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Blok: Unknown Woman


Alxander Blok's 'The Unknown Woman' poem is a popular piece, and has been much translated. It is, nonetheless, a puzzling poem: difficult to fully understand, and difficult to recreate in English. Blok's choice of descriptive words can be rendered fairly faithfully, but a straight transcription does not usually create a poem.

Blok: Unknown woman translation

Blok's Symbolism juxtaposes the vulgar and everyday with the refined and beautiful. We should also note that in Russian the words "wine" and "guilt" are homonyms. {1} They share the same spelling and pronunciation in singular ablative case, but have different meanings. To the vaguely erotic dimensions of the poem is thus added a sense of guilt: the woman is waiting to be picked up.







Russian Text

Незнакомка

По вечерам над ресторанами
Горячий воздух дик и глух,
И правит окриками пьяными
Весенний и тлетворный дух.

Вдали над пылью переулочной,
Над скукой загородных дач,
Чуть золотится крендель булочной,
И раздается детский плач.

И каждый вечер, за шлагбаумами,
Заламывая котелки,
Среди канав гуляют с дамами
Испытанные остряки.

Над озером скрипят уключины
И раздается женский визг,
А в небе, ко всему приученный
Бесмысленно кривится диск.

И каждый вечер друг единственный
В моем стакане отражен
И влагой терпкой и таинственной
Как я, смирен и оглушен.

А рядом у соседних столиков
Лакеи сонные торчат,
И пьяницы с глазами кроликов
«In vino veritas!» кричат.

И каждый вечер, в час назначенный
(Иль это только снится мне?),
Девичий стан, шелками схваченный,
В туманном движется окне.

И медленно, пройдя меж пьяными,
Всегда без спутников, одна
Дыша духами и туманами,
Она садится у окна.

И веют древними поверьями
Ее упругие шелка,
И шляпа с траурными перьями,
И в кольцах узкая рука.

И странной близостью закованный,
Смотрю за темную вуаль,
И вижу берег очарованный
И очарованную даль.

Глухие тайны мне поручены,
Мне чье-то солнце вручено,
И все души моей излучины
Пронзило терпкое вино.

И перья страуса склоненные
В моем качаются мозгу,
И очи синие бездонные
Цветут на дальнем берегу.

В моей душе лежит сокровище,
И ключ поручен только мне!
Ты право, пьяное чудовище!
Я знаю: истина в вине.

1906


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Analysis of The Unknown Woman

The poem is in regular iambic tetrameters, rhymed AbAb, where the feminine rhyme (which ends with two unstressed syllables) is shown in upper case:

По вечера́м над рестора́нами    4A
Горя́чий во́здух дик и глух,   4b
И пра́вит о́криками пья́ными    4A
Весе́нний и тлетво́рный дух.    4b

Previous Translations

No less than nine renderings of Blok's Unknown Woman are given on Ruverses. I give the first stanza of each:

1. Alec Vagapov

The heated air in the restaurants
Is wild and dull as anything,
The drunken hails are ruled by restless
And noxious spirit of the spring.

2. Dina Belyayeva

At evening times above the restaurants
The sultry air’s harsh and stale.
The spirit of the spring-time pestilence
Reigns over drunken muffled wails.

3. Babette Deutsch and Avrahm Yarmolinsky

Of evenings hangs above the restaurant
A humid, wild and heavy air.
The Springtide spirit, brooding, pestilent,
Commands the drunken outcries there.

4. Vladimir Nabokov

In the evenings, the sultry air above the restaurants
is both wild and torpid,
and drunken vociferations are governed
by the evil spirit of spring.

5. A. S. Kline

At evening, above the restaurants,
the sultry air is savage, heavy,
and the breath of spring, corruption,
holds the sound of drunken shouting.

6. Peter France and Jon Stallworthy

These evenings over the restaurants
The air is hot and strangely cloying,
And shouts drift from the drunkards’ haunts
On the putrid breath of spring.

