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Translating Pushkin's Gypsies: Poetry from Bare Words

Gypsy Woman by Nicolai Yaroshenko

Gypsy Woman by Nicolai Yaroshenko 1886 Poltava Art Gallery {1}

Nikolai Alexandrovich Yaroshenko (1846-98) was born in Poltava (now the Ukraine) to an officer in the Russian Army, and first chose a miltary career. But he also studied art at Kramskoi's drawing school, and then at the Saint Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts. While still a military officer he became a leading member of a group of Russian painters called the Peredvizhniki  or Wanderers, dedicated to portraying local Russian life as it was. {2}

Indeed, the movement became a crusade, both to bring art to every corner of the Russian Empire and to represent the moral worth and native intelligence of the people: realism, populism and national consciousness. {3}  Yaroshenko was called the conscience of the Itinerants', for his integrity and adherence to principles. He retired as a Major General in 1892, spent  some years in the Poltava and Chernigov regions, and latterly in the Caucasus Mountains, to which he moved for health reasons. He died of consumption in Kislovodsk, and was buried there. {2}

Yaroshenko was one of the leading exponents of Russian realism in the last two decades of the 19th century, creating many portraits, genre pieces and drawings. His widow donated his work to the Poltava municipal art gallery in 1917. {2}

Pushkin's The Gypsies

Introduction

  The opening Russian text is:

ЦЫГАНЫ 

Цыганы шумною толпой                  a
 По Бессарабии кочуют.                  B
Они сегодня над рекой                    a
 В шатрах изодранных ночуют.        B
Как вольность, весел их ночлег       c
 И мирный сон под небесами;          D
Между колёсами телег,                   c
Полузавешанных коврами,              D
Горит огонь; семья кругом              e
 Готовит ужин; в чистом поле          F
 Пасутся кони; за шатром                e
 Ручной медведь лежит на воле.     F
Всё живо посреди степей:               G
Заботы мирные семей,                    G
Готовых с утром в путь недальний,  h
И песни жён, и крик детей,               G
И звон походной наковальни.           h
Но вот на табор кочевой                   i
 Нисходит сонное молчанье,              j
И слышно в тишине степной              i
 Лишь лай собак да коней ржанье.    j
Огни везде погашены,                      k
Спокойно всё, луна сияет                 L
 Одна с небесной вышины                k
 И тихий табор озаряет.                    L

В шатре одном старик не спит;          m
Он перед углями сидит,                     m
Согретый их последним жаром,          N
И в поле дальнее глядит,                   m
Ночным подёрнутое паром.                N
Его молоденькая дочь                        o
Пошла гулять в пустынном поле.        P
Она привыкла к резвой воле,             P
Она придёт; но вот уж ночь,               o
И скоро месяц уж покинет                   Q
Небес далёких облака, -                      r
Земфиры нет как нет; и стынет           Q

 Убогий ужин старика.                         r
Но вот она; за нею следом                 S
 По степи юноша спешит;                   t
Цыгану вовсе он неведом.                 S
 "Отец мой, - дева говорит, -              t
Веду я гостя; за курганом                   U
 Его в пустыне я нашла                       v
 И в табор на ночь зазвала.                v
Он хочет быть как мы цыганом;          U
Его преследует закон,                       W
Но я ему подругой буду.                    x
Его зовут Алеко - он                          W
 Готов идти за мною всюду".             x

Старик

Я рад. Останься до утра                  z
 Под сенью нашего шатра                z
 Или пробудь у нас и доле,              A
Как ты захочешь. Я готов                b
 С тобой делить и хлеб и кров.         b
Будь наш - привыкни к нашей доле, A
Бродящей бедности и воле -            A
А завтра с утренней зарёй                c
 В одной телеге мы поедем;             D
Примись за промысел любой:           c
Железо куй - иль песни пой               c
 И сёла обходи с медведем.             D

Алеко

Я остаюсь.

