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Gumilev's Trees


Gumilev's first two collections were romantic and picturesque, with much of the imagery coming from fairy tales. In his next two books ('Pearls' 1910 and 'An Alien Sky' 1912) were more personal, reflecting on his unsuccesses in life and introducing impressions of Africa. Real travel impressions were included in 'The Quiver', but the collection has more to do with with myths and stories examined in historical perspective. Poems in 'The Campfire' of 1918 had much the same subjects but were more philosophical. Abstract evil and philosophical conundrums feature in poems written after the 1917 Revolution, in 'The Porcelain Pavilion' (1918), 'The Pillar of Fire' (1921) and 'The Tent' (1924. Gumilev was an exacting literary critic, and also a writer of plays and stories that are not much read now. {1}

gumilev's poem: trees translation

'Trees' is the first poem in Gumilev's 'The Campfire' collection of 1918. Though it depicts the eternal theme of a moral life in unspoiled nature, Gumilev also begins here to sound a warning. There is a metaphysical threat in nature, which in later collections becomes nightmarishly evil. {1}

Russian Text

Деревья

Я знаю, что деревьям, а не нам
Дано величье совершенной жизни,
На ласковой земле, сестре звездам,
Мы — на чужбине, а они — в отчизне.

Глубокой осенью в полях пустых
Закаты медно-красные, восходы
Янтарные окраске учат их —
Свободные, зеленые народы.

Есть Моисеи посреди дубов,
Марии между пальм… Их души, верно,
Друг к другу посылают тихий зов
С водой, струящейся во тьме безмерной.

И в глубине земли, точа алмаз,
Дробя гранит, ключи лепечут скоро,
Ключи поют, кричат — где сломан вяз,
Где листьями оделась сикомора.

О, если бы и мне найти страну,
В которой мог не плакать и не петь я,
Безмолвно поднимаясь в вышину
Неисчисляемые тысячелетья!

1918


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Analysis of Poem 'Trees'

The poem is written in simple iambic pentameters rhymed aBaB:

Я зна́ю, что дере́вьям, а не нам     5a
Дано́ вели́чье совершённой жи́зни,     5B
На ла́сковой земле́, сестре́ звёздам,    5a
Мы — на чужби́не, а они́ — в отчи́зне.     5B


Previous Translations

There is one translation on the Internet, reasonable faithful but unrhymed, posted on many sites. I give the first stanza.

1. Yevgeny Bonver.

I know: to the trees, but not to us,
Perfection of the life is given, whole.
And on the Earth – the sister of the stars –
We live in exile, while they do at home.

2. Evelyn Bristol's unrhymed version: {1}

I know that trees were given, no, not us
That life which is perfection and is grandeur.
We live on this sweet earth as though abroad,
This sister to the stars, but they are native.

First Translation of Gumilev's Poem


It's often easiest to do a translation in stages. We first try for rhymes, working from the Bristol rendering:

Trees

I know that trees are given us, whose worth
to perfect, grander life is well known.
We live as though in exile on this earth,
as sisters to the stars, though there they’re home.

The empty fields are wet with autumn’s hem,
those crimson suns and yellow-brown creations.
The mornings lend their coloured hues to them,
those green and airy freedom-loving nations.

There are Moses trees among the oaks,
And Mary palms, which the spirits mark.
All send quiet greetings to such-like folks
on hidden waters flowing into dark.

In earthy depths, what sharpened gems are found.
On crumbling granite the garrulous spring flows.
They sing and shout, the elm tree falls to ground,
and sycamores have put on leafy clothes.

If only I could find some rural place
and neither cry or sing, but only rise
to silence: in that high and lofty grace
uncounted millions pass before my eyes.

That's reasonably smooth, but there are many problems. Lines 3 and 4 have been inverted. The phrasing misses important points. Rhyme has not only distorted the sense in places but by circumlocutions have damaged the tone, which is simple and direct in the original.

Why then aim for rhyme first off? Because shaping for sense and expression is easier once the prose is transferred to verse, where word order is more flexible and words no longer have their everyday associations.

