Pushkin's The Gypsies

The opening Russian text is:


Цыганы шумною толпой                  a
 По Бессарабии кочуют.                  B
Они сегодня над рекой                    a
 В шатрах изодранных ночуют.        B

Как вольность, весел их ночлег       c
 И мирный сон под небесами;          D
Между колёсами телег,                   c
Полузавешанных коврами,              D

Горит огонь; семья кругом              e
 Готовит ужин; в чистом поле          F
 Пасутся кони; за шатром                e
 Ручной медведь лежит на воле.     F

Всё живо посреди степей:               g
Заботы мирные семей,                    g
Готовых с утром в путь недальний,  H
И песни жён, и крик детей,               s
И звон походной наковальни.           H

Но вот на табор кочевой                   i
 Нисходит сонное молчанье,              J
И слышно в тишине степной              i
 Лишь лай собак да коней ржанье.    J

Огни везде погашены,                      k
Спокойно всё, луна сияет                 L
 Одна с небесной вышины                k
 И тихий табор озаряет.                    L

В шатре одном старик не спит;          m
Он перед углями сидит,                     m
Согретый их последним жаром,          N
И в поле дальнее глядит,                   m
Ночным подёрнутое паром.                N

Его молоденькая дочь                        o
Пошла гулять в пустынном поле.        P
Она привыкла к резвой воле,             P
Она придёт; но вот уж ночь,               o

И скоро месяц уж покинет                   Q
Небес далёких облака, -                      r
Земфиры нет как нет; и стынет           Q
 Убогий ужин старика.                         r

Но вот она; за нею следом                 S
 По степи юноша спешит;                   t
Цыгану вовсе он неведом.                 S
 "Отец мой, - дева говорит, -              t

Веду я гостя; за курганом                   U
 Его в пустыне я нашла                       v
 И в табор на ночь зазвала.                v
Он хочет быть как мы цыганом;          U

Его преследует закон,                       v
Но я ему подругой буду.                    W
Его зовут Алеко - он                          v
 Готов идти за мною всюду".             W


Я рад. Останься до утра                  z
 Под сенью нашего шатра                z
 Или пробудь у нас и доле,              A
Как ты захочешь. Я готов                b
 С тобой делить и хлеб и кров.         b

Будь наш - привыкни к нашей доле, A
Бродящей бедности и воле -            A

А завтра с утренней зарёй                c
 В одной телеге мы поедем;             D
Примись за промысел любой:           c
Железо куй - иль песни пой               c
 И сёла обходи с медведем.             D


Я остаюсь.

                         Он будет мой:          e
Кто ж от меня его отгонит?                F
Но поздно... месяц молодой              e
 Зашёл; поля покрыты мглой,            e
И сон меня невольно клонит.. {1}       F

Where lower case indicates masculine rhymes and upper case the feminine rhymes.

translating pushkin's gypsies

Gypsy Woman by Nicolai Yaroshenko 1886 Poltava Art Gallery {1} Yaroshenko (1846-98) was born in Poltava (now the Ukraine) to an officer in the Russian Army, and first chose a miltary career. But he also studied art at Kramskoi's drawing school, and then at the Saint Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts.

While still a military officer he became a leading member of a group of Russian painters called the Peredvizhniki  or Wanderers, dedicated to portraying local Russian life as it was. {2-3}

The word-for word translation is:


 Gypsies in noisy crowd
 round Bessarabia wander.
 They today over river,
 in tents tattered spend night.

 5. How free, welcome their stay
 and peaceful sleep under heavens;
 Between the wheels of carts,
 half hung carpets.

 A fire is burning; family around
10.  is cooking dinner; in open field
 graze horses;  behind the tent
 a tame bear lies in wild.

 Everything alive in middle of steppes:
 caring peaceful families,
 15. Ready in morning to leave shortly
 and songs wives, and shouts of children,
 and ringing of marching anvil.
But here at camp nomadic
descends sleepy silence,
20.  and heard in silence of steppe
only bark dogs yes horses neigh. 

