Fedor Sologub: Lullaby

Fedor Sologub's reputation is rather mixed. Mirsky calls him the greatest and most refined of the first generation of Symbolists, and remarks that, however much his novelist powers may have waned in later years, his poetic output always remained on the same high level. His meters were simple and ordinary, but refined to the utmost degree of perfection. His vocabulary was small, but used with precision and felicity. He was a Symbolist in the sense that his words had double meanings, and the words were used in that secondary meaning, not in the ordinary sense. {1}

fedor sologub lullaby translation

Mirsky goes on to say that 'As for his idealistic lyrics, which, after all, are his greatest achievements, it is useless, except one be a master of English verse, to attempt any translation on them.{1} Against that, the editors of The Penguin Book of Russian Verse give only one short extract of one poem: My Boring Lamp. {2}

Russian Text

Тихая колыбельная

Много бегал мальчик мой.
Ножки голые в пыли.
Ножки милые помой.
Моя ножки, задремли.
Я спою тебе, спою:

Тихо стукнул в двери сон.
Я шепнула: «Сон, войди».
Волоса его, как лён,
Ручки дремлют на груди, —
И тихонько я пою:

«Сон, ты где был?» — «За горой». —
«Что ты видел?» — «Лунный свет». —
«С кем ты был?» — «С моей сестрой». —
«А сестра пришла к нам?» — «Нет».
Я тихонечко пою.

Дремлет бледная луна.
Тихо в поле и в саду.
Кто-то ходит у окна,
Кто-то шепчет: «Я приду».
Я тихохонько пою:

Кто-то шепчет у окна,
Точно ветки шелестят:
«Тяжело мне. Я больна.
Помоги мне, милый брат».
Тихо-тихо я пою:

«Я косила целый день.
Я устала. Я больна».
За окном шатнулась тень.
Притаилась у окна.
Я пою, пою, пою:

October 19, 1906

The TTS Audio Recording is:

Prosodic Analysis of Poem

The poem is written in tetrameters, all with masculine rhymes: ababcc:

Мно́го бе́гал ма́льчик мой.    4a
Но́жки го́лые в пыли́.    4b
Но́жки ми́лые помо́й.    4a
Моя́ но́жки, задремли́.    4b
Я спо́ю|спою́ тебе́, спою́:    4c
«Баю-баюшки-баю́».     4c

Previous Translations

Ruverses has a rendering by R.M. Hewitt. First stanza:

Running barefoot all the day,
Time for him to go to bed.
We must wash the dust away,
While he droops his little head.
I will sing, and all for you,

And there's another, a little closer to the Russian but less musical, in the large anthology edited by Markov and Sparks. {2}

Baby, you've run such a lot,
see the dust on your bare feet.
Go and wash them, every spot.
while you do that, doze, my sweet,
I will sing, I'll sing for you:
Bi-Yoo, BiYooshky, Bi-You.


Lullabies are popular in Russian poetry. Though often seen as pretty little trifles, they can be fiendishly hard to get right, i.e. with believable diction, natural rhymes and simple musicality. That is the case with both of the previous translations, which will be the best available to the editors over the last century: a sobering thought.

Taking the versions in turn, the first is clearly the most musical, an important consideration, but has lines like 'Hair of flax and hand of wax. / Not the little chimney-sweep,' which are hardly sanctioned by the original Russian. It also drops the full rhyming in stanzas 2, 3, 4 and 6. The second rendering is fully rhymed, but is marred by tone lapses ('such a lot') and unfortunate rhymes ('every spot'). The metre is also rather uncertain, and we have things like (stanza 2), 'soft raps' rhyming with the cumbersome 'His hair does resemble flax'.

And so on. I mention these matters to answer the unspoken question: why more Russian poetry translations? Because they're needed. Even back in the 1960s, when verse craft was still an important aspect of contemporary poetry, matters vital to translation were being neglected. (And the Markov and Sparks anthology won the $1000 p.e.n award, incidentally.) If we can't create a translation that pleases in the way the original pleases, then we are failing on the aesthetics side. Far more serious is the absence of poetry in the translations today: we don't want Lowell's 'Imitations', but we do need translations we can repeatedly turn to for pleasure. I've departed a little from the original to bring out what's latent in the text.

English Translation of Sologub's 'Lullaby in an Undertone'


Running carefree through the day,
who have no shoes or shorts to shed:
time to dust the dirt away,
time to rest your little head.
Sleep, sleep: I'll sing to you.
"Sleep, my little one: bayu."

Knocking quietly on the door:
"You can sleep and be our guest."
Gold his curls are to the core,
and trusting hands about his chest.
Softly I will sing to you
"Sleep, my little one: bayu."

"Where were you dreaming?" — “On the hill.”
"What dreaming of?" — “The moonlit air.”
"Was my sister?" — "With you still."
"Did sister come?" — “She's nowhere there.”
Softly I will sing to you
"Sleep, my little one: bayu."

The moon is in her dreamy reign,
which the fields and gardens share.
Someone's at the window pane;
someone's whispering, "I'll be there."
And so I sing and sing to you
"Sleep, my little one: bayu."

There's whispering at the window pane:
the twigs are crackling in the tree.
"I'm old and ill," the words complain.
Little brother, please help me."
Then softly I will sing to you
"Sleep, my little one: bayu."

"I've been working all the day;
I'm sick and tired and much in pain."
I see the shadow dart away
and hide beneath the window pane.
This I sing and sing to you
"Sleep, my little one: bayu."

References and Resources

1. Mirsky, D.S, Contemporary Russian Literature (Alfred A Knopf, 1926) 196-201.

2. Chandler, R. et al. The Penguin Book of Russian POetry (Penguin Random House, 2015) 158.

3. Bristol, E., A History of Russian Poetry (1991, O.U.P.) 178-81.

4. Markov, V. and Sparks, M.L. (Eds.) Modern Russian Poetry (Bobbs-Merril & Co., 1967) 100-103.

Russian poem translations on this site: listing.