Two Centuries of Russian Verse

Russian verse translations: 131 poems from 41 leading poets.

What follows is a short selection from two centuries of Russian verse, generally of poems well known in the west, but given a new treatment. I have tried to create faithful renderings that respect the original Russian features, but which still operate as acceptable English poems. It is only one of many approaches, of course, that of turning a poem in one language into a poem in another, but it is arguably the best way to treat poetry as poetry. The translations here are in formal verse where everything counts ― metre, rhyme, phonetic patterning, rhetoric, word choice, stanza shaping, imagery, thought, word connotations and the sound of every syllable. I make no apology for such ‘outdated’ notions. Russian verse represented here was published between 1730 and 1935, and all verse of this period was very formal by today’s Postmodernist standards. There was almost no metre-less verse, and even the most revolutionary poems took good care to rhyme properly.

russian verse translations cover


The poets represented are Prokopovich, Kantemir, Trediakovsky, Sumarokov, Lomonosov, Derzhavin, Karamsin, Krylov, Zhukovsky, Batyushkov, Pushkin, Baratynsky, Yazykov, Koltsov, Tyutchev, Lermontov, Fet, Maikov, Polonsky, Tolstoy,

Nekrasov, Balmont, Bryusov, Sologub, Hippius, Bunin, Esenin, Vasiliev, Bely, Blok, Ivanov, Annensky, Gumilev, Kuzmin, Khodasevich, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, Khlebnikov and Mayakovsky.

Two ebooks are available: the translations and notes on the translations. The first are simply the translations, plus a short biographical header. Notes include details of russian versification, examples and individual traits, translation matters, coverage, historical context and notes on individual poems. In the last are to be found matters of prosody and interpretation, and how to find on the internet the original Russian text, critical articles and audio recordings.

The translations can be downloaded from here as a free ebook.

Sample Translations

Feofan Prokopovich (1681-1736)


He who’s strong, and trusts in God’s good will,
    may look unmoved on all our human ill.
He is no rebel from his people’s cry,
    nor do tormentors come to terrify.
He does not fear the high cloud's thunderclap,
    nor lowly southerlies that howl and flap.
No mortal, awe-inspiring doubts enslave
    him at the rise of Finn or Baltic wave.
If the world is crushed, it will disintegrate,
    and the body, shuddering, meet its fate.
But that same body, broken into dust,
    sees soul, unchanged, abiding in its trust.
In You, O Lord, our only strength is known
    and every action thus is Yours alone.
Without You, Lord, we're idly filled with dread,
    but find that fear itself with You has fled.

Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)


Bound for far-off, native shores,
you left the alien land you knew.
What sad, remembered hour would cause
those endless tears I shed for you?
My hands grew colder as they tried
to more prevent this leaving’s course,
and terribly I moaned and cried
that you not counter this remorse.

How bitter too was that last kiss
with which you tore yourself away.
And to our gloomy land comes this
far summoning, where you can say:
some promised day as fate may please,
below that sky’s unchanging blue,
we’ll kiss beneath the olive trees,
my friend, and kindle love anew.

But there, alas, where that far sky
is vaulted with such brilliant blue,
are shaded ways where there will lie
the other night that bid adieu.
You fell asleep, and so were gone
all pain and beauty. In that urn
were coffined kisses, kissing on . . .
and I still waiting their return.

Alexy K. Tolstoy (1817-75)


Do you remember, Mary,
that house of former times,
the sleeping pool and airy
stands of ancient limes?

How silent the alleyways,
the garden's neglected air,
and in the long gallery the gaze
of high-hung portraits there?

Mary, do you remember
with skies at evening time
a softly glowing ember,
how distant bell would chime?

Behind the garden view
how clear the stream would flow,
how gold was corn, how blue
the cornflower steppes would grow?

The wood where we together
first on our own would go?
Mary, do you remember
the days flown long ago?

Alexander Alexanderovich Blok (1880-1921)


At evening, over restaurants,
the air is hot and wild and deaf:
what rules these drunken, rowdy haunts
is spring and its pernicious breath

Across the far-off alley, dust
haphazardly on houses lies:
a pretzel sign shows pale gold crust,
and somewhere else a baby cries.

Each night, beyond the barriers,
with bowler hats tipped raffishly,
past drainage ditch, each walk incurs
some witty and expected plea.

The rowlocks creak across the lake;
a woman screams; the heavens see ―
inured to all, for no one’s sake ―
the moon's disk wandering vacantly.

Each night my friend’s the only one
I notice in the window pass,
and, meek and reeling, I've begun
to sense hard liquor in the glass.

At nearby tables, in the guise
of dozing, waiters lounge about.
The drunks cry out with rabbit eyes,
’In vino veritas’, they shout.

And at a certain time each night ―
or is the dream but only me? ―
a silk-swathed woman floats in sight,
as far as misted windows see.

Manoeuvring round inebriates,
with none escorting, none to meet,
this woman, breathing perfumed states,
will settle on the window seat.

As though much made of ancient lore,
she's wrapped limb-tight in silky things,
and stylish: hat has feathers pour,
the slender hand is draped with rings.

Beguiled by such proximity,
and through her dark-veiled instances,
a far enchanted shore I see,
and more enchanting distances.

Unheard-of secrets I cannot tell,
and someone’s sun is also mine:
at every turn my soul as well
is dipped into astringent wine.

The ostrich feathers fall side-wise
but to my mind entice the more.
Unfathomable the blue of eyes
that blossom on that far-off shore.

There is a treasure in the soul,
the key to which is wholly mine.
You're right to be my brutish troll:
I'm drunk, and truth is in the wine.

Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941)


Underground it crawls,
the snake, carries passengers.
On their own — each hauls
out newspapers (his, hers

5. own itching skin disease!)
White space aligns the features
that mastic chewers squeeze
out for newsprint readers.

Readers — athlete? Near gone?
10. Soldier? — No features, faces,
years. A skeleton —
the faceless newsprint graces!

Which — is an all-Paris worth
of top to navel dressers.
Girl: stop! —
        No birth
for what such print possesses.

"Lives with his sister" — sway —
"Killed his father" — press
So is their lurching way
20. pumped up with pettiness

. Are such folk — followers
of sunrise or sunset? Do
such emptiness swallowers
read newspapers through?

Newspapers — read slander.
Newspapers — embezzlement.
Every column — will wander,
paragraph worse — it went.

And when the Last Trump dawns
30. you'll emerge to light!
You grabbers of small sums
who are the newsprint readers!

— Go! Gone! Disappeared!
a mother's fear's allowed us.
Is — mother! — the press feared
more than Schwartz's powders?

The grave is best at once
than lewd infirmary
with scab-scratching dunce
40. and news confirmatory!

Tell us why each son,
festers in their prime:
what has mixed blood done?
Made writing news a crime!

Do we, friends — appear
the stronger for these lines?
What have we to fear
at manuscripts' designs?

and I stand before the face
50. — there is no emptier place —
there is no personal space
that editors must grace
            but trash.


The translations come as two ebooks, all free and in the pdf format.

Translations only: click translations.
Notes on the translations: click notes on translations.