Lights everywhere extinguished,
Calm everything, moon shines
one from heavenly height
25. and quiet camp illuminates.
In tent alone old man not sleep;
he before coals sits,
Warmed their last heat,
and in field far gazes,
30. night covered with haze.
His young daughter
went for walk in desolate field.
She got used to independent will,
she will come;  but now already night

35. and very soon the moon will leave
 heaven far clouds, -
 Zemfira very much not;  and getting cold
 poor dinner of old man.

 But here she;  behind her
 40. through the steppes young man hurries,
 gypsy completely he unknown.
 "My father, - says maiden -

 lead I guest;  behind mound
 him in wilderness I found
 45. and in camp for night I called.
 He wants to be as us a gypsy;

 him is chasing law,
 but I his girlfriend was
 His name is Aleko - he
 50. ready to follow me everywhere. "

Old Man

 I am glad.  Stay till morning
 under canopy of our tent
 Or stay with us and share
 as you want.  I'm ready
 55. with you share and bread and shelter.

 Be ours – get used to our lot,
 roaming of poverty and will –

 And tomorrow with morning dawn
 in one cart we will go;
 60. take over fishing any:
 iron working – or songs sing
 and villages go round with bear.


 I am staying.


He will be mine:
65. Who from me him drive away?
But late ... moon young
rest;  the fields covered with gloom
and sleep me involuntarily attends .

Metrical Analysis

The poem is in iambic tetrameters, generally rhymed aBaB:

Цы га ны шум но ю тол пой 4a
 По Бес са ра би и ко чу ют. 4B
О ни се год ня над ре кой 4a
 В шат рах и зод ран ных но чу ют. 4B

Как воль ность, ве сел их ноч лег 4c
 И мир ный сон под не бе са ми; 4D
Меж ду ко лё са ми те лег, 4c
 По лу за ве шан ных ков ра ми, 4D

But there are also sections rhymed aaBaB, abba, etc, as the Russian text above indicates.

Gypsies in Context

The Gypsies is the last of Pushkin's four southern poems, the others being The Prisoner of the Caucasus, The Robber Brothers and The Fountain of Bakhchisaray. It was written in exile on his mother's estate near Pskov in 1824, and published in 1827. Prince Mirsky {2} speaks highly of the piece: 'The Gypsies is among the greatest works of Püshkin. . . The Gypsies are not treated realistically but merely as ideal representatives of a natural state of human society. . . a strong affirmation of freedom. . . and patently a plea for anarchism. It was Pushkin's first attempt at tragedy and one of his greatest. It is less easy to do justice to its poetical beauty, and speaking of it, one is too likely to forget the lesson of restraint that is the best lesson to be learned from Pushkin. The verse, less fluent and volumptuous than in The Captive and in The Fountain, is tighter, fuller, and more saturated with complex expressiveness. Such passages as the old gypsy's tale of Ovid, the end of the poem (with the speech of the old man on Aleko's murder), and especially the epilogue, are unsurpassable summits of poetry.'

Previous Translations

The gypsies has seen several translations. That by G.R.Ledger is firmly modelled in rhyming quatrains, effective but not always following Pushkin's rhyme scheme. {2}

 A noisy multitudinous throng
 The crowd of gypsies streams along
 The plains of Bessarabia. 
 Their camp by the riverside today

 Is pitched and set for their nighttime stay.
 In ragged tents spread far and wide
 Like freedom is their sojourn there,
 Under the skies in the midnight air. 

 Between the wheels of the drawn up carts,
 Half covered with carpets thrown across 
 The bonfire glimmers.  The family starts

 To prepare a meal.  On the steppe nearby
 The horses pasture; behind the tents 
 The tame bear sleeps with an open eye. 
 In the vasty steppes all is noisy and lively:
 The gypsy family's anxiety
 Since the early morn on their short planned journey,
 The children's cries and the women's singing,
 And the sound of the travelling anvil's ringing. 