Земфира
                   
                         Он будет мой:          e
Кто ж от меня его отгонит?                F
Но поздно... месяц молодой              e
 Зашёл; поля покрыты мглой,            e
И сон меня невольно клонит.. {1}       F


Where lower case indicates masculine rhymes and upper case the feminine rhymes. The Yandex machine code translation yields:

GYPSIES

The gypsies are noisy crowd
 They travel by Bessarabia.
They are over the river today
 In the tents of tattered ones spend the night.
As liberty, their night's lodging
 And a peaceful dream under heaven;
Between the wheels of the carts,
Half-hung with carpets,
The fire is burning; family around
 Is cooking dinner; in the open field
 The horses are grazing; behind the tent
 A tame bear lies on the outside.
Everything is alive in the middle of the steppes:

Cares of peaceful families,
Ready with the morning in the way of the near,

And the songs of wives, and the cry of the children,
And the sound of a marching anvil.
But the nomadic camp
There is a sleepy silence,
20. And heard in the silence of the steppe
Only dogs bark and horses rye.
The lights are everywhere extinguished,
All is quiet, the moon shines
One from heavenly height
25. And a quiet camp illuminates.
In the tent alone the old man does not sleep;
He sits in front of the coals,
Warmed by their last heat,
And in the field far gazing
30. Overnight steamed
His young daughter
I went for a walk in the desert field.
She got used to the frisky will,
She will come; but it's really night
35. And soon she will leave the moon.
Heaven distant clouds, -
Zemfira is not; and getting cold
The miserable supper of the old man.
But here it is; behind her
40. In the steppe the young man is in a hurry;

He is completely unknown to the gypsy.
 "My father," the virgin says, "
I lead the guest; behind the mound
 I found him in the desert
 She summoned me to the camp for the night.
He wants to be like us as a gypsy;
He is persecuted by the law,
But I'll be his girlfriend.
His name is Aleko - he
 Ready to follow me everywhere. "

Old man

I am glad. Stay till morning
 Under the canopy of our tent
 Or stay with us and share,
As you want. I'm ready
 With you to share and bread and shelter.
Be our - get used to our share,
Wandering poverty and will -
And tomorrow morning with dawn
 In one cart we will go;
Apply for fishing any:
Iron kui - il song sing
 And go around the village with a bear.

 Aleko

I stay

Zemfira
                    He will be mine:
Who will drive him away from me?
But it's too late ... a month young
 Has come; the fields are covered with haze,
And the dream makes me involuntarily.

Metrical Analysis

The poem is in iambic tetrameters, generally rhymed aBaB:

Цы га ны шум но ю тол пой 4a
 По Бес са ра би и ко чу ют. 4B
О ни се год ня над ре кой 4a
 В шат рах и зод ран ных но чу ют. 4B

Как воль ность, ве сел их ноч лег 4c
 И мир ный сон под не бе са ми; 4D
Меж ду ко лё са ми те лег, 4c
 По лу за ве шан ных ков ра ми, 4D

But there are also sections rhymed aaBaB, abba, etc, as the Russian text above indicates.

Gypsies in Context

The Gypsies is the last of Pushkin's four southern poems, the others being The Prisoner of the Caucasus, The Robber Brothers and The Fountain of Bakhchisaray. It was written in exile on his mother's estate near Pskov in 1824, and published in 1827. Prince Mirsky {2} speaks highly of the piece: 'The Gypsies is among the greatest works of Püshkin. . . The Gypsies are not treated realistically but merely as ideal representatives of a natural state of human society. . . a strong affirmation of freedom. . . and patently a plea for anarchism. It was Pushkin's first attempt at tragedy and one of his greatest. It is less easy to do justice to its poetical beauty, and speaking of it, one is too likely to forget the lesson of restraint that is the best lesson to be learned from Pushkin. The verse, less fluent and volumptuous than in The Captive and in The Fountain, is tighter, fuller, and more saturated with complex expressiveness. Such passages as the old gypsy's tale of Ovid, the end of the poem (with the speech of the old man on Aleko's murder), and especially the epilogue, are unsurpassable summits of poetry.'

