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Ivan Krylov Quartet


Ivan Krylov (1769-1844) wrote prose satires, plays and lyrical poems, but is best remembered for his fables, many of which have passed into the Russian language as authentic proverbs. Born the son of a poor army captain in Tiver, Krylov was largely self-educated, but became successively an editor, a publisher and a librarian. His satires were directed at landowners and their abuse of serfs, at theatre people, women, urban night life and the world of fashion and snobbery. {1}. Krylov's plays include tragedies, but most are comedies about love and marriage in the gentry families. The lyrics, some fifty in all, are generally considered rather flat and prosaic. It's for his fables that Krylov is now remembered.

ivan krylov: the quartet translation

Today these pieces seem playful exercises on truisms, and their ridicule has become harmless. What Krylov did achieve, and this is extraordinary given their close rhyming, is a close imitation of peasant speech, with often a subtle intonation that is hard to catch.

In a way difficult for us to realize, the opening years of the nineteenth century saw a veritable craze for fable writing in Russia, and any representative collection of Russian verse has to include them. There were several such writers, but Krylov was the best, still read and inimitable. His last position, a veritable sinecure, was in the Public Library of St. Petersburg, where slothfully remained for over 30 years, noted for his laziness, untidiness, good appetite and shrewd, if somewhat malicious, good sense.

Most of the Fables were written between 1810 and 1820, and collected into nine volumes. What made them popular was both their sound, middle-class, common sense and Krylov's mastery of Russian. There's sometimes a raciness in the colloquial diction, but the descriptive and lyrical sections are very eighteenth century in tone. However tightened up for verse, moreover, the words are the living speech of the street and taverns, rich in the proverbs for which Russian is famous. {2}

Russian Text

Квартет

Проказница-Мартышка,
Осел,
Козел,
Да косолапый Мишка
Затеяли сыграть Квартет.
Достали нот, баса, альта, две скрипки
И сели на лужок под липки, —
Пленять своим искусством свет.
Ударили в смычки, дерут, а толку нет.
«Стой, братцы, стой!» кричит Мартышка: «погодите!
Как музыке итти? Ведь вы не так сидите.
Ты с басом, Мишенька, садись против альта,
Я, прима, сяду против вторы;
Тогда пойдет уж музыка не та:
У нас запляшут лес и горы!»
Расселись, начали Квартет;
Он всё-таки на лад нейдет.
«Постойте ж, я сыскал секрет»,
Кричит Осел: «мы, верно, уж поладим,
Коль рядом сядем».
Послушались Осла: уселись чинно в ряд;
А всё-таки Квартет нейдет на лад.
Вот, пуще прежнего, пошли у них разборы
И споры,
Кому и как сидеть.
Случилось Соловью на шум их прилететь.
Тут с просьбой все к нему, чтоб их решить сомненье:
«Пожалуй», говорят: «возьми на час терпенье,
Чтобы Квартет в порядок наш привесть:
И ноты есть у нас, и инструменты есть:
Скажи лишь, как нам сесть!» —
«Чтоб музыкантом быть, так надобно уменье
И уши ваших понежней»,
Им отвечает Соловей:
«А вы, друзья, как ни садитесь,
Всё в музыканты не годитесь».

1811

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Analysis of Poem 'Quartet'

The poem is in simple iambic, but the line lengths and rhymes are quite varied:

Прока́зница-Марты́шка, 3A
Осёл, 1b
Козёл, 1b
Да косола́пый Ми́шка 3A
Зате́яли сыгра́ть Кварте́т. 4c
Доста́ли нот, ба́са, альта́, две скри́пки 4D
И се́ли на лужо́к под ли́пки, — 4D
Пленя́ть свои́м иску́сством свет. 4c
Уда́рили в смычки́, деру́т, а то́лку нет. 6e
«Стой, бра́тцы, стой!» кричи́т Марты́шка: «погоди́те! 6F
Как му́зыке итти? Ведь вы не так сиди́те. 6F
Ты с ба́сом, Ми́шенька, сади́сь про́тив альта́, 6g
Я, при́ма, ся́ду про́тив вторы; 4h
Тогда́ пойдёт уж му́зыка не та: 5g
У нас запля́шут лес и горы́!» 4h

Previous Translations

Ruverses have five renderings, all generally pleasing, with that by Guy Daniels perhaps being closest to the original (though none is perfect in this regard). I give the opening lines:

An impish little Monkey,
A Goat, a Bear,
And their confrere,
A most judicious Donkey,
Resolved to play a string quartet in G.
Supplied with score, viola, two fiddles, and a bass,
They sat down in a shady place
To charm the whole world with their artistry:
They scraped, fiddle-dee-dum, they whacked, fiddle-dee-dee.

“Stop, fellows, stop!” the Monkey cried. “No wonder it’s no good!
How could the music go right? You’re not sitting where you should.

Does this matter, i.e. does the right line length and rhyme add to the effect? Yes, it does. Here are the opening lines of an unrhymed version by Evelyn Bristol: {1} very pleasing and faithful to the sense, but missing something:

The Monkey, little prankster,
The Ass,
The Goat,
And Mishka-Bear, the clumsy,
Resolved to render a quartet,
Brought scores, a cello, violins, viola,
And took the lea beneath the lindens
To capture with their art - the world.
They strike their bows and saw away, but have no luck.
"Wait, brothers, wait" the Monkey cries, "hold on a minute,
How can the music come? For you are sitting wrong.
Your cello faces the viola, Mishka mine,

And I, as first, must face the Second;
The groves and hills will soon be dancing!"
They sat and the quartet began,
But still no harmony came forth.
"Wait now, for I've the secret found,"

English Translation of Ivan Krylov's Poem


If we really do want a version faithful to rhyme scheme and line length, then we'll have to write something like the following:

One day a playful monkey, 3a
with ass, 1b
crass 1b
goat, and bear the wonky, 3a
formed a quartet on the spot. 4c
The scores, viola and two fiddles see 4d
them sat beneath the linden tree 4d
and charm the world with skills they’ve got. 4c

They strike up brightly, bow away, but charm there’s not. 6e
At length the monkey has to remonstrate a bit, 6f
"Brothers, stop, please stop. This can't be how we sit. 6f
We have to change the placings, so, Mishenka, you 6g
sit by the viola. The second fiddle me, 4h
which means, whatever else we choose to do, 5g
the hills and trees know melody." 4h

They all sat down and started, but 4e
the mishaps all popped up again. 4i
But monkey has the reason. "Men, 4i
we need to sit together more, with each 5j
within reach." 2j

So they obeyed. And meekly seated in a row 6k
they found that this was still a no. 4k
In fact the tangled argument got worse and worse, 6l
a curse 6l
on where to sit and how. 3m

But then a nightingale in passing heard the row 6m
and was implored in turn to simply end the doubt. 6n
"A little patience from you sorts the matter out. 6n
And for the quartet, see, at all events, 5o
we’ve got the scores required and proper instruments. 6o
So what's the seating sense?" 3o
'Certainly you need some learning hereabout, 6n
my tender ears cannot deny,' 4q

was the nightingale's reply, 4q
with 'friends, no matter your positions, 4r
you've got no talent as musicians.' 4r

References and Resources

1. Bristol, E. A History of Russian Poetry (O.U.P.) 98-100.
2. Mirsky, D.S. A History of Russian Literature (Knopf 1926 / Vintage Books 1958) 68-71.

Russian poem translations on this site: listing.