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The Dream by Mikhail Lermontov

'The Dream' by Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841) illustrates what difficulties attend a fully-rhymed translation.

translating Lermontov's A Dream

The poem has a disconcerting realism in its setting, as many of the later pieces do. {1} Lermontov was a Romantic but, as his 'Hero of Our Time' indicates, one that grew increasingly honest and uncomfortable. 'Sleep' or 'Dream' as it's commonly known, simply leaves the facts to speak for themselves.


Russian Text

Сон

В полдневный жар в долине Дагестана
С свинцом в груди лежал недвижим я;
Глубокая ещё дымилась рана,
По капле кровь точилася моя.

Лежал один я на песке долины;
Уступы скал теснилися кругом,
И солнце жгло их жёлтые вершины
И жгло меня — но спал я мёртвым сном.

И снился мне сияющий огнями
Вечерний пир в родимой стороне.
Меж юных жен, увенчанных цветами,
Шёл разговор весёлый обо мне.

Но в разговор весёлый не вступая,
Сидела там задумчиво одна,
И в грустный сон душа её младая
Бог знает чем была погружена;

И снилась ей долина Дагестана;
Знакомый труп лежал в долине той;
В его груди дымясь чернела рана,
И кровь лилась хладеющей струёй

1841


The TTS (text to speech) recording is:



Analysis

The poem is in simple iambics, rhymed AbAb:

В полдне́вный жар в доли́не Дагеста́на 5A
С свинцо́м в груди́ лежа́л недви́жим я; 5b
Глубо́кая ещё дыми́лась ра́на, 5A
По ка́пле кровь точилася моя́. 5b

The machine code translation is:

In the midday heat in the valley of Dagestan
With lead in my chest , I lay motionless;
The wound was still deep and smoking,
My blood was sharpened drop by drop.

I was lying alone on the sand of the valley;
Ledges of rocks crowded around,
And the sun burned their yellow tops
And it burned me — but I slept a dead sleep.

And I dreamed of shining with lights
Evening feast in the native side.
Between the young wives, crowned with flowers,
There was a cheerful conversation about me.

But in a cheerful conversation without joining,
Sat there thoughtfully alone,
And in a sad dream her soul is younger
God knows what she was immersed in;

And she dreamed of the valley of Dagestan;
A familiar corpse lay in the valley of that;
A wound was smoking black in his chest,
And the blood flowed in a cooling stream

Previous Translations

The piece has been extensively translated: the ever-useful Ruverses has 7 versions, of which Yevgeny Bonver's seems the best, though this and other renderings are only barely verse. I give his first three stanzas:

The glen of Daghestan, at noon, was hot and gleaming;
I lay on sand with lead sent to my heart,
My deadly wound was deep and easily steaming;
And, drop by drop, was oozing out blood.

I lay on sand of this small glen, alone;
High cliffs surrounded my motionless head.
The sun was scorching their yellow stone
And scorching me; but I was sleeping, dead.

And I daydreamed of homeland and evening:
A feast was glittering with celebrating lights;
Young women, garlanded with flowers, were sitting,
With gaily talk about me all night.

Discussion

The main challenges this piece poses are the rhymes. As noted above, the machine code translation of the first stanza is:

In the midday heat in the valley of Dagestan
With lead in my chest , I lay motionless;
The wound was still deep and smoking,
My blood was sharpened drop by drop.

Should we replace 'chest' by 'tunic top' and introduce 'complete' to get this terse little stanza?

Dagestan, a valley, midday heat:
I lay with bullet lodged in tunic top.
The wound was deep and smoking and complete
with blood that oozed out slowly, drop by drop.

Or add 'stained the vest' to get the rhyme with 'chest'?

A gorge in Dagestan, then midday heat,
I lay motionless, with bullet in my chest.
The wound was smoking still, seemed dark and deep,
in drops the blood oozed out and stained the vest.

Other translators have met the problem by also adding to the text, not generally happily: Pollard (Vale gale), Levitsky (valley tallied), Foreman (Dagestan yet), Kline (red-hot drop), Nabokov (no rhyme), Woodsworth (valley rally), Bonver as above.

It seems better to introduce an innocuous word like 'began':

In midday heat a gorge in Dagestan:
I lay with bullet lodged in tunic top.
The wound was hot and deep: the blood began
collecting into fluid drop by drop.

English Translation

The improved poem then follows quite easily:

Sleep

In midday heat a gorge in Dagestan:
I lay with bullet lodged in tunic top.
The wound fumed hot and deep: the blood began
to flow in elongated drop on drop.

And stretched out on that valley sand, alone,
I saw the cliffs and ledges far around.
Sun sizzled on the yellow tops of stone
and burned me sleeping lifeless on the ground.

Yet what I dreamed of there was filled with lights
as though I’d entered on some celebration.
Young wives there were, and flowers, cheerful sights
with me the subject of the conversation.

But also one who sat detached, not part
of this bright happy chatter, on her own:
perhaps some youthful musing filled her heart
that she was conscious of or could have known.

She dreamed of Dagestan, the valley there,
and some familiar corpse-like figure, dead:
his tunic black with blood that fumed in air
and on the sand through which it spilled and spread.

References

1. Bristol, E. A. History of Russian Poetry (OUP 1991) 129-33.
2. Mirsky, D.S. A History of Russian Literature (Knopf 1926/Vintage 1958) 136-44.