Puskin's To Anna Kern

To Anna Kern is one the best, indeed famous, of Pushkin's love poems, but gives the translator many problems if sentimentality is to be avoided.

alexander pushkin anna kern translation

Pushkin's To **** is probably the best known love poem in the Russian language. Anna Petrovna Kern was a Russian socialite and memoirist, with whom Pushkin had a brief affair in 1825. {1} She was brought up in Lubny in the Poltava Governorate and in 1817 was married to the 56-year-old General Kern, whom she claimed to detest.

Russian Text

K * * *

Я помню чудное мгновенье:
Передо мной явилась ты,
Как мимолетное виденье,
Как гений чистой красоты.

В томленьях грусти безнадежной,
В тревогах шумной суеты,
Звучал мне долго голос нежный
И снились милые черты.

Шли годы. Бурь порыв мятежный
Рассеял прежние мечты,
И я забыл твой голос нежный,
Твои небесные черты.

В глуши, во мраке заточенья
Тянулись тихо дни мои
Без божества, без вдохновенья,
Без слез, без жизни, без любви.

Душе настало пробужденье:
И вот опять явилась ты,
Как мимолетное виденье,
Как гений чистой красоты.

И сердце бьется в упоенье,
И для него воскресли вновь
И божество, и вдохновенье,
И жизнь, и слезы, и любовь.


The TTS Audio Recording is:

Poem Analysis

The poem is in simple iambic tetrameters, rhyming A b A b:

Я по́мню чу́дное мгнове́нье: u-u-u-u-u 4A
Передо мно́й яви́лась ты, u-u-u-u- 4b
Как мимолётное виде́нье, u-u-u-u-u 4A
Как ге́ний чи́стой красоты́. u-u-u-u- 4b

Previous Translations

Ruverses have seven renderings, the opening stanzas of which I reproduce here:

1. Nicholas Slonimsky

So clearly I remember seeing
before my eyes your features dear,
Like some angelic, heav'nly being,
Of charm and beauty without peer.

2. Genia Gurarie

The wondrous moment of our meeting…
I well remember you appear
Before me like a vision fleeting,
A beauty’s angel pure and clear.

3. Andrey Kneller

I still recall the wondrous moment:
When you appeared before my sight
As though a brief and fleeting omen,
Pure phantom in enchanting light.

4. A.S. Kline

I remember the marvellous moment
you appeared before me,
like a transient vision,
like pure beauty’s spirit.

5. Rupert Moreton

That stellar moment I remember:
Before me, sudden, there you were,
A fleeting vision’s dying ember,
The purest height of beauty’s blur.

6. Cecil Maurice Bowra

I call to mind a moment’s glory.
You stood before me, face to face,
Like to a vision transitory,
A spirit of immaculate grace.

7. A.Z. Foreman

I still recall a wonder vision.
The moment you before me shone,
A fleeting Genius apparition,
A perfect beauty paragon.

English Translation: First Draft

Let's first try to reproduce the feminine rhyme:

I call to mind a moment’s wonder
when you appeared before my sight:
it was a fleeting vision under
that full beauty, pure and bright.

Beneath what must be our surrender
to worry, noise, to toil and care,
I’d hear that voice forever tender
the wondrous form engendered there.

Long years have passed: through storms and sequels
all those dreams have gone their way:
your gentle voice had never equals,
nor what that heavenly form would say.

Through wildernesses’ darkest prison,
the years meandered on their course.
There was no God, or even vision,
no life, no tears, no love’s sweet force.

And yet once more my soul has woken,
leaps up to see you once again,
that fleeting vision again has spoken,
beauty in that former vein.

The heart beats quickly, finds elation
in that approval from above,
with God reborn and inspiration
there can be life and tears and love.

This is rather bad, though no worse perhaps than some of the Ruverses renderings above. There are two main problems:

1. The feminine rhyme that causes all kinds of bodges. We can translate one half of the lines easily enough, but then have to find various fill-ins to meet the rhyme requirements, the simple sense notwithstanding. Even Maurice Bowra's version, probably the most accomplished as verse, has 'transitory' to rhyme with 'glory', when 'glory' itself is not quite the right word. It wasn't Anna Kern's glory that Pushkin was eulogizing but the woman's effects on the poet, so that he fell immediately in love with her (if he did, Pushkin's brief affair with Anna was not too edifying).

2. The nature of the Russian. If we run the text through Yandex we get:

I remember a wonderful moment:
You appeared before me,
As a fleeting vision,
Like a genius of pure beauty.

In the languor of hopeless sadness,
In the anxieties of noisy bustle,
Sounded to me for a long time a gentle voice
And I dreamed of cute traits.

Years passed. Storms Rush Rebellious
Dispelled old dreams,
And I forgot your gentle voice,
Your heavenly traits.

In the wilderness, in the darkness of imprisonment
My days dragged on quietly.
Without deity, without inspiration,
No tears, no life, no love.

The soul has awakened:
And then you appeared again,
As a fleeting vision,
Like a genius of pure beauty.

And the heart beats in rapture,
And for him resurrected again.
And deity, and inspiration,
And life, and tears, and love.

The Russian is perilously close to greeting-card verse, with all the usual clichés: wonderful, fleeting vision, pure beauty, gentle voice, inspiration, genius, deity, tears and love. Only superb verse skills will evade disaster, and disaster is what our version (and many others) meet with.

The better way, I think, is to translate for meaning, finding as pleasing as expression as we can with simple correlates of the Russian. A straight word-for-word translation will probably produce something banal, which, after a great deal of effort, can only be fashioned into decent verse. What the discriminating reader wants (one hopes) is something more thought-provoking, with some distant claim to poetry.

Verse Problems

Restricting ourselves to the first stanza, the first problem is a rhyme for 'moment'. There isn't one, and Andrey Kneller's 'fleeting omen' doesn't really suffice: it's way off the sense . We do what verse writers always do: rearrange matters so that a more helpful word ends the line. We could write 'A marvellous moment I remember', but would then be stuck with 'ember' etc. that bedevils rendering 5 above. A better word is 'recall', which rhymes with the always useful 'all'. Thus: 'That marvellous moment I recall // and in that passing vision all'

The second problem is line 4. We can write: 'when first you came into my sight// the beautiful is pure and bright', which gets the 'pure' into the translation, but is otherwise too close to church hymns. It's better, it seems to me, to use 'view' rather than 'sight', which gives us:

That marvellous moment I recall
when first you came into my view,
and in that passing vision all
the beautiful was born anew.

It is, of course, possible to paraphrase the first stanza with something like:

That moment's wonder I recall
when I was lost within the pull
of one divinely made that all
in this our world was beautiful.

But that's going further than what the text strictly says: it's not really recognizable as one of the most famous poems in Russian. I think we should leave the translation as below.

English Translation: Final Draft

That marvellous moment I recall
when first you came into my view,
and in that passing vision all
that's beautiful was born anew.

How soon is that soft languor gone,
to noise and bustle, heavy care;
that gentle voice still ventured on
with loveliness engendered there.

The long years pass and add their cost,
rebellious storms displace the dreams.
That voice of gentleness is lost,
resemblances turn empty streams.

Through wildernesses of dark days
my life meandered slowly past.
There was no God, nor Muses blaze,
no tears, no life, or love at last.

Then, of a sudden, back you were:
again my heart in rapture leaps,
to visions that our dreams incur,
to essences pure beauty keeps.

Once more in hope the heart will yearn,
be resurrected from above:
God make that inspiration turn
to life and tears and tender love.

References and Resources

1. Anna Kern. Wikipedia entry.

Russian poem translations on this site: listing.