7. Rupert Moreton

At evening time above the restaurants
There hangs a fetid muffled cloud,
With cries of rowdy drunk belligerence
Holds sway the vernal rotten crowd.

8. George M. Young

The restaurants on hot spring evenings
Lie under a dense and savage air.
Foul drafts and hoots from drunken revelers
Contaminate the thoroughfare.

9. A. Wachtel, I. Kutik and M. Denner

Above the restaurants in the evenings
The sultry air is wild and still,
And the decaying breath of spring
Drives drunken shouting.


Assessment

It's always instructive to examine previous renderings, to spot the areas of difficulty and improve on the successes. Below is my assessment of key features in the rendering as a whole (i.e. not just the first stanza). I list the translators as numbered above if they seem to me to have made a decent stab at the feature concerned. Number 10 is our translation below:

Faithful to overall sense: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Faithful to Russian text: 3 5 9 10
Stanza shape, i.e. tetrameters: 1 9 10
Traditional Verse 1 2 3 4 7 8 10
Rhymed: 1 2 3 6 7 8 10
Feminine rhyme: 1 3 7 8
Free Verse 5 6 9
Prose 4
Metrically pleasing: 3 10
Tone captured: 1 2 5 7 9 10
Successful poem: 1 2 3 5 10

Readers can make their own assessments but the first point to make is that none of the renderings ticks all the boxes. Nor, generally, do previous renderings reproduce the tetrameter, transcribe the meaning and overtones of the Russian words closely, or produce metrically pleasing verse. All depends on what is wanted, of course. I've been happy to allow some latitude if the essential shape, meaning and tone are preserved, and if the rendering makes a poem worth reading. Finally, and most importantly with Symbolist poets, the poem has to make sense, the unusual epithets having an origin in meaningful sights or sensations.

English Translation


At evening, over restaurants,
the air is rising, hot and free.
The spring's alive, not hesitant
but reining in drunk revelry.

Across the far-off alley, dust
on lazy country houses lies:
a pretzel sign boasts pale gold crust,
and somewhere else a baby cries.

Each night, beyond the barriers,
with bowler hats tipped raffishly,
past drainage ditch, each walk incurs
some witty and expected plea.

The rowlocks creak across the lake;
a woman screams; the heavens see,
inured to all, for no one’s sake,
the moon's disk wandering vacantly.

Each night my friend’s the only one
I notice in the window pass,
and, meek and reeling, have begun
to sense hard liquor in the glass.

At nearby tables, in the guise
of dozing, waiters lounge about.
The drunks cry out with rabbit eyes,
’In vino veritas’, they shout.

And at a certain time each night ―
or is the dream but only me? ―
a silk-swathed woman floats in sight,
as far as misted windows see.

Maneuvering round inebriates,
with none escorting, none to meet,
this woman, breathing perfumed states,
will settle on the window seat.

As though much made of ancient lore,
she's wrapped limb-tight in silky things,
and stylish: hat has feathers pour,
the slender hand is draped with rings.

Beguiled by such proximity,
and through her dark-veiled instances,
a far enchanted shore I see,
and more enchanting distances.

Unheard-of secrets I cannot tell,
and someone’s sun is also mine:
at every turn my soul as well
is dipped into astringent wine.

The ostrich feathers fall side-wise
but to my mind entice the more.
Unfathomable the blue of eyes
that blossom on that far-off shore

There is a treasure in the soul,
the key to which is wholly mine.
You're right to be my brutish troll:
I'm drunk, and truth is in the wine.

References and Resources

1. Belyayeva, D. The Silver Age of Russian Poetry.

2. Bristol, E., A History of Russian Poetry (O.U.P. 1991) 191-96.

3. Mirsky, D.S., Contemporary Russian Literature: 1881-1925. (Arthur Knopf, 1926) 217-20

Russian poem translations on this site: listing.