 But now upon their nomadic camp
Descends a sleepy silentness 
 And the only sounds in the steppe's quietness
 Are the barking of dogs and the horses' neighs. 

 The fires everywhere are all put out,
 All is at peace,  the solitary moon
 Shines from the summit of the skies
 And brightens the encampment with its rays.

The translation by Irinia Zheleznova (1922) is a remarkable achievement, reproducing Puskin's rhyme schemes and the feminine lines. There are inevitable contrivances to accommodate so demanding a form (river/cover, leap, under/wander, gathered/untethered, etc), a rather free rendering in places, and the verse lacks Pushkin's quicksilver charm. But the language is largely fresh and convincing, making for an enjoyable read. {3}

The Gypsies Bessarabia roam
In noisy crowds. . .. Above a river
In tattered tents they make their home.
From night’s cool breezes seeking cover.

In open air calm is their sleep;
Like freedom glad their rest is. . .. Under
The rug-hung caravans there leap
A fire’s bright flames whose shadows wander

And lick the wheels; close to the blaze,
A family, for supper gathered.
Prepare their meal ; a tame bear lies
Behind the tent; nearby, untethered.

The horses graze. . .. The steppe all round
Is full of life; their camping ground
The Gypsies leave at dawn; the ringing
Of anvils mingles with the sound

Of children’s cries and women singing. . ..
Then all at once a hush descends
Upon the camp; a horse’s neighing
At times the dreamy quiet rends
Or else a watchdog’s frantic baying.

The unattributed Wikipedia samples may be simply a literal rendering: {5}

Between the wheels of the carriages
hanging carpets folded over in two
burns a flame, and the family around it
cook their supper; in the fresh field
the horses are at pasture; beyond the camp
a tame bear lies uncaged.

William Arndt also produced a very readable version, though the diction is now a little dated:

Between Moldavian settlements
In clamorous throng the gypsies wander.
Tonight they spread their tattered tents
Encamped beside the river yonder.

Gay is their camp, in freedom gay,
Their sleep beneath the stars untroubled;
Amid the wheels of van and dray
Their sides with hanging carpets doubled,

the campfire burns, and over it bent
They cook their meal; at pasture scattered,
Their horses graze; {6}

Yevgeny Bonver's version is not particularly accurate or pleasing:

The Gypsies in the noisy throng
Stray Bessarabia around.
Today over the river, long,
They’re lodging in their tents, worn out.

Like freedom their night-resting is –
And peaceful sleep the heavens under.
Between the wagons’ tired wheels,
Covered with rugs, long-used in wonders,

A fire’s flamed. A family’s
Preparing, round it, a dinner;
A horse is gazing in the fields,
Is sleeping, free, a teamed bear-thriller. {7}

Zemfira's Song

The Gypsies has also been translated more recently by Antony Wood, but below is the only excerpt I can find on the Internet (it being standard practice these days for reviewers not to substantiate their remarks with extensive quotation, a  practice I find less than honest, and indeed suspect):

Old husband, dread husband,
Stab your wife, burn your wife:
Firm I stand—I don’t fear
Fire or the knife.

I hate you, despise you,
Another I love;
He has all my heart,
I shall die for my love. {8}

Clearly we can't draw many conclusions from so short a section, but the meter adopted is an irregular stress rhythm, effective but rather broken, and so differing from the original lines, which are a regular ternary dimeter, rhymed abab ccdc. Antony Wood's rendering is very close to the Russian meaning, however. The Russian with meter, rhyme schemes and natural word stresses is:

Ста́рый муж, гро́зный муж, A (- u u – u u)
Режь меня́, жги меня́: b (u u – u u -)
Я тверда́; не бою́сь a (u u – u u -)
Ни ножа́, ни огня́. b (u u – u u -)

Ненави́жу тебя́, c (u u – u u -)
Презира́ю тебя́; c (u u – u u -)
Я друго́го люблю́, bd (u u – u u -)
Умира́ю любя́. c (u u – u u -)

And the word-for-word rendering:

 Old husband, menacing husband,
 Cut me, burn me:
 I am firm;  not afraid
 no knife, no fire.

