Boris Pasternak's My Sister — Life

'My Sister — Life', written in 1917 but published in 1923, is Boris Pasternak's (1890-1960) first important collection of poems. It continued an exploratory, experimental attitude to writing and loosely commemorates a failed love affair on the eve of the 1917 Revolution. The poems, which incorporate impressions of small towns encountered on train journeys in southern Russia, are rather enigmatic and fragmentary, but enthusiasts — of which there are many, then and now — speak of a liberating openness to life coupled with striking metaphors and connections that may not come over in translation. {1}

pasternak my sister life translation

A second important book, 'Themes and Variations' appeared in 1923, but the long poems of the 1920s were about the successes of the Revolution. Pasternak wrote continually, but the later work enjoyed mixed success until the poems accompanying Dr. Zhivago appeared. Many allusions seem far-fetched in English and, stripped of their Russian verse texture, rather unconvincing.

Artistic creativity, as the poet unhelpfully put it, is an expression of a metaphysical force that wells up in the creator. {1}

Russian Text

Пастернак Сестра моя — жизнь...

Сестра моя — жизнь и сегодня в разливе
Расшиблась весенним дождем обо всех,
Но люди в брелоках высоко брюзгливы
И вежливо жалят, как змеи в овсе.

У старших на это свои есть резоны.
Бесспорно, бесспорно смешон твой резон,
Что в грозу лиловы глаза и газоны
И пахнет сырой резедой горизонт.

Что в мае, когда поездов расписанье
Камышинской веткой читаешь в купе,
Оно грандиозней святого писанья
И черных от пыли и бурь канапе.

Что только нарвется, разлаявшись, тормоз
На мирных сельчан в захолустном вине,
С матрацев глядят, не моя ли платформа,
И солнце, садясь, соболезнует мне.

И в третий плеснув, уплывает звоночек
Сплошным извиненьем: жалею, не здесь.
Под шторку несет обгорающей ночью
И рушится степь со ступенек к звезде.

Мигая, моргая, но спят где-то сладко,
И фата-морганой любимая спит
Тем часом, как сердце, плеща по площадкам,
Вагонными дверцами сыплет в степи.

Summer 1917

The TTS Audio Recording is:

Analysis of Poem February

The poem is generally held to be in hexameters, {3} rhymed ABAB:

Сестра́ моя́ — жизнь и сего́дня в разли́ве     5/6 A
Расши́блась весе́нним дождём обо́ всех,     5/6 B
Но лю́ди в брело́ках высоко́ брюзгли́вы     5/6 A
И ве́жливо жа́лят, как змеи́ в овсе́.     5/6B

Certainly there are six stresses to the line, but a pair of such stresses in each line is commonly missing an intervening unstressed syllable, which I've shown as 5/6.

Previous Translations of 'My Sister — Life'

Ruverses have three renderings. I give just the first stanza of each:

1. Phillip C. Flayderman

Sister my life burst forth today
In torrents of spring rain, everywhere.
But people in jewels are highly squeamish
And bite politely, like hidden vipers.

2. James E. Falen

My sister — life — in a flood of spring rain
Has bruised herself blue all around us today,
But people in watches seem peevish and vain
And bite so politely, like vipers in hay.

3. A.S. Kline

My sister — Life’s overflowing today,
spring rain shattering itself like glass,
but people with monocles still complain,
and sting, politely, like snakes in the grass.

4. There is also a translation by Mark Rudman, partially available though Google Books. {4}

My sister — life floods over
and bursts on everyone in spring rain,
when monocled folk in the grotto of fine manners
snap and sting, like snakes in oats.

English Translation of Pasternak's My Sister — Life

It seems wise to undertake the translation in four steps. First we create unrhymed hexameters:

My sister’s life, and a life today that’s in full flood.
The spring’s rain burst over me, so hurting everyone:
but people with monocles can be a tad too peevish,
though like the snakes in oats they sting politely.

The grown-ups have their various reasons why this is,
and certainly your own reasons can be quite bizarre.
In thunderstorms there blossom purple eyes and lawns,
and from the horizon a damp smell of mignonette.

In May you take the Kamyshinsky route of trains
and in compartments read what railway schedules say:
a grandiosity more than the holy scriptures have.
The train’s upholstery is black with storms and dust.

At villages the engine barks and squeal of brakes
will rouse the peasantry drunk on local concoctions.
I look up from the sleeper couch. Is this my station?
The sun in setting shows its sympathies for me.

The third peal splashes out; the bell floats away.
A solid apology — sorry, we’re not there yet.
Under the curtain there flashes the flame-lit night,
and steppe condenses from the running board to stars.