Previous Translations

The gypsies has seen several translations. That by G.R.Ledger is firmly modelled in rhyming quatrains, effective but not always following Pushkin's rhyme scheme. {2}

 A noisy multitudinous throng
 The crowd of gypsies streams along
 The plains of Bessarabia. 
 Their camp by the riverside today
 Is pitched and set for their nighttime stay.
 In ragged tents spread far and wide
 Like freedom is their sojourn there,
 Under the skies in the midnight air. 
 Between the wheels of the drawn up carts,
 Half covered with carpets thrown across 
 The bonfire glimmers.  The family starts
 To prepare a meal.  On the steppe nearby
 The horses pasture; behind the tents 
 The tame bear sleeps with an open eye. 
 In the vasty steppes all is noisy and lively:
 The gypsy family's anxiety
 Since the early morn on their short planned journey,
 The children's cries and the women's singing,
 And the sound of the travelling anvil's ringing. 
 But now upon their nomadic camp
Descends a sleepy silentness 
 And the only sounds in the steppe's quietness
 Are the barking of dogs and the horses' neighs. 
 The fires everywhere are all put out,
 All is at peace,  the solitary moon
 Shines from the summit of the skies
 And brightens the encampment with its rays.

The translation by Irinia Zheleznova (1922) is exceptionally felicitous, reproducing Puskin's rhyme schemes and the feminine lines. There are inevitable contrivances to accommodate so demanding a form (cover, leap, wander, lick, etc), but the language is still largely fresh and convincing. {3}

The Gypsies Bessarabia roam
In noisy crowds. . .. Above a river
In tattered tents they make their home.
From night’s cool breezes seeking cover.
In open air calm is their sleep;
Like freedom glad their rest is. . .. Under
The rug-hung caravans there leap
A fire’s bright flames whose shadows wander
And lick the wheels; close to the blaze,
A family, for supper gathered.
Prepare their meal ; a tame bear lies
Behind the tent; nearby, untethered.
The horses graze. . .. The steppe all round
Is full of life; their camping ground
The Gypsies leave at dawn; the ringing
Of anvils mingles with the sound
Of children’s cries and women singing. . ..
Then all at once a hush descends
Upon the camp; a horse’s neighing
At times the dreamy quiet rends
Or else a watchdog’s frantic baying.

The unattributed Wikipedia samples may be simply a literal rendering: {5}

Between the wheels of the carriages
hanging carpets folded over in two
burns a flame, and the family around it
cook their supper; in the fresh field
the horses are at pasture; beyond the camp
a tame bear lies uncaged.

William Arndt also produced a very readable version, though the diction is now a little dated:

Between Moldavian settlements
In clamorous throng the gypsies wander.
Tonight they spread their tattered tents
Encamped beside the river yonder.
Gay is their camp, in freedom gay,
Their sleep beneath the stars untroubled;
Amid the wheels of van and dray
Their sides with hanging carpets doubled,
the campfire burns, and over it bent
They cook their meal; at pasture scattered,
Their horses graze; {6}

Yevgeny Bonver's version is not particularly accurate or pleasing:

The Gypsies in the noisy throng
Stray Bessarabia around.
Today over the river, long,
They’re lodging in their tents, worn out.
Like freedom their night-resting is –
And peaceful sleep the heavens under.
Between the wagons’ tired wheels,
Covered with rugs, long-used in wonders,
A fire’s flamed. A family’s
Preparing, round it, a dinner;
A horse is gazing in the fields,
Is sleeping, free, a teamed bear-thriller. {7}

The Gypsies has also been translated more recently by Antony Wood, but below is the only excerpt I can find on the Internet (it being standard practice these days for reviewers not to substantiate their remarks with extensive quotation, a  practice I find less than honest, and indeed suspect):

Old husband, dread husband,
Stab your wife, burn your wife:
Firm I stand—I don’t fear
Fire or the knife.

I hate you, despise you,
Another I love;
He has all my heart,
I shall die for my love. {8}

Final Translation

We can now turn to the translation, which is largely an exercise in writing compact tetrameters that adopt Pushkin's tight rhyming schemes. Our rendering has to appear natural, with the rhymes seeming inevitable and of course exhibit a proper understanding of the original. Everything Pushkin writes has a purpose, though it's often understated by its author, who has a deft, almost eighteenth-century lightness of touch. The translation is probably better done in two stages, first a fairly literal one:


It's gypsies in their noisy way
that far through Bessarabia roam:
across the river now they stay
in rough felt tents that serve for home.