 Hate you,
 I despise you;
 I love another
 I die loving.

As I repeatedly mention, reading other efforts is an essential part of any translation, and to understand why translators have written what they have, it's often helpful to repeat the translations from their perspective, i.e. in their style and with their intentions. So, in stress verse, and preserving the  sense and original rhythms more (as far as we can: the ternary rhythm tends to revert to the iambic in short lines) and ignoring the rhymes (as translators often do these days), we could write:

Husband old, menacing,
you may cut, you may burn:
I am firm, have no fear
of the knife, of the fire.

You're the one I will hate,
and the one I despise;
now I love someone else,
though I die loving him.

I don't find this particularly attractive, though Zemfira's song is a special case: most of The Gypsies is in tetrameters. For various reasons –  rhyme, properties of the trimeter, difficulties with the anapaestic/dactylic in short lines – my present idea is to replace the ternary dimeter with an iambic trimeter, i.e. keep the six syllables and the rhyme, but aim for a more 'singing' line:

Husband old and stern,
hurt or harm your wife:
Firm am I and spurn
the fire or threatened knife.

You I hate and scorn,
find you aged and worn;
another's love I'll be,
though to death be sworn.

Main Text Translation Choices

Unless we want prose, our translation should respect Pushkin's tetrameters, but should these be fully rhymed, i.e. with masculine and feminine rhymes, or with masculine rhymes throughout, or follow current conventions, with the verse unrhymed (i.e. when it's not simply 'free verse'  or segmented prose)? Rather than argue their merits in abstract, it may be better to try and see what each produces. Unrhymed tetrameters run:

The gypsies in a noisy crowd
that far through Bessarabia roam
today are camped across the river:
in threadbare tents they spend the night.

5. How freely given is their stay
in peaceful ease beneath the sky.
Between the wagon wheels of carts
and in the half-hung rugs they sleep.

Beside the fire a family
10. is cooking food. In open fields
the horses graze, and unrestrained
a bear is tame behind the tent.

In truth the steepelands are alive
with peaceful caring families,
15. each ready on the dawn to leave,
with children’s shouts and women’s songs,
to beats the marching anvils bring.

At present on the nomad camp,
a silence full of sleep descends,
20. but through the quietness of the steppes
comes bark of dog or neigh of horse.

The lights are everwhere put out
and calmness deepens out. The moon
in shining from its heavenly height,
25. illuminates the quiet camp.

But in one tent alone there sits,
an old man by the glowing coals,
and, warmed by the expiring heat,
he gazes at the fields around
30. where night mists glimmer hazily.

For there his unwed daughter went
across the desolating waste.
But she was often out alone,
and would return. But now it’s night,

35. and very soon the moon will leave
its heavenly refuge in the clouds,
but no Zemphira comes, and cold
the food uneaten on his plate.

But here she is. Zemphira comes,
40. a young man following in haste.
’As gypsy he is one unknown
 to you, my father’, the woman says.

'I bring a guest. Behind the mound
I found him in the wilderness,
45. and on this camp tonight I call
With one who would be gypsy too.

The law pursies him, certainly,
but I will be his true love now.
His name is Aleko, and he
50. will henceforth join me everywhere.

Old Man

I’m glad to meet you, have you spend
till morning with us in our tent,
or stay with us, and join our life --
just as you wish, for I’d be pleased,
55. to share this awning and our bread.
Be one of us and know our lot
of roaming poor but as we will.

And when tomorrow brings the dawn,
together in one cart we’ll go.
60. You'll learn our songs and fishing spots,
our metal trade, at villages
go round with our performing bear.


 I’m joining you.


      He will be mine,
65. for who would drive this man away?
But now it’s late, the moon is soon
to sink and leave on fields a haze,
and sleep attend me nonetheless.

