Translating Pushkin's I Loved You: Simplicity is Difficult

Portrait of Denis Davydov by Orest Kiprensky. 1809. {1}

A swash-buckling portrait of D.V. Davydov (1784-1839) by Russia's greatest Romantic painter. As general, poet and writer, Davydov was more than a poster child for Czarist causes. He devised an Hussar poetry noted for its hedonism and bravado, which his own life spectacularly illustrated. Born into the Russian nobility with Tatar roots, Davydov became a guerrilla leader of the Russian Patriotic War, a romantic hero, and an idol of Pushkin and the Decembrists. The poems depict the bon-vivant life of a Russian officer, and address such themes as courage in battle, harlots, vodka, and the value of true friendship. The diction is direct, sometimes more so than the censor would allow, but the poems are full of spirit and sentiment. His later poems were inspired by love for a very young girl. Davydov took part in the Russo-Iranian War (1826-28), wrote a treatise on guerilla warfare, and memories of military life on which Tolstoy drew for his War and Peace. {2}

Orest Kriprensky (1782-1826), wayward, unbalanced, frequently at odds with everyone, was the illegitimate son of a nobleman and spent much of his life in Italy. In work and personality, he was far more the Romantic rebel than Pushkin, and indeed ended his stormy life in illness and depression outside his native land. Much of his work was in the traditional eighteenth century style, subdued and carefully posed, but his best also shows great inspiration, profound thought and perfect technical control. Not in this painting, but in his celebrated portraits, Kiprensky had the rare gift of suggesting in surface details the inner life of its sitters, especially their troubled, fragile and unstable personalities. {3}

Translating I Loved You

Introduction

Pushkin’s I Loved You is studied at school and probably known by heart across the Russian continent. {1-4} It has seen many translations, {5} and there now numerous readings available online (which also show how approximate are the machine code transcriptions). {6} The Russian text is: {1}

анализировать 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.

The Yandex translation service {7} gives:

I loved you: love still, perhaps,
My soul is not extinguished yet;
But let it no longer disturb you;
I don't want to sadden you with anything.

I loved you silently, hopelessly,
Shyness, jealousy was stressed;
I loved you so sincerely, so tenderly,
As God grant you love to be different.

But so understand what each word is doing, we need to look at the literal, word-for-word rendering:

I loved you: love still, perhaps, I
n soul of_my extinguished not quite
But let it you more not disturb I
not want sadden you nothing.

I you loved silently, hopelessly,
The shyness, the jealousy, torment
I loved you so sincerely, so tenderly,
As give you God beloved be other.

Previous Translations

In this light, the Liberman literal translation, intelligent and sensible, is already adding to the plain words: {4}

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.

Background

The woman addressed is either Caroline Subansky, whom Pushkin met in his southern exile, or the cultivated and aristocratic daughter of the President of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, Anna Olenina, to whom Pushkin proposed, but was rejected. Pushkin, the compulsive womaniser, is here being serious, or thought himself so, and the sentiments have to be taken at their face value.

Versification

The transcription into innately stressed and unstressed syllables is: {8}

Я вас люби́л: любо́вь ещё, быть мо́жет, 5A
В душе́ мое́й уга́сла не совсе́м; 5b
Но пусть она́ вас бо́льше не трево́жит; 5A
Я не хочу́ печа́лить вас ниче́м. 5b

Я вас люби́л безмо́лвно, безнадёжно, 5C
То ро́бостью, то ре́вностью томи́м; 5d
Я вас люби́л так и́скренно, так не́жно, 5C
Как дай вам бог люби́мой быть други́м. 5d

The work is written in five-foot iambics with alternating male and female rhymes. The rhythm is complex but precise; with a pause in each line after the fourth syllable. All the rhymes in the even lines contain the sound "m": ‘not quite’, ‘nothing’, ‘then’, ‘other’, ‘torment’. All the rhymes in the odd lines contain the sound "ж": ‘perhaps’, ‘disturb’, ‘hopelessly’, ‘tenderly’. {3}

First Translation Attempts

If we dispense with the feminine rhymes, we can rough out a translation fairly easily:

I loved you, and perhaps within the soul
love still acknowledges that lingering sway.
I beg no more my sadness takes its toll,
and you’re not troubled in the slightest way.

