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Boris Pasternak's February


Though best known for his Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) was widely respected in his native Russia for poems that introduced Modernist techniques and approaches, sometimes prefiguring their appearance in the west. Pasternak came from a markedly cultivated family. His mother was a concert pianist and his father a well-known artist. Pasternak himself spoke several languages, studied music under Scriabin, and had published his first important collection ('My Sister — Life') by 1923. Though commonly at odds with the Soviet government, he survived the terrible purges of the 30s, and was well-known internationally even before Zhivago was published in 1957, (when official pressure obliged him to decline the Nobel prize awarded the following year.) {1}

February' is an early poem, a very popular and much translated one. It illustrates how the initial strangeness of his poems comes from the insertion of loosely-linked perceptions, often viewed from unusual perspectives or context in which they’re placed by the combination of linear and associative techniques. {2}

pasternak february translation

Not all poems survive transportation into a different language, especially when the connotations and musicality in the Russian words has no exact parallel in the English. The clue to Pasternak's work lies in identifying the context, here a cab journey across a large city. Stray observations are used as striking metaphors and linked by an 'elusive syntax'. {2}

Russian Text

Февраль

Февраль. Достать чернил и плакать!
Писать о феврале навзрыд,
Пока грохочащая слякоть
Весною черною горит.

Достать пролетку. За шесть гривен
Чрез благовест, чрез клик колес
Перенестись туда, где ливень
Еще шумней чернил и слез.

Где, как обугленные груши,
С деревьев тысячи грачей
Сорвутся в лужи и обрушат
Сухую грусть на дно очей.

Под ней проталины чернеют,
И ветер криками изрыт,
И чем случайней, тем вернее
Слагаются стихи навзрыд.

1912

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Analysis of Poem February

The poem is in simple iambic tetrameters, rhymed AbAb:

Февра́ль. Доста́ть черни́л и пла́кать!     4A
Писа́ть о феврале́ навзры́д,     4b
Пока́ грохочащая сля́коть     4A
Весно́ю чёрною гори́т.     4b

Previous Translations of February

The differing understandings become apparent if we look at the Ruverses renderings. I give just the first stanza of each:

1. Alex Miller

February. Get ink, shed tears.
Write of it, sob your heart out, sing,
While torrential slush that roars
Burns in the blackness of the spring.

2. A.Z. Foreman

February. Get ink. Weep.
Write the heart out about it. Sing
Another song of February
While raucous slush burns black with spring.

3. A.S. Kline

February. Take ink and weep,
write February as you’re sobbing,
while black Spring burns deep
through the slush and throbbing.

4. Peter France and Jon Stallworthy

It's February. Weeping take ink.
Find words in a sobbing rush
For February, while black spring
Burns through the rumbling slush.

5. Andrey Kneller

Oh February. To get ink and weep!
To write of February, sob it out,
While slush is blazing through the deep,
Black spring and spreading on the ground.

6. Lydia Pasternak Slater

Black spring! Pick up your pen, and weeping,
Of February, in sobs and ink,
Write poems, while the slush in thunder
Is burning in the black of spring.

7. Yakov Hornstein

February. Get your ink and weep.
Write about February in sobs,
So long as squelching slush and sleet
Burn with the spring of blackened blobs.

8. Sasha Dugdale

February. Get out the ink and weep!
Sob in February, sob and sing
While the wet snow rumbles in the street
And burns with the black spring.

9. Maya Lukashuk

February. Get ink, let out the sobs!
Write of February, as your heart will sink,
While the rattling slushy roads
Are burning in the black of spring.

10. Angela Livingstone

February. Get ink and weep!
Burst into sobs — to write and write
of February, while thundering slush
burns like black spring.

The translations stray from the Russian text because the original has not been understood in context. Pasternak's early poems simply picked up the incongruities of life noted by Lermontov (and many others), creating dislocations that were further exploited as Modernism came of age.

Understanding the Poem


The greatest difficulty most readers will have with February is to understand it in depth. As is common in Pasternak, there are two themes interwoven. The first, quite obviously, are the visual impressions: staring the rain-filled sky, watching how the cab-wheels slowly blacken the slushy snow, their darks and brights too vivid to comfortably view (line 4), of being driven in the cab and hearing the tick of its wheels through the boom of church bells, noticing the rooks in the trees and their reflections in the blackening puddles beneath. In good Pasternak fashion, these are turned into audacious metaphors and similes.

Then the deeper meaning, which in the later Pasternak becomes an opening of oneself to enlightening, raw experience. Here there is the usual contest between winter snows and spring rains, much loved by Russian writers and painters, plus the admonition to value the experience for its randomly appearing self, rather than what the finished poem is saying (lines 7-8 and 15-16). That's a little ironic, given that Pasternak has taken such pains to present an oblique view of the scene, one that is centered on the poem's persona. It is a difficult way of composing, and Pasternak's writing naturally suffered from prolonged 'dry' spells.

I have taken some liberties in lines 11-12, employing just the technique that Pasternak himself uses. The literal rendering of the lines is: 'They will fall into puddles and bring down / the dry sadness at the bottom of the eyes'. I have also emphasized the context more, so that readers appreciate where the words come from, i.e. make better sense.

English Translation of Pasternak's 'February'


February. Get ink and weep,
then of the sobbing February write.
The tire-track-brindled slush will keep
the springtime burnished black on bright.

Hire a cab for six hryvias,
hear wheels and bells assault the ears;
go back to where the raining has
more noise in it than ink and tears.

The rooks strung out like blackened pears
will fall in thousands from the trees.
They splash in puddles where their cares
bring eye’s dry sadness to its knees.

The thawing parts beneath are black.
The screaming wind is torn to bits.
To random things more truth comes back
than sobbings which some poem fits.


References and Resources

1. Bristol, E., A History of Russian Poetry (O.U.P.) 235.

2. Rudman, M. et al. (ed and trans), Pasternak, B. My Sister — Life (Northwest University Press, 2001) Introduction xvi. Helpful introduction and decent poems as translations in the contemporary fashion, i.e. rather free.

Russian poem translations on this site: listing.