But they are free: the heavens keep
them in their wise and sovereign grace:
between the wagon wheels they sleep,
secure within a rug-hung space,
with folk toward the fireside blaze
and meal together seeming leant.
In open fields the horses graze;
a tame bear lies behind the tent.

The steppes are never short of sound
when children cry, the women round
about will sing, and anvils ring
as waiting folk across the ground
anticipate what mornings bring.

Yet all is silent, now, a force
that settles on them, self-aware:
a bark of dog or neigh of horse
comes faintly on the thin night air.

The lights are doused, and everywhere
there’s calm: the coming moon is bright:
the camp beneath the heaven’s care
is flooded with a silver light.
 
But one old man is not asleep
but from the warmth the ashes keep
still gazes from his tent to see,
across the steppelands, wide and deep,
the night mists glimmer hazily.
And somewhere out there, far from sight,
across the fields his daughter went,
and by her love of freedom sent.
But she'll come back, if now the night
is almost spent, the moon foretold
to fall from its cloud-pillared state.
Yet no Zemfira comes, and cold
the food uneaten on his plate. 

But here she is. Behind her too
a young man waits impatiently.

'This man will not be known to you,
my father, but is one who'll be
henceforth my guest, and one to do
my bidding always. One I found
45. in fields behind the barrow mound.
He'll be a gypsy, will pursue
his way with us outside the law.
Aleko, now my friend, will share
his life with us, and evermore
50. will travel with me everywhere.

Old Man

Till morning I'd be glad to see
you rest beneath our canopy,
of, if you wish, for longer stays,
as by your inclinations led,
55. to share this awning and our bread
and grow accustomed to our ways
of roaming poor throughout our days.
Let us see what dawn will show 
to our cart off to anywhere.
60. You'll fish or sing the songs we know
adopt our metal-working, go
the rounds with our performing bear.

Aleko 

 I’ll stay.

Zemfira

      He will be mine, for who
would dare to make it otherwise?
65. It's now grown late: the young moon too
has thrown on fields a misty hue,
and sleep is heavy on my eyes.


Working notes

There are many ways of going wrong. The machine code translation itself has several errors. Rhyme itself exposes us to danger. We could much more easily write something like the Wikipedia snippet noted above, and make it accurate too. Indeed, while rhymed verse will do things beyond what is possible in prose, it is equally likely to produce dull, inept and/or contrived passages if we don't continually push its powers to the limit. Baudelaire's albatross is an apt image.  We have to get the verse airborne even on the most mundane of matters, or, to change metaphors, to get the words resonating with fuller meanings and connotations as Pushkin does in the very plain verse that makes his Gypsies. Our verse has to be simple without being plebeian, mean or pinchbeck. And that can be difficult.

To take the earliest problem: in line 1, толпой means 'crowd' or 'by the crowd'. But if we use the word we're stuck with something like: The gypsies in a noisy crowd / are down from Bessarabia way. / Today, across the river, loud / and in their tattered tents they stay which is not too elegant. We can use 'lot', of course, but the problem remains with: The gypsies are a noisy lot that far through Bessarabia roam. Today they're by the river spot, in tattered tents that are their home. We don't really want to designate the group at at all, as this colours our view of them: all groupings have overtones, some faintly derogatory. It seems better to avoid the problem altogther with the It's gypsies in their noisy way adopted above.

The problem with lines 13-19 is setting them out in chronological order: Pushkin rather anticipates. Everything is alive in the middle of the steppes: / Concerns of peaceful families, / Finished with the morning in the path of the near,/ and the Songs of wives, and the cries of children, / And the ringing of the marching anvil  Zheleznova's solution therefore seems sensible, which is to make the future into a general condition: In the vasty steppes all is noisy and lively: /  The gypsy family's anxiety /  Since the early morn on their short planned journey. So our The steppes are never short of sound

Rhyme should not be too obvious, I think, using see/canopy in lines 56-7 above rather than Then stay till morning. I'm content / that you should choose to share our tent.