I loved you silently and hopelessly,
and jealously as only the timid can.
God grant that tender love again
may be sincerely given by some other man.

 We then have two main problems, and a host of subsidiary ones (pause after fourth syllable, the extensive alliteration, the internal rhymes). As the first problem we have transferred ‘sincerely’ to ‘given’, where Pushkin writes ‘sincere and tender’ love, i.e. the sincerely belongs to love, not its being given by another man. As the second main problem, we have evaded the feminine rhymes. The first is not too serious, I’d suggest, since ‘sincerely’ transfers itself by implication to love. But we can also write:

I loved you silently and hopelessly,
and jealously as only the timid can.
God grant my true and tender love may be
as much so given by some other man.

The second problem is a serious one, and afflicts all Russian poetry translation: the feminine rhyme, which is common to Russian verse but foreign to English. Our language is not abundantly endowed with rhymes in the first place, and is even less prodigal in feminine rhymes. At their best, feminine rhymes in English are apt to sound a little mannered; at worst they introduce contrivance and circumlocution, destroying any simple expression of feeling. The Liberman translation, for example, has to use ‘embers’ to rhyme with ‘remembers’, and then ‘surrender’ to rhyme with ‘tender’. There are also problems, I’d suggest, with ‘bit’ / ‘lit’ and ‘vexed’ / ‘next’. ‘’A bit’ is too colloquial, and one can’t really be ‘vexed’ by torment, however gentle: different connotations are involved.

But other rhymes are available. Gene Skuratovsky’s rendering omits the feminine rhymes in the first stanza, and has to introduce ‘fear’, but is otherwise very close to the sense : {7}

I loved you once: that love thus far, I fear,
Has not completely died within my soul;
It should not worry you, my dear:
I do not wish to sadden you at all.

I loved you in a silent, hopeless fashion,
Now sorely shy, now jealously in pain;
I loved you with such honest, gentle passion
As, I pray God, you may be loved again.

So we can perhaps write:

I loved you once. Perhaps that adoration
is still acknowledging your lingering sway.
But not that trouble has its new occasion
or even saddens you in any way.

I loved you silently, in hopeless fashion,
then jealousy as only the timid can.
Pray God that my sincere and tender passion
again be given by some other man.

But the second stanza is rather limp (listen to the Russian recordings), and I suggest we reorder for emphasis. Perhaps:

I loved you once. Perhaps that adoration
is still acknowledging your lingering sway,
but not to trouble you, or have occasion
now to sadden you in any way.

I loved you silently, in desperate fashion:
tormented, to jealousy my feelings ran.
God grant that such sincere and tender passion
again be given by some other man.

The rhythm is paused and kept varying with the sense; there is a little alliteration, and a vestigial pause after the fourth syllable in lines 1, 3, 6 and 8. But nothing as musically finished, alas, as the original.

Employing Previous Translations Intelligently

All previous translations are enormously useful. Even if we don’t agree with the rendering, or like the verse for various reasons, each offers suggestions of ways to go, or not to go. Moreover, as I have argued in my web-page on Racine’s Athaliah, {10} fidelity in translation can be fidelity to the prose sense, to the verse features of the original or to the English verse tradition. In the examples collected by All Poetry, the first is more observed by the literal translation, the second by the ‘another translation’ (with respect to the feminine rhymes) and the third by the Deutsche translation. If we now go back to the word-for-word rendering:

I loved you: love still, perhaps,
In soul of_my extinguished not quite
But let it you more not disturb
I not want sadden you nothing.

I you loved silently, hopelessly,
The shyness, the jealousy, torment
I loved you so sincerely, so tenderly,
As give you God beloved be other.

