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Translating The Bronze Horseman by Pushkin

The Bronze Horseman is the best of Pushkin's narrative poems, and often seen as the greatest in Russian literature. {1-2} Mirsky writes that 'the concentrated fullness and tightness of the octosyllables; the vocabulary, strictly realistic, but saturated with the utmost expressiveness; the endless inward vistas opened by each word and by the whole ― give the poem a poetic weight that fully justifies acceptance of it as the greatest example in Russian of great poetry.' {3} It was written in 1833, late in Pushkin's career and is very different in tone to Eugene Onegin, whose stanza form it employs.

The poem falls into three sections. The Introduction opens with a short account of Peter the Great's decision to build a new capital in the Neva swamps, but the bulk of the Introduction approximates to an ode to St. Petersburg, written a rather formal, 18th century style. Succeeding parts deal with the great flood of 1824, and have a more relaxed and even conversational style. Part One depict the misfortunes of Evgeny, a lowly clerk, who suffers the ill effects of the flood. Eventually, in Part Two, Evgeny gets a boat to visit his beloved's home, only to find it swept away. He loses his reason, roams the streets and, a year later, cursing St. Petersburg's founder, imagines the monument to Peter come alive and start chasing him. Evgeny's death is not described, but his dead body is found in a ruined hut floating on the water. Despite the two styles, and the unsolved conflict between personal happiness and regal authority, {2} The Bronze Horseman succeeds through Pushkin's legendary verse abilities.

translating pushkin's the bronze horseman

Here we look at several versions of the Introduction, at how the translator got the rather artificial Eugen Onegin style to operate as seamless narration. The poem is in fact a favourite among translators, being of a reasonable length (476 lines) and variety, allowing them to show off their verse skills and reproduced the feminine rhyme.

For reasons given on my Eugene Onegin page, I propose not to. The Bronze Horseman is a narrative poem which benefits from a straightforward depiction of events, with nothing of the self-conscious humour of the earlier poem.

Prosody

As even the Introduction is a long piece, and the Russian text is easily found online {4}, I shall just give the prosody, i.e. the natural stresses of the Russian words and Pushkin's rhyme schemes. The poem is written in iambic tetrameters throughout.

На берегу́ пусты́нных волн     4a
Стоя́л он, дум вели́ких полн,     4a
И вдаль гляде́л. Пред ним широко    ́ 4B
Река́ неслася; бе́дный чёлн     4a
По ней стреми́лся одино́ко.     4B
По мши́стым, то́пким берега́м     4d
Черне́ли и́збы здесь и там,     4d
Прию́т убо́гого чухо́нца;     4E
И лес, неве́домый луча́м     4d
10. В тума́не спря́танного со́лнца,     4E
Круго́м шуме́л.

            И ду́мал он:     4f
Отсе́ль грози́ть мы бу́дем шве́ду,     4G
Здесь бу́дет го́род зало́жен     4f
На зло надме́нному сосе́ду.     4G
Приро́дой здесь нам суждено́     4h
В Евро́пу проруби́ть окно́,     4h
Ного́ю твёрдой стать при мо́ре.     4I
Сюда́ по но́вым им волна́м     4j
Все фла́ги в го́сти бу́дут к нам,     4j
20. И запиру́ем на просто́ре.     4I

Прошло́ сто лет, и ю́ный град,    4k
Полно́щных стран краса́ и ди́во,    4L
Из тьмы лесо́в, из то́пи блат    4k
Вознёсся пы́шно, гордели́во;    4L
Где пре́жде фи́нский рыболо́в,     4m
Печа́льный па́сынок приро́ды,     4N
Оди́н у ни́зких берего́в     4m
Броса́л в неве́домые во́ды     4N
Свой ве́тхой не́вод, ны́не там    4o
30. По оживлённым берега́м     4o

Грома́ды стро́йные тесня́тся     4P
Дворцо́в и ба́шен; корабли́     4q
Толпо́й со всех концо́в земли́     4q
К бога́тым при́станям стремя́тся;     4P
В грани́т оделася Нева́;     4r
Мосты́ пови́сли над во́дами;     4S
Тёмно-зелёными сада́ми     4S
Её покры́лись острова́,     4r
И пе́ред мла́дшею столи́цей     4T
40. Поме́ркла ста́рая Москва́,     4r