Blinking, blinking, I’m sleeping somewhere sweet:
my own beloved, my fata-morgana, still sleeps on.
Meanwhile, there’s the heart, dropping on platforms,
and carriage doors are scattered open across the steppes.

Then we add the rhymes:

My sisters life, and ours today is wild and free
The springtime’s burst of rain hurts me and everyone.
But people in monocles may act too peevishly,
though like the adder in the oats the bite is aptly done.

We grown-ups reasons tend to act as various pawns,
and yours as well have reasons that we should forget.
In thunderstorms we see the purple eyes and lawns;
from damp horizons flood the smells of mignonette.

In May you take the Kamyshinsky route of trains,
and in compartments read the schedules if you must
with more attention than His holy scripture gains.
The train’s upholstery is black with storms and dust.

At villages the engine barks and squeal of brakes
will rouse the peasants sleepy-drunk on dire concoctions.
I look out from my sleeper. We’re here? With no mistakes?
The smiling sun in setting has no other options.

The third peal splashes out; the bell floats away.
Apologies — I’m sorry, it’s not yet ours.
Under the drapes, the lights flash past as bright as day,
and steppe condenses from the running board to stars.

Blinking, blinking, I’m sleeping somewhere sweet:
a place my heart’s own true beloved also slept
The heart itself is dropping onto platform bar and seat
and carriage doors are scattered far across the steppe.

The third step is to polish up the piece, for which we really have to get at the meaning. We can't 'let the words speak for themselves' because literary versions involve some departures from a word-for-word transcription and these departures have to be towards a proper understanding of the poem. But here, unfortunately, we reach a major difficulty.

Articles intended for the general reader generally fight shy of a detailed explication. Indeed, what's readily available on the Internet suggests the poem doesn't really have one. The blurb to Rudman's translation {4} reads, 'In Russian poetry, Boris Pasternak's My Sister — Life is the equivalent of The Waste Land, Spring and All, and Harmonium. . . Written in the summer of 1917, the cycle of poems in My Sister — Life concentrates on personal journeys and loves, but is permeated by the tension and promise of the impending October revolution. Pasternak is an uncompromisingly complex poetic stylist, and his meticulous attention to structure, etymology, and the phonetic qualities of words makes his poetry a formidable challenge for the translator.'

'Mark Rudman renders Pasternak's poetic masterpiece with verve and intelligence. Paskternak's poems, writes Rudman in his introduction, evoke "the constant movement and change that occurs from moment to moment and in hitherto unseen connection between disparate things." His unencumbered and startling perceptions of the world are dense, rich, and surreal: In the orphaned, sleepless, Damp universal waster Groans tore from their posts, The whirlwind dug in, abated. . . Osip Mandelstam wrote, "To read the poems of Pasternak is to get one's throat clear, to fortify one's, breathing....I see Pasternak's My Sister — Life as a collection of magnificent exercises in breathing...a cure for tuberculosis." '

Katherine Tiernan O'connor remarks that 'The title poem is, in fact, a microcosm of the entire book, since it contains allusions which are significant but cannot be fully appreciated until the end of the book. For example, there is a reference to the Kamyshin railroad line, and Kamyshin, Balashov, and Tambov are three stops along a railway line that will figure very prominently in the poems that follow.' {5}.

Given these vagaries, {6} all we can do, I think, is tease out and make more emphatic what the prose sense possibly suggests. So:

Today, my sister — life there is a flooding free;
the springtime's burst of rain disparages most everyone.
Folk in monocles may act too peevishly,
the viper's bite in the oats is most politely done.

Elders act out as they do when reason dawns,
your reasons are ridiculous, undoubtedly, so don't forget.
Storm clouds will bring a purple to the eyes and lawns;
from the horizon smells, damp smells of mignonette.

In May you take the Kamyshinsky route of trains
and in compartments read the schedules if you must.
Importance gathered there transcends what Good Word gains.
The train’s upholstery is black with storms and dust.

Through villages the engine growls; a squeal of brakes
may rouse the peasants sleeping off their dire concoctions.
I get up from my mattress. Are we here, with no mistakes?
The sun in setting smiles but has no other options.

The third peal eddies out; the bell then floats away.
Sincere apologies: we've still some way to go.
Under the drapes, the lights flash past as bright as day,
steppes collapse between the stars and running-board below.

And what I awake to, from sleep, blinking, is somewhere sweet:
a place my heart’s own enrapturing beloved also slept.
The heart goes splashing along the platform bench and seat,
and the carriage doors are poured out across the steppe.

In short, most lines make some sense — i.e. we can visualize the context — but the poetry in English perhaps only works in lines 8, 12, and 17-20. (In line 19, I'd read 'heart' as 'keen anticipation' and line 20 as the light from uncurtained carriage doors being thrown across the steppes as the train roars into the night.)