Then there's no alternative to working through the Russian and rewriting the stanzas, edging the sense closer to the original, reproducing the phrasing where possible and important. The first line is Я знаю, что деревьям, а не нам, literally 'I know that the trees, not us,' which of course rhymes with звездам 'to the stars'. Admirable in the Russian, but giving in English the unlovely 'us' word. Moreover, we've misunderstood the line: the trees are emphatically not given us. We have to write something closer to 'I know the trees are given, but not to us', and then perhaps 'the stars on this sweet earth are sisters thus'.

Then lines 2 and 4. If we write 'but they are native here, that's not our home.' for line 4, we're stuck with another difficult rhyme. The Russian of line 2 is Дано величье совершенной жизни, literally 'The greatness of a perfect life is given,' which perhaps, just perhaps, we could render as 'but life that's perfect under this great dome'. We've certainly introduced a word not in the Russian, but is perhaps implied by the setting. Other rhyme words like 'loam', 'roam', 'chrome', 'gnome' would take us even further from the Russian text. So stanza one is:

I know the trees are given, but not to us,
to life that's perfect under this vast dome.
The stars on this rich earth are sisters thus,
although they're native in what's not our home.

Stanza 2 has that awkward rhyme creations / nations: rather contrived, spoiling the flow of the lines, and being feminine rhymes. The eighth line is Свободные, зеленые народы, literallly 'Free, green peoples'. People is again feminine, but we could use 'populace', as 'this green and airy, open populace.' There's no suitable exact rhyme for 'populace', but perhaps 'face' will serve: 'deep coppers risings and the sunsets face.' So stanza two is:

The empty fields are wet with autumn’s hem,
deep coppers risings and the sunsets face.
The mornings lend their coloured hues to them,
this green and airy, open populace.

Stanza 3 just needs bringing closer to the Russian:

There are Moses trees among the oaks,
and Mary in the palms, whose souls must mark
while sending calls to other quiet folks,
with waters flowing into endless dark.

Stanza 4 needs only a little tidying up:

In depths of earth, what sharpened gems are found.
On crumbling granite the babbling water flows.
It sings and shouts; the elm tree falls to ground,
and sycamores have donned their leafy clothes.

in stanza 5 we need to remove the circumlocutions and rhymes like place / grace. If we use 'land' for the first, we could write:

If only I could find some other land
where I, who need not then to sing or cry,
but in that towering silence only stand
as sky's uncountable millennia go by.

Putting this together we get:

I know the trees are given, but not to us,
to life that's perfect under this vast dome.
The stars on this rich earth are sisters thus,
although they're native in what's not our home.

The empty fields are wet with autumn’s hem,
deep coppers risings and the sunsets face.
The mornings lend their coloured hues to them,
this green and airy, open populace.

There are Moses trees among the oaks,
and Mary in the palms, whose souls must mark
while sending calls to other quiet folks,
with waters flowing into endless dark.

In depths of earth, what sharpened gems are found.
On crumbling granite the babbling water flows.
It sings and shouts; the elm tree falls to ground,
and sycamores have donned their leafy clothes.

If only I could find some other land
where I, who need not then to sing or cry,
but in that towering silence only stand
as sky's uncountable millennia go by.

In short we:

1. Take a rough-hewn translation that's faithful in sense but not properly finished (the case in most translations today).

2. Recast the translation in rhymed stanzas.

3. Rework the rhymed translation by careful reference to the Russian original.

It's a dangerous way of proceeding if the first translation is not faithful, but does save time, allowing us to judge if a new translation will be really worth the effort.

Final Translation of Gumilev's 'Trees'

We now have to make any small tucks and verse improvements necessary, studying the Russian original text again and consulting what critiques and other translations exist.

Trees

I know the trees are given, if not to us,
to life's perfection underneath this dome,
that stars on this sweet earth are sisters thus,
though place they're native to is not our home.

The empty fields are damp with autumn’s hem,
with coppers that the dawns and sunsets face.
The mornings lend their amber hues to them,
with all around this airy populace.

There are Moses trees among the oaks,
and Mary in the palms, whose souls must mark
the calls they send to kindred silent folks,
with waters flowing into endless dark.

In depths of earth, what sharpened gems are found.
On crumbling granite what babbling water flows.
It sings and shouts; the elm tree falls to ground,
and sycamores have donned their leafy clothes.

If only I could find some other land
where there was never need to sing or cry,
aloft in towering silences to stand
oblivious of millennia passing by.

References and Resources

1. Bristol, E., A History of Russian Poetry (1991, O.U.P.) 209.