logo GUIDES TRANSLATIONS ARTICLES POETRY

Translating Alexy Tolstoy's Troparion

Alexy Tolstoy (1817-75) was a deeply religious man who saw the Orthodox Church as the natural religion of the Russian people. The poem covers some incidents in the life of the Rev. John of Damascus, beginning from his time as beloved servant of the Damascus Caliph Umayyad. John made a legendary trip to Constantinople to denounce the Byzantine emperor Leo III, and then travelled to the Great Lavra of St. John Sava Sanctified in the Judean desert. The Rev. John wrote a poem to comfort the brother of the deceased monk, which was against the other-worldly doctrines of the order, which he was forced to leave. The Most Holy Theotokos appeared to the elder in a vision, however, and asks why he is persecuting John. The Most Holy Virgin, speaking of John, compares the joy that his gift brings with the joy that nature gives, and finished his speech with the following appeal: 'Leave the flowers to the earth, leave the harmonies to Damascus!' The poem ends with the triumph of the gift of the song of St. John, and mentions, in particular, the Song of the Resurrection.

The central part of Tolstoy's poem is a famous rendering of the Troparion, which John wrote in memory of the deceased monk's brother. John is slandered and the Caliph orders that the saint's right hand be severed as punishment. Mary, the Mother of God, miraculously restores the hand to John, but Tolstoy, who could read the Greek, in fact bases his poem on the saint's life thereafter, perhaps in keep with the naturalist feeling of the times. As John is restored to his old position in the caliphate, so Tolstoy is given divine permission to use his poetic gifts again.


translating Alexy Tolstoy's Troparion

The theme of 'Troparion' is the vanity of earthly wishes, of course, and the poem has the power of some of Derzhavin's piece, notably 'On the Death of Prince Meshchersky'. A troparian is usually a single chant, but here Tolstoy repeats the theme four times, enhancing its solemn grandeur, which is in contrast to the poem as a whole.

The poem was in fact set to music by Sergei Taneyev, and the cantata first performed in 1884 in memory of the pianist Nikolai Rubinstein.

Tolstoy's Troparion: Russian Text

Иоанн Дамаскин

1. «Какая сладость в жизни сей
Земной печали непричастна?
Чье ожиданье не напрасно?
И где счастливый меж людей?
Все то превратно, все ничтожно,
Что мы с трудом приобрели,—
Какая слава на земли
Стоит тверда и непреложна?
Все пепел, призрак, тень и дым,
Исчезнет все как вихорь пыльный,
И перед смертью мы стоим
И безоружны и бессильны.
Рука могучего слаба,
Ничтожны царские веленья —
Прими усопшего раба,
Господь, в блаженные селенья!

2. Как ярый витязь смерть нашла,
Меня как хищник низложила,
Свой зев разинула могила
И все житейское взяла.
Спасайтесь, сродники и чада,
Из гроба к вам взываю я,
Спасайтесь, братья и друзья,
Да не узрите пламень ада!
Вся жизнь есть царство суеты,
И, дуновенье смерти чуя,
Мы увядаем, как цветы,—
Почто же мы мятемся всуе?
Престолы наши суть гроба,
Чертоги наши — разрушенье,—
Прими усопшего раба,
Господь, в блаженные селенья!

3. Средь груды тлеющих костей
Кто царь? кто раб? судья иль воин?
Кто царства Божия достоин?
И кто отверженный злодей?
О братья, где сребро и злато?
Где сонмы многие рабов?
Среди неведомых гробов
Кто есть убогий, кто богатый?
Все пепел, дым, и пыль, и прах,
Все призрак, тень и привиденье —
Лишь у Тебя на небесах,
Господь, и пристань и спасенье!
Исчезнет все, что было плоть,
Величье наше будет тленье —
Прими усопшего, Господь,
В Твои блаженные селенья!