This rendering is very close to the prose sense of the original, with only a few expansions and circumlocutions (notably the last line).

The rhymed versions are more difficult: we have to write compact tetrameters with Pushkin's tight rhyming schemes. Our rendering has to appear natural, with the rhymes seeming inevitable — and of course exhibit a proper understanding of the original. Everything Pushkin writes has a purpose, though it's often understated by its author, who has a deft, almost eighteenth-century lightness of touch. The translation is probably better done in two stages, first a fairly literal one:

It's gypsies in their noisy way
that far through Bessarabia roam:
across the river now they stay
in rough felt tents that serve for home.

But they are free: the heavens keep
them in their wise and sovereign grace:
between the wagon wheels they sleep,
secure within a rug-hung space,

with folk toward the fireside blaze
and meal together seeming leant.
In open fields the horses graze;
a tame bear lies behind the tent.

The steppes are never short of sound
when children cry, the women round
about will sing, and anvils ring
as waiting folk across the ground
anticipate what mornings bring.

Yet all is silent, now, a force
that settles on them, self-aware:
a bark of dog or neigh of horse
comes faintly on the thin night air.

The lights are doused, and everywhere
there’s calm: the coming moon is bright:
the camp beneath the heaven’s care
is flooded with a silver light.
But one old man is not asleep
but from the warmth the ashes keep
still gazes from his tent to see,
across the steppelands, wide and deep,
the night mists glimmer hazily.

And somewhere out there, far from sight,
across the fields his daughter went,
and by her love of freedom sent.
But she'll come back, if now the night

is almost spent, the moon foretold
to fall from its cloud-pillared state.
Yet no Zemfira comes, and cold
the food uneaten on his plate. 

But here she is. Behind her too
a young man waits impatiently.

'This man will not be known to you,
my father, but is one who'll be
henceforth my guest, and one to do
my bidding always. One I found
45. in fields behind the barrow mound.
He'll be a gypsy, will pursue
his way with us outside the law.
Aleko, now my friend, will share
his life with us, and evermore
50. will travel with me everywhere.

Old Man

Till morning I'd be glad to see
you rest beneath our canopy,
of, if you wish, for longer stays,
as by your inclinations led,
55. to share this awning and our bread

and grow accustomed to our ways
of roaming poor throughout our days.

Let us see what dawn will show 
to our cart off to anywhere.
60. You'll fish or sing the songs we know
adopt our metal-working, go
the rounds with our performing bear.


 I’ll stay.


      He will be mine, for who
would dare to make it otherwise?
65. It's now grown late: the young moon too
has thrown on fields a misty hue,
and sleep is heavy on my eyes.

Working notes

There are many ways of going wrong, and though rhyme gives shape and grace, it is equally likely to produce dull, inept and/or contrived passages if we don't continually push its powers to the limit. Baudelaire's albatross is an apt image.  We have to get the verse airborne even on the most mundane of matters, or, to change metaphors, to get the words resonating with fuller meanings and connotations as Pushkin does in the very plain verse that makes his Gypsies. Our verse has to be simple without being plebeian, mean or pinchbeck. And that can be difficult.

To take the earliest problem: in line 1, толпой means 'crowd' or 'by the crowd'. But if we use the word we're stuck with something like: The gypsies in a noisy crowd / are down from Bessarabia way. / Today, across the river, loud / and in their tattered tents they stay which is not too elegant. We can use 'lot', of course, but the problem remains with: The gypsies are a noisy lot that far through Bessarabia roam. Today they're by the river spot, in tattered tents that are their home. We don't really want to designate the group at at all, as this colours our view of them: all groupings have overtones, some faintly derogatory. It seems better to avoid the problem altogther with the It's gypsies in their noisy way adopted above.