Как пе́ред но́вою цари́цей     4T
Порфироно́сная вдова́.     4r
Люблю́ тебя́, Петра́ творе́нье,     4U
Люблю́ твой стро́гий, стро́йный вид,     4v
Невы́ держа́вное тече́нье,     4U
Берегово́й её грани́т,     4v
Твои́х огра́д узо́р чугу́нный,     4W
Твои́х заду́мчивых ноче́й     4x
Прозра́чный су́мрак, блеск безлу́нный,     4W
50. Когда́ я в ко́мнате мое́й     4x

Пишу́, чита́ю без лампа́ды,     4Y
И я́сны спя́щие грома́ды     4Y
Пусты́нных у́лиц, и светла́     4z
Адмиралте́йская игла́,     4z
И, не пуска́я тьму ночну́ю     4A
На золоты́е небеса́,     4b
Одна́ заря́ смени́ть другу́ю     4A
Спеши́т, дав но́чи полчаса́2.     4b
Люблю зимы́ твое́й жесто́кой     4A

60. Недвижный воздух и мороз,     4c
Бег са́нок вдоль Невы́ широ́кой,     4A
Деви́чьи ли́ца я́рче роз,     4c
И блеск, и шум, и го́вор бало́в,     4d
А в час пиру́шки холосто́й     4e
Шипе́нье пе́нистых бока́лов     4d
И пу́нша пламень голубо́й.     4e
Люблю́ вои́нственную жи́вость     4F
Поте́шных Марсовы́х поле́й,     4g
Пехо́тных ра́тей и коне́й     4g
70. Однообра́зную краси́вость,     4F

В их стро́йно зыблемом строю́     4h
Лоску́тья сих знамён побе́дных,     4I
Сия́нье ша́пок э́тих ме́дных,     4I
На сквозь простре́ленных в бою́.     4h
Люблю́, вое́нная столи́ца,     4J
Твое́й тверды́ни дым и гром,     4k
Когда́ полно́щная цари́ца     4J
Дару́ет сы́на в ца́рской дом,     4k
И́ли побе́ду над враго́м     4k
80. Росси́я сно́ва торжеству́ет,     4L

И́ли, взлома́в свой си́ний лёд,     4m
Нева́ к моря́м его́ несёт     4m
И, чу́я вешни дни, лику́ет.     4L
Красу́йся, град Петро́в, и стой    4n
Неколеби́мо как Росси́я,     4O
Да умири́тся же с тобо́й     4n
И побеждённая стихи́я;     4O
Вражду́ и плен стари́нный свой     4n
Пусть во́лны фи́нские забу́дут     4P
90. И тще́тной зло́бою не бу́дут     4P

Трево́жить ве́чный сон Петра́!     4q
Была́ ужа́сная пора́,     4q
Об ней свежо́ воспомина́нье...     4R
Об ней, друзья́ мои́, для вас    4s
Начну́ своё повествова́нье.    4R
86. Печа́лен бу́дет мой расска́з.    4s


A TTS (text to speech) recording of the opening lines is:



You can hear a live recording at the Pushkin Institute. {5}

Previous Translations

After Onegin, The Bronze Horseman is probably the most translated of Pushkin's works, and the late Peter Lee's webpage {4} lists the many renderings online and in book form. Several versions are readily available, and I will discuss them in the next section. For each I quote a key section, lines 43-54, which is especially celebrated.

First we need the literal translation. Yandex gives:

43. I love you, Petra creation,
I love your strict, slender look,
the Neva is a sovereign current,
Its coastal granite,
Your fences have a cast-iron pattern,
Your brooding nights
Transparent twilight, moonless shine,
50. When I'm in my room
I write and read without a lamp,
And the sleeping masses are clear
Deserted streets, and bright
54. Admiralty Needle,

1. Yevgeny Bonver on the Poetry Lovers Page.

43. I love you, Peter’s great creation,
I love your view of stern and grace,
The Neva wave’s regal procession,
The grayish granite – her bank’s dress,
The airy iron-casting fences,
The gentle transparent twilight,
The moonless gleam of your nights restless,
50. When I so easy read and write
Without a lamp in my room lone,
And seen is each huge buildings’ stone
Of the left streets, and is so bright
54. The Admiralty spire’s flight,

Bonver's version does not reproduce the feminine rhyme but nonetheless has some lines made awkward and/or departures from the prose sense: dress, restless, lone, view of stern and grace (stern is an adjective). In the Russian pronunciation of 'Neva', the natural stress comes on the second syllable: a small point, which I don't respect. The verse flows well only for lines 43-44: the rest are rather lumpy.