4. И ты, предстательница всем!
И ты, заступница скорбящим!
К тебе о брате, здесь лежащем,
К тебе, святая, вопием!
Моли божественного сына,
Его, пречистая, моли,
Дабы отживший на земли
Оставил здесь свои кручины!
Все пепел, прах, и дым, и тень!
О други, призраку не верьте!
Когда дохнет в нежданный день
Дыханье тлительное смерти,
Мы все поляжем, как хлеба,
Серпом подрезанные в нивах, -
Прими усопшего раба,
Господь, в селениях счастливых!

5. Иду в незнаемый я путь,
Иду меж страха и надежды;
Мой взор угас, остыла грудь,
Не внемлет слух, сомкнуты вежды;
Лежу безгласен, недвижим,
Не слышу братского рыданья,
И от кадила синий дым
Не мне струит благоуханье;
Но вечным сном пока я сплю,
Моя любовь не умирает,
И ею, братья, вас молю,
Да каждый к господу взывает:
Господь! В тот день, когда труба
Вострубит мира преставленье, -
Прими усопшего раба
В твои блаженные селенья!»

Other Translations

Maurice Baring produced an excellent rendering of Troparion. His first stanza is:

What joy does earthly life possess
That hath no part of earthly sorrow?
What joy that proves not false tomorrow?
Where among men is happiness?
Of all that we through toil obtain
Nothing is lasting, all is vain —
What glories on the earth are sure
and steadfast and unchanged endure?
All is but shadow, dream and sand,
And like a whirlwind blows away,
And face to face with death we stand
Unarmed in helpless disarray.
The right-hand of the mighty one
Is nothing, naught the king's command —
Lord, now Thy servant's life is done,
Receive him in Thy blessed land.

Poem structure

In general the poem is rhymed thus:

1. «Кака́я сла́дость в жи́зни сей 4a
Земно́й печа́ли неприча́стна? 4B
Чьё ожида́нье не напра́сно? 4B
И где счастли́вый меж люде́й? 4a
Всё то превра́тно, всё ничто́жно, 4C
Что мы с трудо́м приобрели́,— 4d
Кака́я сла́ва на зе́мли 4d
Стои́т тверда́ и непрело́жна? 4C
Все пе́пел, при́зрак, тень и дым, 4e
Исче́знет всё как ви́хорь пы́льный, 4F
И пе́ред сме́ртью мы стои́м 4e
И безору́жны и бесси́льны. 4F
Рука́ могу́чего слаба́, 4g
Ничто́жны ца́рские веле́нья — 4H
Прими́ усо́пшего раба́, 4g
Госпо́дь, в блаже́нные селе́нья! 4H

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



Discussion

Sir Maurice Baring was an eminent man of letters: poet, novelist, playwright, translator, and a much-travelled observer fluent in eight languages. He was also a member of the literary establishment, and not always treated kindly by the Modernists — he's not listed in the Poetry Foundation, for example. His Russian translations are excellent, often of a quality out of reach to modern practitioners. What are we doing, therefore, in attempting this piece, when there is a perfectly satisfactory, indeed admirable, translation available already?

Well, there are one or two questionable points in the translation, but the main point is that every generation tackles translation a little differently — from slightly different viewpoints, with a slightly different vocabulary. And translation is not a competition with one sole winner, but a fraternal enterprise where individual efforts, if they're any good, add an aesthetic thickening of understanding.

But we do most certainly need to learn from each translation, to understand what each rendering has achieved and had to give up. Accordingly, I'll examine the first stanza of Baring's rendering in some detail here. We need the literal translation:

"What a sweetness in this life
Is she not involved in earthly sorrow?
Whose expectation is not in vain?
And where is the happy one among people?
Everything is wrong, everything is insignificant,
What we have gained with difficulty -
What glory on earth
Is it firm and immutable?
All ashes, ghost, shadow and smoke,
Everything will disappear like a dusty whirlwind,
And before death we stand
And unarmed and powerless.
The hand of the mighty is weak,
The royal commands are insignificant -
Accept the deceased slave,
Lord, to the blessed villages!

Taking the lines in turn:

1. Sweetness or joy? Strictly speaking, it's sweetness. Joy is радость.

3. 'What joy that proves not false tomorrow?' is attractive line, but the 'tomorrow' is of course introduced to pick up the 'sorrow' rhyme.