The problem with lines 13-19 is setting them out in chronological order: Pushkin rather anticipates. Everything is alive in the middle of the steppes: / Concerns of peaceful families, / Finished with the morning in the path of the near,/ and the Songs of wives, and the cries of children, / And the ringing of the marching anvil  Zheleznova's solution therefore seems sensible, which is to make the future into a general condition: In the vasty steppes all is noisy and lively: /  The gypsy family's anxiety /  Since the early morn on their short planned journey. So our steppes are never short of sound

Rhyme should not be too obvious, I think, using see/canopy in lines 56-7 above rather than Then stay till morning. I'm content / that you should choose to share our tent.

 With those fundamentals in place, we can write something more fluent and integrated (though still needing work):

The gypsies in their noisy way
that far through Bessarabia roam
are camped across the river, stay
in threadbare tents that make their home.

5. But they are free: the heavens keep
their welcome for this peaceful race:
between the wagon wheels they sleep:
the folded rugs give each his place.

A fire burns: around the blaze
10. are people on their dinner bent.
In open fields the horses graze;
a tame bear’s loose behind the tent.

The steppelands come alive with sound
when on the morrow all are found —
15. while children bawl, and women sing —
to exit from their camping ground
to beats the marching anvils bring.

For now there’s only silence where
the night for nomads takes its course.
20. The bark of dog or neigh of horse
frays thinly through the steppeland air.

The lights are doused, and everywhere
a calm collects. The moon is bright.
The camp beneath its heavenly care
25. is flooded with a silver light.

But one old man is not asleep
but from the warmth the ashes keep
still gazes from his tent to see
across the steppeland's distant sweep
30. the night mists glimmer hazily.

There went his daughter, far from sight,
so much in love of freedom grown
she often wandered on her own.
She will return, but now the night

35. is almost spent, the moon foretold
to leave its cloudy-pillared state,
yet no Zemfira comes, and cold
is poor food left upon his plate.

But here she is. Behind her too
40. a young man steps impatiently.
'This man will not be known to you,
my father, but is one who'll be

my guest tonight, this one I lead
from wildernesses where I found
45. him lost behind the barrow mound.
He will our gypsy customs heed

although much wanted by the law.
He’s now my love in everything.
Wherever we may go, for sure,
50. Aleko will be following.

Old Man

Be welcome then.  I’m pleased to see
you grace our tent’s plain canopy
tonight, or maybe longer stays.
Be by your inclinations led
55. to share this awning and our bread
and grow accustomed to our ways
of roaming poor throughout our days.

Tomorrow in that cart will show
what routes together we can share.
60. You'll fish or learn the songs we know,
adopt our metal-working, go
the rounds with our performing bear.


 I’ll stay.


      He will be mine, for who
65. would dare to make it otherwise?
But now it’s late: the young moon too
has thrown on fields a misty hue,
and sleep is heavy on my eyes.

Duplicating the feminine rhymes is another order of difficulty, but we can adapt the previous rendering to get:

The gypsies in their noisy way
that down from Bessarabia wander
have pitched their threadbare tents and stay
tonight across the river yonder.

5. But they are free: their welcomes keep
them peacefully beneath the heavens
between the wagon wheels they sleep:
where folded rugs the hard ground leavens.

Camped round the fireside blaze
10. finds people to their dinner bending
In open fields the horses graze;
behind the tents a bear’s attending.

The steppelands come alive with sound
when on the morrow echo round —
15. the children shouting, women singing —
the gysies leave their camping ground
and march in time to anvils ringing.

The night for nomads takes its course:
a sleepy silence falls, reposes.
20. With bark of dog or neigh of horse
a sound in silence interposes.

The lights are doused, and everywhere
a calm extends. The moon is shining
down its radiant, sovereign care,
25. a light that has its silver lining.

But one old man is not asleep
but from the warmth the ashes keep
still gazes from his tent flap, seeing
across the night mists’ hazy sweep
30. a glimmer of some other being.

Across those wastes till out of sight
his daughter went, the independent,
always on her will attendant.
She will return, if now the night

35. be almost spent, the moon now ruling
the heavens in their clouded state,
yet no Zemfira comes, and cooling
stays the food untouched on plate.