Finally, step four, we remember that the Russian metre in this poem usually has a unstressed syllable missing from each line, i.e. is not as regular as we have written. It's possible to write broken lines with 5-6 stresses apiece, but the hexameter is already a difficult measure to handle in English. It's probably better to write some mixture of hexameters and pentameters. Without adding anything substantial to the Russian text (except to the humour in line 16), we write:

Today, my sister — life, we're born anew,
and springtime's burst of rain hurts everything.
Monocled folk are much too peevish in all they do,
and, through the grass, politely, adders sting.

The elders act accordingly as reason dawns.
Your reasons are ridiculous, undoubtedly: don't forget.
Storm clouds leave a violet on the eyes and lawns;
from damp horizons comes the smell of mignonette.

In May you take the Kamyshinsky route of trains
and in compartments read the schedules if you must:
a self-importance more than the Lord's Word attains.
Upholstery looks black from storms and dust.

Through villages the engine growls. Squeal of brakes
rouses peasants sleeping off their dire concoctions.
I get up from my couchette. We’re here? No mistakes?
On me the sun smiles and sets, lacking other options.

The third peal follows on as bell now floats away.
Sincere apologies: there's still some way to go.
The shrouded signals pass beneath as bright as day
and the scene shrinking from stars to step below.

What I wake from sleeping to, blinking, is somewhere sweet:
a place my heart’s own enrapturing beloved also slept.
The heart goes splashing along platform bench and seat,
with the carriage doors bright pouring out across the steppe.

Is this acceptable? I wouldn't have thought so. We are now in Modernism, which derives its poetry less from the prose sense that can be conveyed in translation, and more from specific aspects of the Russian, which cannot. The verse, moreover, employing the rhymed hexameter we have noted with Pushkin is still much too rough. Solution? Try shortening the hexameter to the much more manageable pentameter:

Today, my sister — life, floods out anew,
with springtime’s rain accosting everything.
Fine folk with monocles are peevish too,
and, like the snake in oats, politely sting.

The elders have their reasons, while your tries
are quite ridiculous, so don’t forget.
The storm leaves purple on the lawns and eyes;
from raw horizon smells of mignonette.

In May the Kamyshinsky route of trains:
read schedules in compartments if you must,
they’re grander than what Holy Word attains.
Upholstery is black from storms and dust.

Through towns the roar and brakes in rough duet,
calm peasants sleeping as the wine devises.
I get up, look: it’s not my platform yet.
On me the sun, in setting, sympathizes.

A third peal follows. The bell now floats away.
Apologies: there's still some way to go.
Beneath the curtain lights flash bright as day,
The scene shrinking from stars to step below.

Blinking, blinking, sleeping somewhere sweet,
where, like a mirage, my beloved's slept,
the heart goes down the length of platform beat,
and carriage doors pour out across the steppe.

Note that the process, long though it is, gives what free-verse renderings generally lack — a firm and ample shape to the stanzas, and a musical texture to the lines. Helped by the rhymes, some lines more or less 'work', but whether this is great poetry, or even satisfactory poetry, is an open question. {7} Pasternak was an exceptionally cultivated man, and his approach resembles the experimental approaches of American Modernists: that may be the basis of his claims to 'greatness'. Pasternak also became a anti-communist symbol, useful to western propaganda.

No doubt the many interpretations possible are a boon to academia, but, in practical terms, we are faced here (as in 'February' we are not) with giving effective aesthetic shape to work that, by its nature, resists full understanding. In short, we can't move the text into something closer to English poetry because we don't know what it's fully saying in the Russian.

References and Resources

1. Bristol, E., A History of Russian Poetry (O.U.P.) 235-39.

2. Анализы стихотворений Борис Пастернак Yebanko Short article in Russian, text of poem and audio recording.

3. Rudman, M. et al. (ed and trans), Pasternak, B. My Sister - Life (Northwest University Press, 2001) 12. Helpful introduction and decent poems as translations in the contemporary fashion, i.e. unrhymed and musical but rather free.

4. Rudman 2001, Introduction xvi.

5. O'conner, K.T. (O.U.P: 2017) Boris Pasternak's My Sister—Life: The Book Behind the Verse.

6. See reference 2, which is largely vacuous. Even Evelyn Bristol, {1} usually so terse and clear, labours to say exactly what Pasternak's poem are about.

7. A controversial statement, no doubt, but see the essays from the leading scholars of the time in 'Pasternak: A Collection of Critical Essays' freely downloadable from Dokumen. Large claims are made, but there is no substantiation by way of detailed illustration. The translations are prosaic, moreover, giving no hint of why we should read the originals.

Russian poem translations on this site: listing.