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Two Miracles of Russian Love Poetry
 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Two Miracles of Russian Love Poetry

by Anatoly Liberman

(Or, An Exercise in Altruism)

Russian poetry is famous for its love lyrics, but, when asked about the greatest among them, everybody unhesitatingly names Pushkin’s Я вас любил (“I Loved You,” 1830):

Я вас любил: любовь еще, быть может,
В душе моей угасла не совсем;
Но пусть она вас больше не тревожит;
Я не хочу печалить вас ничем.

Я вас любил безмолвно, безнадежно,
То робостью, то ревностью томим;
Я вас любил так искренно, так нежно,
Как дай вам бог любимой быть другим.

Literal translation: “I loved you; perhaps love has not yet quite gone out in my soul, but let it no longer trouble you: I don’t want to sadden you in the smallest way. I loved you silently, hopelessly, tormented now by shyness (timidity), now by jealousy; I loved you so sincerely, so tenderly, as God grant you may be loved by another man.”

Even Pushkin did not create another such miracle. The most eminent critics, Viktor Shklovsky and Roman Jakobson among them, subjected this lyric to a detailed analysis (and, as usual in such cases, disagreed on some points), but an acute scholar’s services are hardly needed to enjoy a masterpiece. The magic of Я вас любил engulfs any reader, young (this I know from my school days experience) or old (as teaching it to American students shows). A short explanation is required only because I have to say a few words about the translation.

Liubil “loved” (past tense!) dominates the declaration and sets the tone for the entire wistful confession. It is immediately followed by liubov’ “love” (noun). The verb recurs three more times (once in the participle liubimoi “loved”). It reaches us as an echo in the concluding line. The irresistible string of parallel adverbs (bezmolvno “silently, wordlessly,” beznadezhno “hopelessly”) and almost rhyming, alliterating nouns (robost’iu “by shyness,” revnost’iu “by jealousy”) sound like chords in the counterpoint. The phrase I loved you is repeated three times. There are five negations in the opening lines. We hear a story of a flame dying out slowly and reluctantly. We even suspect that the poet hopes to convince himself of the opposite: perhaps the fire, not quite extinguished, will be allowed to come to life again, and then “another one” (who knows!) might happen to be the author of these verses. The resignation and the selflessness of the confession leave us, not the poet (!), speechless.

I am aware of fifteen attempts to render Я вас любил into English; more surely exist. We often hear the authoritative statement that poetry is untranslatable, but every great poet, from Homer on, has been translated into multiple languages and some versions proved a success! Although masterpieces are rare among them, they exist. A translator of poetry is often motivated by altruism: it is unbearable to think that some people have no notion of lyrics like Pushkin’s Я вас любил for the paltry reason of being unable to read Russian. Yet translation, which in such cases never comes close enough to the original, should at least be “adequate.”

Let us throw a quick look at what we have. “I loved in silence, with no hope to bless,/ And now with such fires and fears tumultuous….” (tumultuous rhymes with thus at the end of the stanza). “I would not interfere with other singers,/nor make them sad with songs that I repeat…. You were the all of one all love revering;/ May you be now as much another’s breath.” “Dear, I have loved you…. Racked by the jealous diffidence of youth,/ Hopeless and dumb, God be my witness how, I loved you….” (Diffidence of youth…. Pushkin, an obsessive womanizer, was thirty-one years old in 1830.)

Some people have no decency (that’s certain), but still how did they dare? To be sure, not all lines and not all versions are such, but even the most careful ones are insipid and ordinary, and only a few translators took the trouble of preserving the meter and rhyming pattern of the original.

I realize that I am throwing stones from a glass house, for below I will offer my attempt at translating Я вас любил into English. The readers will be spared an analysis of my efforts, which, as anyone can see, resulted in small gains and momentous losses; I will only mention the flip-flop of initial consonants in line 6 (timid jealousy ~ gentle torment), to render the inner rhyme and alliteration in to robost’iu, to revnost’iu):

I loved you once; by love’s expiring embers
My soul may be, I am afraid, still lit.
But there is nothing in it to remember:
I would be loath to trouble you a bit.

My love was hopeless—wordless my surrender;
By timid jealousy, by gentle torment vexed,
So artlessly I loved and was so tender
As may he be who’ll chance to love you next.

Although Я вас любил stands out as an unattainable peak in Russian love poetry, there is one more lyric (also an eight-liner) whose infallible structure and haunting music are at the same level.

 

Innokenty Annensky Среди миров (“Among Worlds,” 1909)

Среди миров, в мерцании светил

Одной Звезды я повторяю имя…

Не потому, чтоб я Её любил,

А потому, что я томлюсь с другими.
 


И если мне сомненье тяжело,

Я у Неё одной ищу ответа,

Не потому, что от Неё светло,

А потому, что с Ней не надо света.

Literal translation: “Among the worlds, in the glittering of luminaries, I keep repeating the name of one Star only…. Not because I feel love for Her, but because I languish with others. And when I am overpowered by doubt, from Her alone I seek an answer, not because she gives light, but because with Her no light is needed.” I have not been able to find a single rendition of this lyric into English.

Zvezda “star” is feminine in Russian, while English has no grammatical gender, but calling Annensky’s Star “it” seemed silly. Both Pushkin and Annensky used the verb tomitsia (approximately, languish), for which no precise English equivalent can be found. I have tormented/vexed in one case and a paraphrase in the other. In Annensky’s poetry, this verb often has the connotation of boredom. However, even in the literal translation I decided not to say because I am bored in the presence of others. Tomitsia is a poetic word, while bored is too commonplace and prosaic. Yet boredom and spleen, as they occurred in Byron’s age, arouse associations reminiscent of some later uses of tomitsia.

The climax of both poems is in their last lines. Pushkin is gentle, generous, and seemingly straightforward. Annensky is enigmatic, for what is this god-like Star that alleviates heavy doubt and replaces light, and why then is it a star? Fortunately, we are supposed to enjoy lyrics, not to solve symbolist riddles.

Amid the worlds, ’mid luminaries’ gleam,
One Star I know whose name I keep repeating.
It’s not that of my love for Her I dream:
It’s that with others all is mirthless cheating.

And when oppressive doubt I have to fight,
Her answer only have I sought and heeded.
It’s not that She is emanating light:
It’s that with Her around no light is needed.

In 2002 Ritaly Zaslavsky brought out an anthology Сто поэтов о любви (“A Hundred Poets on Love”). Аn excellent, representative book. Those who can read Russian will find many beautiful lyrics there, old and recent.