, indeed,
And ’bout himself he’ll read.
Haha, he’ll laugh, haha,
All through the archive. Rude,
Unpleasant, and irate,
A hunter out of date
And yet astute and shrewd.
And how excited he’ll be
With what he had found out.
And he will be, just be,
While I’ll be gone, away,
Each week and every day.
But how eternal I’ll be—
No present and no past,
Away from taking chances,
In crowded circumstances,
And suffocating dust.

  –tr. Alexander Boguslawski

The Russian (“Архивная,” beginning “О, как мне душно будет”) is available here. As you can see, Boguslawski’s insistence on rhymes inevitably involves distorting the poem, adding things like “out of breath,” “in old files,” and (WTF) “A petal from some summer”; also, not being a native speaker (or simply not paying attention), he doesn’t realize that the English cliché matching the Russian is “straitened circumstances,” not “crowded circumstances.” I, on the other hand, tried to preserve the rhythm of the original as some compensation for the loss of rhyme; I gave up the allusion to Peter the Great’s Kunstkamera, figuring it was well known to Russians but opaque to English-speakers, and replaced it with the generic “museum.” I know it’s not the ideal translation (not that there can be an ideal translation of a poem), but I like it.


  1. I like it too.

  2. Thanks!

  3. I don’t find “Archival” in any way similar to “Monumentum”. If anything it is mildly reminiscent of the prologue to Mayakovsky’s “At the top of my voice” (Во весь голос). But never mind (“poetry”, as Mayakovsky said, “is a mightily goddamned thing”, in another approach to a Monumentum theme), everyone finds their own connections.

    Alex Foreman indeed gave a very good analysis, but I would rather disagree with one line:
    “L2- The point here [“to it the people’s path will not be overgrown”] is that the path is spiritual, not physical, and therefore cannot be overgrown. (Not that people will constantly walk on it.)”
    The path is definitely not physical, but the point is that it will not be overgrown because people would keep reading the Poet. And, in a sense, people will constantly walk on it.

    Derzhavin’s version is not on top of my mind, but one thing that surprised me, and which Foreman doesn’t mention, is that the Pushkin’s 4th stanza is directly polemical to Derzhavin’s. Derzhavin imagines himself being remembered for his panegyric to Catherine, something about God that I don’t understand, and for speaking truth to power (really? when?). Pushkin wants to be remembered for “waking up benevolent feelings” (abolition of serfdom, yes indeed) and “freedom” (not sure exactly what is meant here, the same thing maybe, hardly republicanism) and “mercy for the fallen” (Decembrists)

  4. Yes, these poems are delightful! I still remember some lines from my first reading around 1990. Rereading them now, I see – or imagine – so many hints and memes that I can’t tell if they are deliberate or simply unavoidable when both the poet and the reader are steeped in the Russian tradition. Like D.O., I thought of Mayakovsky’s Во весь голос, specifically the First Intro to the poem:

    Esteemed comrade descendants!
    Rummaging in today’s petrified shit,
    researching the darkness of our times,
    you would perhaps recall me among others.

    And perhaps your scholar would say,
    covering with erudition the swarm of questions,
    that indeed there lived this poet of boiled water
    and a fierce opponent of water unboiled.

    On the Horatian and, more interestingly, Alexandrian roots of Pushkin’s Monument, see Pushkin and Horace (1975) and The Classical Epic Tradition (1986) by John Kevin Newman.

    I’m surprised that Foreman translates дикой as “untamed.” I doubt Pushkin thought of the Tungus as some fierce tribe in need of taming. Living in the wild, alien to “civilization,” unenlightened, perhaps.

    Derzhavin’s Monument concludes with a call on the Muse to crown herself, rather than her chosen one. It could be a deliberate shift – it’s the Muse who is immortal and it’s her “dawn of immortality” that might occasionally shine upon her servants. It could also be a (deliberate?) misreading of Lomonosov’s translation, which omits the personal pronoun, Horace’s “mihi.”

    @D.O.: “Derzhavin imagines himself being remembered for his panegyric to Catherine, something about God that I don’t understand, and for speaking truth to power (really? when?).”

    The second reference is probably to God, his famous ode, one of the finest in Russian lit. (Everybody knows one line from it, “I am a king – I am a slave; – I am a worm – I am (a) god.”) On the other hand, it could mean the whole of Derzhavin’s voluminous “spiritual” output (spiritual as in “geistlich” – I am tempted to call it Klopstockian but Grot also names Haller, Hagedorn, Gellert, [Ewald Christian von] Kleist and [Moses] Mendelssohn as possible influences).

    For the “truth to power” part, I would name To the Potentates and Judges (Властителям и судиям). It’s a variation on Psalm 82 (81 in the Eastern numbering). The word “powerful” is overused today – most art so called is pretty weak tea – but Derzhavin’s piece IS powerful. I keep reciting it to myself, I admit, hoping to live long enough to see the physical demise of certain unduly powerful individuals.

  5. Derzhavin’s piece IS powerful.

    Yes indeed, I still remember my first reading of it, and I shake my head sorrowfully at people who think Pushkin somehow made it irrelevant. Thanks for a great comment!