4. Pauses introduced for variety and emphasis: Where // among men / is happiness?

5-6. The obtain / vain is a pleasingly neat couplet, though the Russian rhyme scheme here is in fact CddC.

8. Commas are needed here for sense: 'and steadfast and, unchanged, endure?' (When the statement is a little tautological.) The Russian escapes this criticism.

12. 'helpless disarray' is rather clumsy: the Russian is the more sensible 'unarmed and powerless'.

13. 'right-' is introduced for scansion purposes, and shifts the meaning slightly.

16. селенья means 'villages', written by Tolstoy to rhyme with веленья (orders). Baring's 'land' is a happy improvement.

These are very small points, but do give us reason to write our own version:

1. What sweetness can our life possess
that’s unalloyed with earthly grief?
Are not our hopes but vain belief?
Show one who knows true happiness.
All gathered up by endless toil
is false and insignificant.
What glory deems magnificent
will time itself but fade and spoil.
We are but ashes, shades of ghosts,
that with the winds are blown away.
Unarmed and weak we face the hosts
of death's great darkness and decay.
No power has earth's almighty one,
or issues of the king’s command.
Accept, Lord, Thy slave’s work done.
Receive us in Thy holy land.

English Translation

The completed translation is:

1. What sweetness can our life possess
that’s unalloyed with earthly grief?
Are not our hopes but vain belief?
Show one who knows true happiness.
All gathered up by endless toil
is false and insignificant.
What glory deems magnificent
will time itself but fade and spoil.
We are but ashes, shades of ghosts,
that with the winds are blown away.
Unarmed and weak we face the hosts
of death's great darkness and decay.
No power has earth's almighty one,
or issues of the king’s command.
Accept, Lord, Thy slave’s work done.
Receive us in Thy holy land.

2. And like a fearsome knight came death
and struck me down without a cause,
for death had opened wide its jaws
and took from all their living breath.
So save yourselves, my sons and kin.
It's from the coffin comes my call.
So save yourselves my brothers all
escaping hell's fierce fires of sin.
As vanities are worldly powers
but at approaching death's dark reign
will shrivel as do the flowers.
Why do we wander round in vain?
Fine thrones have only fine tombs won,
and palaces return to sand.
Accept, Lord, Thy slave’s work done.
Receive us in Thy holy land.

3. Who among the moldering bones
is warrior, king or judge or slave —
God's subject who escapes the grave,
or one for whom no death atones?
What's gold or silver, brothers, where
the hosts of slaves can have no name?
If unmarked coffins are the same,
who can be rich or wretched there?
We are but ashes, smoke and dust,
a shadow, not a real creation.
Only You in Heaven have our trust,
are refuge and our true salvation.
All things of flesh will come undone,
no greatness can that death withstand.
Accept, Lord, Thy slave’s work done.
Receive us in Thy holy land.

4. You, who speak for all throughout
and intercede for mourners here,
for brother laid upon his bier,
to Him, Most Holy One, cry out!
Pray to God’s begotten son,
to Him who is most holy, pray
for one who can no longer stay,
let equally his griefs be done!
All here is dust and smoky air,
so put no faith in phantom breath.
For suddenly, when nothing's there,
will come the breath of smouldering death.
All eat the self-same bread, each one
is struck down by the reaper's hand.
Accept, Lord, Thy slave’s work done.
Receive us in Thy holy land.

5. I travel on an unknown road
between both fear and hope am thrown.
My sight is poor, my breast a stone,
my ears are sealed, my head is bowed.
Motionless, bereft of speech,
I cannot hear my brethren wail,
nor can the censer’s blue smoke reach,
far less I smell the fragrant veil,
for in an endless sleep I fall,
but one where love will never die.
You, my brothers, you I call,
that you upon the Lord will cry.
For one Your trumpet has begun
announcing peace is close to hand.
Accept, Lord, Thy slave’s work done.
Receive us in Thy holy land.

References and Resources

1. Иоанн Дамаскин Ruskline article of 2004. Brief analysis of John of Damascus poem and background (in Russian) with references.
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.