We can see that our last version is faithful to the Russian verse in conveying the feminine endings but otherwise conforms too closely to the English verse tradition — i.e. it’s refracted through countless other English poems, and draws its strength from them. But the Russian tradition doesn’t necessarily observe the graces of English verse. Indeed, the word-for-word rendering, for all its obscurities and broken sense, makes a much more direct and stronger appeal.  Pushkin’s poem is in fact quite regular, {1} though there are inversions of the normal speech order, and the last line does not quite encompass the full sense. Bearing all that in mind, my inclination is to change the odd lines into more broken and declamatory expression, and leave the even lines to round off matters smoothly.

I loved you, love you still, that adoration
perhaps acknowledges your lingering sway.
It won’t now trouble you, or have occasion
to see you saddened in any way.

How hopelessly I loved, in silent fashion;
to jealous torment then my feelings ran.
I loved sincerely with a tender passion:
pray God you find that in some other man.

But we are still left with the fashion / passion rhyme, which I strongly suggest we do not want. Such banal, pantomime rhymes are less objectionable in long narrative pieces, but destroy the simple, heart-felt lyric. But if we go back to the word-for-word rendering, and our very first draft, we can write:

I loved you, love you still, that adoration
perhaps is tribute to your lingering sway,
but not to trouble you, or find occasion
to make you saddened in any way.

I loved so silently and hopelessly:
to hurt and envy then that shyness ran.
God grant that true and tender love may be
as fully given by some other man.

Pushkin's Love Poetry in Context

Given Pushkin’s libertine reputation, {10} his own identification with the dissident hero of Romantism, the amorous gossip of the times and the innumerable love poems he dashed off, it is exceedingly difficult to know how seriously to take Pushkin’s protestations. Certainly he fell desperately in love on occasion, {11} perhaps on many occasions, but he could also be the disenchanted skeptic depicted in Eugene Onegin. {12} Exiled to Kishinyov, a remote outpost in Moldavia, for example, he devoted much time to writing, but also plunged into a life of amorous intrigue, hard drinking, gaming, and violence. {13-14} At Odessa he fell in love with and seduced the wife of his superior, the kindly Count Vorontsov, governor-general of the province, who was eventually obliged to ask for Pushkin’s removal when the affair became too public. {15}

Pushkin's love poetry was inspired by many women, but the greatness of the poetry does not necessarily reflect the depth of his affections. Poetry and love (spiritual and carnal) remain somewhat different entities. Pushkin was no worse than his dissipated contemporaries, of course, but his affairs were often not edifying, despite the legions of poetry lovers wishing to believe otherwise {16}  As W.B. Yeats remarked, ‘The poet is not the man who sits down to breakfast.' ‘Poetry is often both a pragmatic and imaginative assertion of the self’ {17} Writers adopt the personae of their social milieu, moreover, and poets are notorious for their split personalities, that imaginative sympathy allowing them to assume feelings which they then write about. But women did inspire Pushkin to write his most famous lines, however, so that the affections expressed in many poems will be true as far as they go, which is while the poem is being composed. The caveat is what we have to remember, I think, when devotees say ‘love fills all the poems of Pushkin –- and this forms a lively, passionate and iridescent mosaic of his life, and at the same time a Russian archetype of love for a woman.  Love is sometimes enthusiastic, sometimes rational, often insane, and at times mysterious, but always sincere.’ {18} Beyond that, for Pushkin away from the writer’s desk, we have to go to biographies {19} and detailed critics of Pushkin’s work, which, on the Internet, are predominantly in Russian. {20-21}