 With those fundamentals in place, we can write something more fluent and integrated (though still needing work):


Now gypsies in their boisterous way,
that far through Bessarabia roam,
are camped across the river, stay
in thread-bare tents that make their home.

5. But they are free: the heavens keep
their watch on them in sovereign grace:
between the wagon wheels they sleep:
the folded rugs give each his place.

A fire burns: beside the blaze
10. are folk towards their dinner bent.
In open fields the horses graze;
a tame bear chafes behind the tent.

But all's anticipation here:
for on the morrow will appear
15. the songs the married women sing,
the cries of children, far and near,
and drum-beats marching anvils bring.

But now all sleep: the steppes enforce
a quiet becoming self-aware.
20. a bark of dog or neigh of horse
comes faintly on the thin night air.

The lights are doused, and everywhere
there’s calm: the coming moon shines bright:
the camp beneath the heaven’s care
25. is flooded with a silver light.
 
But one old man is not asleep
but from the warmth the ashes keep
still gazes from his tent to see,
across the widespead steppeland's sweep
30. the night mists gather hazily.

Far over there and out of sight
his virgin daughter wandered: she
was one who wanted liberty,
who would return, but now the night
35. is almost spent, the moon foretold
to leave its lofty clouded state,
yet no Zemfira comes. It's cold,
the food uneaten on his plate. 

But here she is. Behind her too
40. a young man waits impatiently.

'This man will not be known to you,
my father, but is one who'll be
henceforth my guest, and pledged to do
as custom says. He's one I found
45. in fields behind the barrow mound.
He'll be a gypsy, and pursue
his way with us without the law.
Aleko, now my friend, will share
my bed and stay as one I draw
50. to follow me most everywhere.


Old Man

Till morning I'll be glad to see
you rest beneath our canopy,
and am prepared for longer stays,
if so your inclinations led.
55. So share this awning and our bread
and grow accustomed to our ways
of roaming poor throughout your days.
Let us see what dawn will show 
to cart that's off to anywhere.
60. You'll fish or sing the songs we know
adopt our metal-working, go
the rounds with our performing bear.

Aleko 

 I’ll stay.

Zemfira

      He will be mine, for who
would dare to make it otherwise?
65. But now it's late: the young moon too
has thrown on fields a misty hue,
and sleep is heavy on my eyes.

I am not going to write a version with feminine lines, for reasons given elsewhere on the Pushkin pages. Irinia Zheleznova's attempt is a very creditable attempt, moreover, in many respects an heroic one, but, even employing approximate rhymes, the rendering still gives something that is not quite English verse and which also strays far from the sense in places. No doubt a version could be written, but the effort would probably far outweigh the gain.

References and Resources

1. Wikisource Russian text. Цыганы (поэма — Пушкин) https://ru.wikisource.org
2. Mirsky, D.S. (1881/1958) A History of Russian Literature. Vintage Books. 92-3.
3.
Ledger, G.R. (2009) Gypsies (1827) Russian text and partial translation http://www.pushkins-poems.com/Gypsies01.htm
4.
Zheleznova, I. (1922) Alexander Pushkin: Selected Works in Two Volumes. Volume One. Progress Publishers, Moscow. https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.458633/2015.458633.
5.
Wikipedia writers (208) The Gypsies (poem) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gypsies_(poem)
6. Arndt, W.W. (1965)  'The Gypsies' by Alexander Pushkin. Slavic Review. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2492329
7. Bonver, Y. (2005) Aleksandr Pushkin: The Gypsies. https://www.poetryloverspage.com/yevgeny/pushkin/gypsies.html
8. Halford, M. (2010) Please Put Some Pushkin in My 'Carmen'. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/please-put-some-pushkin-in-my-carmen

Audio Recording

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pxvQ8I1Sj6Y


Illustration

1. Gypsy Woman by Nicolai Yaroshenko. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gypsy_Woman.jpg
2. Wikipedia writers (2018) Nikolai Yaroshenko. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikolai_Yaroshenko
3. Pushkin, A. (1827) Russia text and translation http://www.pushkins-poems.com/Gypsies01.htm