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Boris Pasternak's Venice


'Venice' is a simple early poem of Boris Pasternak's (1890-1960) that shows the dangers of translating 'with an open mind', i.e. simply from the words on the page. We will fail to do the poem justice, probably miss its point altogether, if we do not consult what informed critics have said.

pasternak venice translation

Boris Pasternak had dreamed of becoming a musician or a poet since childhood, but fate first decreed otherwise. After successfully graduating from high school, he entered the law faculty of Moscow University, and in 1912 went to Germany to study philosophy. During the vacation, his parents and sisters came to visit him, and the family decided on an extended trip to Venice. {1}


Russian Text

Венеция

Я был разбужен спозаранку
Щелчком оконного стекла.
Размокшей каменной баранкой
В воде Венеция плыла.

Всё было тихо, и, однако,
Во сне я слышал крик, и он
Подобьем смолкнувшего знака
Ещё тревожил небосклон.

Он вис трезубцем Скорпиона
Над гладью стихших мандолин
И женщиною оскорблённой,
Быть может, издан был вдали.

Теперь он стих и чёрной вилкой
Торчал по черенок во мгле.
Большой канал с косой ухмылкой
Оглядывался, как беглец.

Туда, голодные, противясь,
Шли волны, шлендая с тоски,
И гондолы рубили привязь,
Точа о пристань тесаки.

Вдали за лодочной стоянкой
В остатках сна рождалась явь.
Венеция венецианкой
Бросалась с набережных вплавь.

1913 (revised 1928)


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Analysis of Poem 'Venice'

The poem is in simple iambic tetrameters, rhymed AbAb:

Я был разбу́жен спозара́нку     4A
Щелчко́м око́нного стекла́.    4b
Размо́кшей ка́менной бара́нкой    4A
В воде́ Вене́ция плыла́.     4b

Previous Translations of February

The three renderings on Ruverses all have problems. I give the last stanza of each:

1. Andrey Kneller

Beyond the docks of boats, already,
From dreams, reality was raised
And Venice, — a Venetian lady
Was diving off the bank with grace.

2. Lydia Pasternak Slater

Reality was born of dream-shreds
Far-off, among the hired boats.
Like a Venetian woman, Venice
Dived from the bank to glide afloat.

3. Jon Stallworthy and Peter France

And like the foam of mad blossom
And like the foam of rabid lips
Among glimmering shadows broke loose
The chord that knew no fingertips.

Rendering 1 rather misses the point of the poem. Rendering 2 also misses the point and omits stanza five. Rendering 3 by Jon Stallworthy and Peter France — both illustrious names — is an invention lacking justification in the Russian.

Understanding the Poem


Even simple poems by Pasternak, who was apt to use over-emphatic metaphors and create difficulties where none properly exist, have to be properly understood. I summarize material on the pishi-stihi site.{1}

Pasternak compares Venice, sung by many poets, to a pretzel soaked in water: the city appears gray and unsightly in the early morning light. Not yet fully awake, the poet also hears a woman's cry, which finally pulled him out of the arms of memory, forcing him to look at the scene in a more realistic way. The poet compared this cry with the sting of a scorpion and the trident of the lord of the water depths, jolting him out of images created by books and travelogues. Even the Grand Canal looks shifty and unattractive, making Pasternak realize that myths do not always correspond to reality. The truer symbol was a Venetian woman who rushed from the embankment to swim, embodying courage and despair.

To be fair to erring translators, we should note that Pasternak has conflated Scorpio, the planet or symbol of penetrating intuition, with trident-bearing Neptune, the planet of poetry and artistic imagination generally. It's also unclear why a woman would be diving into the Grand Canal, be it a pre-dawn dip or suicide attempt. Translators are expected to understand a poem before attempting to recreate it in another language, but poets are likewise expected to play fair and close the circle of their thoughts properly.

English Translation of Pasternak's 'Venice'


Woken up, dawn now blown
by tappings on the window pane,
finds sodden pretzel, mute as stone,
on waters that are dull and plain.

All was quiet around, and yet,
still half-asleep, I heard a cry.
Out of silence came a threat,
and not too welcoming the sky.

So was a Scorpion’s trident flung
on shimmerings of mandolins,
when harsh-insulted woman’s tongue
dissented from past-published things.

The silence saw the fork begin
to brandish arm, from darkness won.
The Grand Canal, with evil grin,
glanced round like someone on the run.

Its hungry, pent-up waters gained
the waves of longing tethered here.
The gondolas at moorings strained
and beat their prow-heads on the pier.

Beyond the jostling of each boat,
dreams fled; reality came back.
So will some woman's leap denote
true Venice on Venetian track.


References and Resources

1. «Венеция» Б. Пастернак. Short article in Russian.

Russian poem translations on this site: listing.