But that is also beside the point. Pushkin used his love affairs, and their expression in verse, as a means to explore deeper aspects of life. He moved further than Baratynsky in his Epicureanism, valuing freedom, independence and solitude, and, given his disappointment in these, turned to skepticism and demonism. In the end, he came to accept life as it is, and to value harmony, mercy, forgiveness and acceptance as something given from above. From the spiritual and physical harmony of love, Pushkin came to feel the wholeness of the world, and it is that which underlies his lyric poetry. His moral values were always open to reassessment, it has been argued, and became more so as he pushed back the boundaries of existing artistic, religious and philosophical forms. Pushkin could accept contradictions, and had the ability to go beyond subjectivity into the objective, synthesizing something larger than the two in his longer poetry tales. {22}

In short, his literary gifts made Pushkin the poet larger than Pushkin the man because the first is a reworking of the vast heritage of poetry while the second, or at least as we see him in biographies and memoirs, appears in the ordinary language of prose.

References

1. Goldlit writers. "I Loved You ..." An analysis of Pushkin's poem https://goldlit.ru/pushkin/752-ya-vas-lubil-analiz (in Russian)
2. Detskiycas writers. Analysis of Pushkin's poem.  "I loved you…" (in Russian)   http://detskiychas.ru/school/pushkin/анализ-пушкин-я-вас-любил/
3. Сезоны года writers. A.Pushkin "I loved you": an analysis. https://xn----8sbiecm6bhdx8i.xn--p1ai/анализ стихотворения Я вас любил.html (in Russian)
4. Liberman, A. (2016) Two Miracles of Russian Love Poetry. https://russianlife.com/stories/online-archive/two-miracles-of-russian-love-poetry/
5. Pushkin’s I Loved You. https://allpoetry.com/I-Loved-You
6. пушкин  я-вас-любил http://poiskm.co/show/а-с-пушкин/я-вас-любил-любовь-еще-быть-может
7. Yandex https://translate.yandex.com/
8. RussianGram. http://www.russiangram.com/
9. Skuratovsky, G. (2012) Echoes of Russian Verse. ISBN-13: 978-1477467251
10. Saint Petersburg writers (2018) Alexander Pushkin. http://www.saint-petersburg.com/famous-people/alexander-pushkin/
11. Wikipedia writers Donjuan list of Pushkin. https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Донжуанский_список_Пушкина
12. DuVernet, M.A. (2014) Pushkin's Ode to Liberty: The Life and Loves of Alexander Pushkin. Xlibris
13. Britannica writers. Alexandr Segeyevich Pushkin (2018) https://www.britannica.com/biography/Aleksandr-Sergeyevich-Pushkin
14. Poetry Soup writers Alexander Pushkin Biography. (with the famous Baring translation). https://www.poetrysoup.com/alexander_pushkin/biography
15. Abosch, E. (2012) The City of the Steps. http://odessahistory-eabosch2012.blogspot.com/2012/04/vorontsov-and-pushkin-affairs-and.html
16. Mirsky, D.S. (1958) A History of Russian Literature From Its Beginnings to 1900. Vintage Books. 84-5.
17. Kahn, A. (2007) The Cambridge Companion to Pushkin. C.U.P. Chapter 2.
18. ‘Znichka’. (2010) Pushkin’s Love (in Russian) https://znichk-a.livejournal.com/59452.html
19. Druzhnikov, Y. (2018) Prisoner of Russia: Alexander Pushkin and the Political Uses of Nationalism Routledge.
20. Fire magazine writers. The theme of love in the lyrics of A. Pushkin. (in Russian)  http://www.kostyor.ru/student/?n=52
21. Yan, Y.L. (2006) Evolution of the system of moral values in lyric poetry: Pushkin (in Russian)  http://www.dissercat.com/content/evolyutsiya-sistemy-nravstvennykh-tsennostei-v-lirike-pushkina
22. Binyon, T. J. (2004)  Pushkin: A Biography. Vintage.

Audio Recording

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

Illustration

1. Wikipedia writers. Denis Davydov. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denis_Davydov
2. Sarabianov, D.V. (1990) Russian Art: From Neoclassiciam to the Avant-Garde. Thames and Hudson. 27-42.
3. YouTube Readings of Poem. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gohkilHngEs and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DcInC88qXqE