Translating Alexy Tolstoy's The Convicts

'The Convicts' by Alexy Tolstoy (1817-75) features the prisoners, often political prisoners, who were obliged to trudge across the Orenburg steppes on their way to Siberian hard labour. It was not an infrequent sight in tsarist Russian: gangs of prisoners, heads shaven, chained together, with slow steps, sullen brows, and heavy thoughts. Touched by their plight, Tolstoy contrasted their misfortune with the natural freedom of the Volga, the wide and steppes and the untrammelled human will.

translating Alexy Tolstoy's The Convicts

The prisoners' journey is presented as endless suffering that does not stop even when the sun goes down. In time the poem was set to music and sung by T. Grechaninov, becoming a popular revolutionary song. It was greatly loved by Lenin and was often sung by prisoners of all political persuasions.

The poem is outwardly simple, but the ternary rhythm and feminine rhymes give much trouble to the translator.

Tolstoy's The Convicts: Russian Text


Спускается солнце за степи,
Вдали золотится ковыль,—
Колодников звонкие цепи
Взметают дорожную пыль.

Идут они с бритыми лбами,
Шагают вперёд тяжело,
Угрюмые сдвинули брови,
На сердце раздумье легло.

Идут с ними длинные тени,
Две клячи телегу везут,
Лениво сгибая колени,
Конвойные с ними идут.

«Что, братцы, затянемте песню,
Забудем лихую беду!
Уж, видно, такая невзгода
Написана нам на роду!»

И вот повели, затянули,
Поют, заливаясь, они
Про Волги широкой раздолье,
Про даром минувшие дни,

Поют про свободные степи,
Про дикую волю поют,
День меркнет все боле,— а цепи
Дорогу метут да метут…

First half of 1850s

Other Translations

Ruverses has a good translation by C.M. Bowra, reproducing the ternary metre and feminine rhymes. His first two stanzas are:

The sun on the steppes is sinking,
And gold is the distant grass.
The convicts’ fetters are clinking
On the dusty road as they pass.

They march, with heads closely shaven.
With heavy steps onward go.
Grief on their brows engraven
And doubt in their hearts below.

Poem structure

The piece is written in dactylics, rhymed as follows:

Спуска́ется со́лнце за сте́пи, u - u u - u u - u 3A
Вдали́ золоти́тся ковы́ль,— u - u u - u u - 3b
Коло́дников зво́нкие це́пи u - u u - u u - u 3A
Взмета́ют доро́жную пыль. u - u u - u u - 3b

Иду́т они́ с бри́тыми лба́ми, - u - u u - u 3C
Шага́ют вперёд тяжело́, u - u u - u u - 3d
Угрю́мые сдви́нули бро́ви, - u u - u u - u 3C
На се́рдце разду́мье легло́. u - u u - u u - 3d

A TTS (text to speech) recording of the first stanza is:


C.M. Bowra's rendering is a fairly faithful one. The machine translation of the first two stanzas is:

The sun is going down behind the steppes;
in the distance , golden feather grass,—
convicts ringing chains;
The stir up the road dust.

They go with shaved foreheads,
they step forward heavily,
They have sullen frowns,
Heart sunk into reflection.

The trouble is the verse — which is not a disparagement of Bowra's efforts: he was a most accomplished translator and verse technician — but the short dactylic, which leads to metrically uncertain lines in English like 'With heavy steps onward go' and 'Of the Volga that flows far and long' (line 20). Equally questionable is the feminine rhyme, which results in the rather unidiomatic 'hearts below' in line 8, etc.

Features that would make a decent poem are being sacrificed to bring out features of Russian verse that will not be of interest to most readers. This may well be a principle of contemporary translation — one thinks in particular of Chinese verse — but the cost is high: the translations largely fail as poetry. It seems to me much better to replace the feminine with a masculine rhyme, and to replace the dactylic trimeter with an iambic tetrameter. The reader who wants the original features can learn to read Russian or listen to the audio here.

English Translation

Translation is best done in stages. First a shaping with rhyme:

In going down the sun bestowed
its glow on distant feather grass.
In clanking chains along the road
and clouds of dust the convicts pass.

Each, trudging forward, drags his feet,
and, bent beneath a shaven head,
how sullenly his frowns will meet
the gloomy thoughts that lie ahead.

The leaning shadows lengthen out,
the horses straining at the cart,
and, one with all the shades about,
the guards are following, far apart.

'Brothers, what about a song?
Forget the travails of this earth,
the hurts, the heartache and the wrong
that’s written in us from our birth.'

So, bound together by the law,
they sing their song in unison:
how far the Volga, shore to shore,
how profitless the years have gone.

They sing a life once free,
of youth and wildness once again.
Though sunlight fades, continually
the road is swept by that long chain.

Then something closer to the Russian that also emphasizes the contrast between nature and the oppression man exerts on his kind:

The sun descends: an amber glow
lights up the distant feather grass.
In clanking chains the convicts show;
along a dusty road they pass

With shaven foreheads, prisoners all
are trudging with a heavy tread.
Their grim and sullen frowns recall
the gloominess of life ahead.

Extended shadows lengthen out,
two horses straining at the cart,
and, lazily, and round about,
the guards are not far apart.

'Let brothers bind themselves in song,
forget our troubles on this earth:
misfortunes, gathering sense of wrong
deep-written in us from our birth.'

And so they sing, continually
more bound together as they go:
about the Volga wide and free,
of long-gone days they didn't know.

They sing of steppes that once were free,
of simple wildness come again.
Though sunlight fades, it's still we see
a road that's swept by this long chain.

References and Resources

1. Анализ стихотворения Толстого «Колодники» Simple school essay (in Russian).
2. Bristol, E. A History of Russian Poetry (O.U.P. 1991) 147-50.
3. Bowra, C.M. A Book of Russian Verse. (Macmillan 1943) 58-60.

Russian poem translations on this site: listing.


Vladimirka by by Isaac Levitan c. 1892.