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The Steppe at Evening by Afanasy Fet

The 'Steppe at Evening' is one the atmospheric little poems Afanasy Fet (1820-92) liked to write, often about nothing in particular beyond immediate sense impressions. At a time when writers were addressing the serious social problems of the day, which were to overthrow the empire a half century later, these little pieces attracted a good deal of contempt.

translating Fet's Steppe at Evening

But Fet persevered, and was admired by Turgenev (and later writers like Bunin) who wrote a 'poetic prose' that set atmosphere, mood and anticipation by such methods. Fet had the further advantage of verse techniques, of course, which went beyond what prose could say (and both Turgenev and Bunin started their careers as poets).

Russian Text

Степь вечером

Клубятся тучи, млея в блеске алом,
Хотят в росе понежиться поля,
В последний раз, за третьим перевалом,
Пропал ямщик, звеня и не пыля.

Нигде жилья не видно на просторе.
Вдали огня иль песни — и не ждешь!
Все степь да степь. Безбрежная, как море,
Волнуется и наливает рожь.

За облаком до половины скрыта,
Луна светить еще не смеет днем.
Вот жук взлетел и прожужжал сердито,
Вот лунь проплыл, не шевеля крылом.

Покрылись нивы сетью золотистой,
Там перепел откликнулся вдали,
И слышу я, в изложине росистой
Вполголоса скрыпят коростели.

Уж сумраком пытливый взор обманут.
Среди тепла прохладой стало дуть.
Луна чиста. Вот с неба звезды глянут,
И как река засветит Млечный Путь.

1850

The TTS (text to speech) recording is:



Analysis

The poem is in iambics, rhymed AbAb:

Клубя́тся ту́чи, мле́я в бле́ске а́лом, 5A
Хотя́т в росе́ поне́житься поля́, 5b
В после́дний раз, за тре́тьим перева́лом, 5A
Пропа́л ямщи́к, звеня́ и не пыля́. 5b

Previous Translations

Ruverses have one translation this poem, by Don Mager. The rendering is quiet and faithful, but doesn't reproduce the rhyme or the picture painting by sound effects. I give his first two stanzas:

The roiling clouds were thrilling in the scarlet luster,
The evening fields were luxuriant and moist,
And for the last time, at the third pass the driver
Disappeared, the team raising no dust.

No habitations were seen in the broad view.
Hearth and song far off — no surprise!
All was steppe. More steppe. Boundless as the sea
With rolling waves of ripening rye.

Discussion

By eliminating words not essential to the effect wanted, Fet can be a little enigmatic, as he is here. Who is the rider, and what is the significance of the third pass? Only to emphasize the great vastness of the steppes, I think, where the 'pass' will be some brief and uninterrupted view (not a mountain pass) and the ringing (звеня) be the jingle of the horse's harness.

We should also note the quiet musicality: the last two lines and their phonetic transcription:

Луна́ чиста́. Вот с нёба звёзды гля́нут,
И как река́ засве́тит Мле́чный Путь.

luná chistá. voth s nyoba zvyozdy glyánoot,
yi kak reccá zasvétit mléchny put.

The Steppe at Evening: English Translation

The clouds are massing, and a scarlet glow
absorbs the moisture of the dewy grass.
The ring falls silent and the horses throw
no dust up in the third, last gap they pass.

No house or habitation to be seen,
no hearth or song that’s of a sudden gone,
but steppe on steppe, a boundless stretch of green
and waves of rye-grass ripening, rolling on.

Behind a cloud the moon appears, to be
more visible as darkness comes at last.
A beetle’s airborne, whining angrily;
and a harrier, wings unmoving, floats on past.

Across the fields is laid a golden net;
a quail now calls from somewhere far and deep
in dewed and misty silences, and yet
a corncrake answers, sounding half-asleep.

The eye is tricked by twilight: in the haze
are warmth and moistness, coolness drifting by.
The moon is pure; throughout the river's gaze
the Milky Way illuminates the sky.

References

1. Wachtel, M. The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Poetry (CUP 2004) 110-13.
2. Mirsky, D.S. A History of Russian Literature (Knopf 1926/Vintage 1958) 234-6.