  6. Oh, and of course Mayakovsky is here too; as with Joyce you could call it Here Comes Everybody.

  7. Does “this here very note” reflect a similarly non-standard form in the Russian? That seems like the kind of thing you’d be sensitive to and want to reproduce.

  8. Yes, the backwards-turned “Записку эту вот” [note-ACC this-ACC here(-is)/this(-is)]. (There’s an extended discussion of вот on pp. 51ff. of the Girvan book.)

  9. Alex K., thank you so much. I don’t obviously know my Derzhavin.

  10. @LH: “I shake my head sorrowfully at people who think Pushkin somehow made it irrelevant.”

    Speaking of the two “Monuments,” most Russian students learn about Derzhavin’s poem when Puskin’s ode gets analyzed in class so they get a chance to compare and contrast, so to say. But I was focusing on “Властителям и судиям”, which I don’t think Pushkin addressed directly. Catherine II was not amused with it but Derzhavin protested that King David had been no Jacobin. Dostoyevsky declaimed the poem at Petrashevsky’s. I suspect that if you read it at a public gathering in Russia today, you’d get charged with “extremist speech.”

  11. Very likely!

  12. @D.O.: I would recommend the biography by Khodasevich, Derzhavin. Factually, it’s based on Yakov Grot’s scholarship but it reads like a fast-paced adventure novel. Well, almost.

  13. Huh, I should read it myself.

  14. Ah, I see it’s available in English for non-russophones.

  15. Okay, so the words are merely in an unusual order. It doesn’t correspond to this-here /, the proximal version of that-there, plurals these-here and them-there.

  16. I’m not sure what you mean by “correspond to”; we’re dealing with two different languages, and nothing directly corresponds to anything else. In my judgment, the slight casual distortion of my line corresponds to that of the Russian.

  17. @John Cowan: “Okay, so the words are merely in an unusual order.”

    In colloquial Russian, it would not be unusual. “Записку эту вот надо отнести” would sound unremarkable and “эту вот” wouldn’t be much different from simply “эту.” What’s kind of unnatural in the poem is the stress on “вот” – as a filler, it wouldn’t normally be stressed in this position.

    If you punctuated the line differently, let’s say “Записку эту – вот! – ” you’d assign a different role to “вот”, making it emphatic and justifying the stress.

  18. In colloquial Russian, it would not be unusual. “Записку эту вот надо отнести” would sound unremarkable and “эту вот” wouldn’t be much different from simply “эту.”

    But that’s because it’s followed by the verb that governs it and is thus in a marked position anyway. I don’t think “отнесите записку эту вот” would sound unremarkable; surely you’d be far more likely to say “отнесите вот эту записку.”

  19. I was asking if (what appears to be) a dialectal feature in the English corresponded to a dialectal feature in the Russian. You say no, a word reordering in the English corresponds to a word reordering in the Russian. So be it.

  20. 1) I don’t think of “this here” as dialectal, but that may because it’s my dialect.

    2) Russian doesn’t have dialects (in the sense that English does).

  21. Гаврила Державин
    Первый олонецкий губернатор — так часто называют Гаврилу Державина. На самом деле должность у него была иная и пробыл у руля в нашем крае он чуть больше года. И все-таки остался в нашей истории как одна из самых ярких и знаковых фигур. Почему — об этом в новом выпуске проекта «100 символов Карелии».

  22. It would be more correct to say that Russian USED to have dialects, but no longer does.

    Only traces survive and some regional accents.

    Usual explanation given in Russia is that mass schooling and TV killed all local dialects (and does a good job of destroying minority languages too).

    However, people in Western countries also go to school and watch TV, but their dialects are still well and alive.

    Perhaps there is something else going on.

  23. It would be more correct to say that Russian USED to have dialects, but no longer does.

    No it wouldn’t, unless you think it would be more correct to say that Limonov USED to be alive, but no longer is, than to say Limonov is dead.

  24. David Marjanović says

    people in Western countries also go to school and watch TV, but their dialects are still well and alive

    That depends. In European French, regardless of country, very little is left; basically everyone speaks slower Parisian (plus septante huitante nonante outside of France). In northern and central German, not much more is left; most people speak mesolects – Standard German with a lot of phonetic, phonological, lexical and grammatical features from some average of the dialects of each region. In southern German, the dialects are basically all intact except for the moribund Viennese (replaced by a mesolect), though I’m not sure about Munich. Italy seems to have a very complex situation.

    Perhaps there is something else going on.

    Definitely: social attitude.

  25. January First-of-May says

    Now that Russian dialects as such are obviously (essentially) gone, and what’s left is moribund [my headcanon is actually that the last major remnants were destroyed by the German occupation in WW2, which killed many people and displaced many more in the previously dialect-heavy northwestern areas], people have started referring to “Russian dialects” to mean 1) accents, particularly the okan’ye – and those are also on their way out – and 2) regional word distinctions, of the kind exemplified by “soda/pop” in American English (which are very much a thing in Russian; even the relatively recently settled Kaliningrad area has its own regional words).

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