Translating a Sumarokov Sonnet

Alexander Petrovic Sumarokov (1718-77) was one of those whose work is not much read today, indeed was no more than conventional in its thought and expression, but was nonetheless enormously influential in its day. Much of nineteenth century Russian verse flows from his innovations. Moreover, born into the Moscovite gentry, and educated at the Cadet School in Petersburg, with French taste and polish so acquired, he became the first Russian gentleman to choose the profession of letters.

translating Lomonosov's Evening Meditation

Sumarokov wrote a great mass of work: plays, satires, conventional love poems. He also pioneered journalism and literary criticism, but his greatest gifts to Russian literature were metrical inventiveness and a genuine ear for melody

Sumarokov indeed saw himself as inculcating the canons of classical good taste in Russia, exchanging letters with Voltaire, and becoming a second, Russian Boileau. With Lomonosov, Sumarakov also laid down the immutable literary forms in Russian, specified by shape, style and metre. The high forms were epic, tragedy and solemn ode. On a lower level stood the Horatian ode, the song, the satire, the verse-tale, the fable and burlesque. Poets could write in any one of these, but they could not mix the forms. Derzhavin disagreed, of course, and through Karamsin the Russian poets of the nineteenth century came to adopt a more flexible, everyday and middle style.

'Fly My Sighs': Russian Text


Летите, мои вздохи, вы к той, кого люблю,
И горесть опишите, скажите, как терплю;
Останьтесь в ея сердце, смягчите гордый взгляд
И после прилетите опять ко мне назад;
Но только принесите приятную мне весть,
Скажите, что еще мне любить надежда есть.
Я нрав такой имею, чтоб долго не вздыхать,
Хороших в свете много, другую льзя сыскать


Poem structure

The poem is written in couplets, hexameters rhymed aa bb cc dd:

Лети́те, мои́ вздо́хи, вы к той, кого́ люблю́,     6a
И го́ресть опиши́те, скажи́те, как терплю́;     6a
Оста́ньтесь в е́я се́рдце, смягчи́те го́рдый взгляд     6b
И по́сле прилети́те опя́ть ко мне наза́д;     6b
Но то́лько принеси́те прия́тную мне весть,     6c
Скажи́те, что ещё мне люби́ть наде́жда есть.     6c
Я нрав тако́й име́ю, чтоб до́лго не вздыха́ть,     6d
Хоро́ших в све́те мно́го, другу́ю льзя сыска́ть     6d


A TTS Audio Recording of the poem:

Previous Translations

Poemhunter has a very adequate rendering by Alec Vagapov, not too pleasing as verse but reasonably faithful to the Russian and sensibly stated:

My sighs, fly to my sweetheart, I want you to explain
And tell her how I miss her and how I suffer pain.
Stay in her heart and soften her proud look , and then
Do not delay and linger, fly back to me again.
However, you should bring me good news from up above,
and give me her assurance that there is hope for love.
I will not sigh too long for I'm not that kind of man,
Such beauties are not rare, I'll find another one.

Evelyn Bristol's unrhymed version is:

O fly, my sighs, to her, whom I adore,
And paint for her my grief, relate my pain.
Stay in her heart, assuage her haughty gaze
And afterwards fly back again to me,
And bring me only news that I desire.
O, say that hope for love remains to me.
My nature bids me sigh, but not for long ―
Another can be found, fair maids abound.

English Translation

Rendering the Russian hexameter by the English pentameter is the usual course, but if we continue in the approach of this site, which is to write hexameters for hexameters, then the task is to create pleasing lines with fairly natural rhymes. Remembering that this is 18th century verse:

Convey my sighs to one I love, not now with me,
describe my grief, but stress there's still my constancy.
Stay in her sweet heart, ameliorate her pride,
and, when that's done, fly back and lengthily confide
you bear good tidings also, hopes of happiness
in love she'll give to me. But caution, nonetheless,
I've not the temperament that overlong will sigh:
the world has many beauties: one need but only try.

I wouldn't say that was too convincing. Hexameters are always difficult in English, where the pentameter is the more natural line:

So fly my sighs to one whose love I'd be,
relate my griefs but more my constancy.
Soften that pride, when in her sweet heart lain,
and afterwards fly back to me again.
But bring good tidings too that love I hope
for is but in her breathy bounty's scope.
For I'm not one that overlong will sigh,
not in a world of beauties, whom all may try.

It's then easier to write a convincing hexameter by rounding out the sense of this rhyme envelope:

Then fly my sighs to her whose faithful love I'd be,
and tell her of my griefs, but more my constancy.
Stay in her sweet heart, negate her haughty reign,
and afterwards come winging back to me again.
And bring good tidings with you too, that love I hope
from her is still unchanged and in her bounty's scope.
I've not the temperament that overlong will sigh,
not with the world of beauties here, whom all may try.
If we translate for sense, the pentameter version is better. If we insist on conveying form then we must chose the hexameter version, though this a little bloated in line 6. In short, the Russian here is bulkier than would be English verse of the period.

References and Resources

1. Mirsky, D.S. A History of Russian Literature (Knopf 1926/ Vintage Books 1958) 47-8.

2. Bristol, E., A History of Russian Poetry (1991, O.U.P.) 57-60.

3. Russian text. Search Wikisource.

4. Poemhunter translation.

Russian poem translations on this site: listing.