Waclaw Lednicki and published by the University of California Press in 1955

43. I love thee, city of Peter's making;
I love thy harmonies austere,
And Neva's sovran waters breaking
Along her banks of granite sheer;
Thy traceried iron gates; thy sparkling,
Yet moonless, meditative gloom
And thy transparent twilight darkling;
50. And when I write within my room
Or lampless, read--then, sunk in slumber,
The empty thoroughfares, past number,
Are piled, stand clear upon the night;
54. The Admiralty spire (7) is bright;

As to be expected when dating from 1955, the verse is a little antiquated in style (waters breaking, granite sheer, sunk in slumber) and diction (thee, thy, darkling). 'Empty thoroughfares' can't really be piled or stand clear upon the night. The verse reads well, though lacks what Mirsky calls 'endless inward vistas opened by each word'.

3. John Dewey on tyutchev.org site.

43. O how I love you, Peter’s daughter!
Your aspect, graceful yet austere;
Nevá’s augustly flowing water
And granite banks: these I hold dear;
Your railings, finely ornamented;
Your pensive nights of moonless light
And lambent dusk, when I, contented,
50. Sit in my room and read and write
Without a lamp, while in the nearly
Deserted streets huge buildings clearly
Loom up, asleep; and solar fire
54. Plays on the Admiralty spire;

Dewey's version reproduces the feminine rhyme (and the Nevá’s correct pronunciation). As a result there are many departures from the literal sense, though none very serious (except perhaps 'daughter' added to rhyme with 'water'.) The verse doesn't flow too easily, however, and there are certainly none of the 'inward vistas' that good verse creates.

4. A.S. Kline on Poetry in Translation.

43. I love you, Peter’s creation,
I love you, gracious and austere;
The Neva’s powerful libation,
Twixt granite banks, so pure and clear;
Your cast-iron patterned railings;
Your pensive nights of moonless light,
Transparent dusk’s endless evenings,
50. When, lamp-less, I yet read and write,
While the sleeping buildings show
Still, pale, above the streets below,
53. The Admiralty spire still bright;

Kline's version is not really verse, nor the free verse that contemporary poetry aspires to, but something in between, easy to read but lacking the expressive power and aesthetic appeal of the real article. Nonetheless, rhyme needs have caused many departures from the literal sense, and a line has been lost, thus spoiling Pushkin's rhyme patterns.

Another 24 versions of this short section only can be read on Peter Lee's Webpage.

5. My own version

43. I love you, Peter's own creation,
how strict in splendor you appear;
I love the granite bank's persuasion
that guides our sovereign Neva here.

I love your railings, iron-cast,
your long and tender, brooding nights,
how pale the moonless evenings passed
50. without a need for reading lights
within my room, from which one sees
vast, silent communities,
wide empty streets and, lit by fire,
54. the Admiralty's thin-gilded spire.

It's an invidious task to comment on one's own work, but I hope readers will note the difficulties with previous versions have been avoided, and that phrases like 'long and tender, brooding night' and 'vast, silent communities / wide streets lie bare, and lit by fire,' do have something of Pushkin's harmonies and inward vistas. I have also (and more so with the poem as a whole) tried to vary the rhythms, though not as well as Pushkin's quicksilver verse achieves. We also need to understand what Pushkin is saying in choosing our epithets, where the opening lines encapsulate the theme: man against nature, the individual against collective mass and authority, for example. No doubt a little more work is required. One would like to keep the 'read and write', though the phrase is banal in English, and make a little more of line 50. But above all, the rendering should read as a decent poem, i.e. naturally, and not something all too obviously wrested out of a foreign tongue.

Previous Drafts

As I have stressed in these pages, verse needs repeated working on, and it may be instructive to view successive drafts of this section.

43. I love you, Peter’s own creation,
your slender, high-aspiring whole,
where Neva in its navigation
past granite walls has waters roll.
I like your railings, iron-cast,
how grows the melancholy night,
your brilliant twilight, long to last,
50. that in my room I need no light
to read or write. Far out one sees
a vast empty streets, communities
deserted streets, and lit by fire,
54. the Admiralty’s thin, needle spire.

Lines 44 and 46 are very free, and lines 45-6 don't make much sense. Correcting these, we get:

43. I love you, Peter’s new creation,
I love your stern and slender look,
Neva’s chaotic agitation
that now no granite walls will brook.
I love your railings, iron-cast,
your long and tender, brooding nights,
the twilight, moonless, that will last
50. so in my room I need no light
to read or write. A clear sight sees
whole silent communities;
wide streets lie bare, and, lit by fire,
54. gleams the Admiralty's gilded spire.

There are still several things wrong here, most notably the creation/agitation and the look/brook rhymes, and the awkward 'the twilight, moonless, that will last' line. Correcting these, we have:

43. I love you, Peter's own creation,
how strict in splendor you appear;
I love the granite bank's persuasion
that guides our sovereign Neva here.
I love your railings, iron-cast,
your long and tender, brooding nights,
how pale have moonless evenings passed
50. that in my room I used no lights
to read or write. The clear air sees
vast, silent communities,
wide empty streets and, lit by fire,
54. the Admiralty's thin-gilded spire.

Final Translation of 'The Bronze Horseman'

Prelude

It was a wave-swept, empty shore
that he was brooding on. Before
him stretched long distances. Alone
the rough, uncaring river bore
a small skiff faltering on its own.

A floating mass of moss and reeds
where, answering to their modest needs,
the Finns had built a hut or two
in sunless woods where all recedes
to threatening noises rustling through.

It’s here, he thought, the Swede will learn
to take good measure of us, see
in well-laid city our concern
that stiff-necked neighbours bend their knee,
when nature here, at our request,
has made a window on the west.

So will these waters, new-possessed,
secure firm footfall out to sea,
where any flag may call and be,
20. if well-disposed, our welcome guest.

A hundred years have passed. We see
a realm to wonder at. From thence,
a gloomy place of swamp and tree,
has risen proud magnificence.

Once haunt of Finnish fisher-lad ―
mere child of nature, seeking what
on these low shores might yet be had,
which was but fish, and meanly got ―
finds now that on such water pours
30. a wealth of commerce. Round its shores

are rows of shipping craft below
great towers and palaces, and each,
from foremost nations's furthest reach,
are seeking berths where fresh ships go.

In granite built each Neva quay,
and over waters bridges lean
to link the islands in between
with gardens of dark greenery.

So now old Moscow is outshone
40. by this new capital, as has been
the porphyritic one, who's gone
before our freshly sceptered queen.

I love you, Peter's own creation,
how strict in splendor you appear;
I love the granite bank's persuasion
that guides our sovereign Neva here.

I love your railings, iron-cast,
your long and tender, brooding nights,
how pale the moonless evenings passed
50. without a need for reading lights

within my room, from which one sees
vast, silent communities,
wide empty streets and, lit by fire,
the Admiralty's thin-gilded spire.

Indeed, that darkness will not smother
for good the heaven’s radiant power,
each dawn will chase upon another
and have for night but half an hour.

I love your winter’s biting air,
60. your cruelty in wind and snow,
the sleds along the Neva where
the girls have faces set aglow.

I love commotion, talk of balls,
of bachelors, and mad-cap names,
the ease by which the champagne calls
to punch-bowls lit with thin blue flames.

I love what speed and skill approve:
formations on the plain of Mars,
cavalry, soldiers, proud Hussars:
70. how seamlessly massed ranks will move.

I love to see the regiments
beneath their battle honours go;
the gleaming copper caps that show
the cost that came with great events.

I love our capital of war,
the smoke and thunder of our fort,
our full-fledged queen produce once more
a son to dignify our court.

Or when the news of victory is brought,
80. when motherland has won again.
The blue ice cracks; the Neva bears
away to sea our winter cares,
and soon will joyous spring begin.

Saint Petersburg, all hail to you,
unshakeable as Russia’s land:
keep foes at bay, nor yet undo
the offer forged by peaceful hand.

Though enmity of old be true;
let now the Finnish waves forget,
90 and so no futile spite beget
an end to Peter’s final rest.
It was a brutal time, confessed
by all who can remember it.

My friends, I have no more to add,
but start my tale, which I admit,
will be but dire and pressing sad.

References and Resources

1. The Bronze Horseman (poem) Wikipedia.

2. Dewey, J. The Bronze Horseman. Translator's Commentary.org site.

3. Mirsky, D.S. A History of Russian Literature (1926-58, Random House) 98.

4. The Bronze Horseman: Russian text. Also iLibrary.

5. Pushkin Institute's excellent audio recording.