But here she is. Behind her hurries
40. a young man also. ‘Father see,
here’s one to never bring you worries
although uknown, he’s one to be

my welcome guest,  and will endeavour
to be a gypsy. One I found
45. in fields behind the barrow mound.
He’s mine tonight, and wheresoever

I may go. Outside the law,
he is, Aleko, but is sharing
our life together, one who’s sure
50. to follow me, however faring.

Old Man

Till morning then.  I’m glad to see
you grace our simple canopy,
of, if you wish, here longer staying,

as by your inclinations led,
55. to share this awning and our bread.

Thus wandering and poor obeying
our wish for freedom, never straying.

On the morrow we will go
together in one cart, conforming.
60. You'll fish or sing the songs we know,
adopt our metal-working, show
your mettle with our bear performing.


 I’ll stay.


      He will be mine, for who
65. would have me make my love forsaking?
It's now grown late: the young moon too
has thrown on fields a misty hue,
and sleepiness its course is taking.

In verse terms, duplicating Pushkin's full rhyme scheme gives us another animal. It's further displaced from the prose sense (particularly with the 'interposes' etc. nonsense) but breaks the hard compactness of the masculine rhymes, perhaps suggesting the more fluid nature of Russian verse. All versions need more work, but the outlines should be clear. The first rendering is close to the prose sense, but emotionally a little flat. The second has some of the grace of Pushkin, but lacks the exactness of Pushkin's word choice. The third might be charming eventually, with radical redrafting, but wanders from the sense and may well, as so often happens with difficult stanza forms, become a miracle of misplaced ingenuity more than poetry as such.

So what version is best? At present it's difficult to know, and I may consider an ebook with all three versions, plus notes on the prosody and Pushkin's use of Russian for some time later in 2019. I'll keep readers posted.

Digression: Prose Versions

But what about prose? All the above notwithstanding, perhaps we'd do better with prose. Below is the best version I can find, by Roger Clarke in the Wordsworth Classics series: {9}

A noisy band of gypsies was roaming through Bessarabia. They had pitched their tattered tents for the night above the river. Their camp was as cheerful as it was free, and their sleep would be a peaceful sleep under the open sky. Between wheels of waggons half draped with rungs a fire burned; round it a family was preparing supper; in the open grassland horses were grazing; behind a tent a tame bear lay untethered. Here midst empty plains was a place of life: families busying themselves peacefully as they made ready for a short journey the next morning, women singing, children shrieking, the travelling anvil clanging. Then the silence of sleep descended over the nomad encampment; and there was nothing to be heard in the stillness of the steppelands but the barking of dogs and the neighing of horses. Everywhere the fires had been put out; all was calm; only the moon shone from high heaven and cast her light over the quiet camp.

In one tent an old man was not asleep; he sat by the embers of his fire, warming himself on their last glow, and he looked over the distant grasslands now overlaid with nocturnal mist. His precious young daughter had gone for a stroll in the empty country. She was used to the freedom of doing what she fancied; she would come back, he knew; but he saw it was already night, and before long the moon would leave the distant heavens to the clouds. There was still no sign of Zemfira; and the old man's meagre supper was getting cold.

Then there she was. And close behind her a lad was hurrying across the steppe; the gypsy didn't recognise him at all. 'Father,' the girl said, 'I'm bringing a visitor; I found him behind the burial mound where there's nobody, and I've asked him into the camp for the night. He wants to be a gypsy like us; the law is after him: but I'll be his friend. His name's Aléko; he ready to come with me anywhere.'

Old Man

I'm glad. Stay in the shelter of our tent till morning, or spend longer with us, as you please. I'm ready to share food and living quarters with you. Be one of us. Try out our way of life, wandering in poverty and freedom; tomorrow at daybreak we'll ride off together in one waggon. Take up any job you want: work iron or sing songs and go round villages with the bear.


I'll stay.


He'll be mine: no one will separate him from me . . . But it's late . . . the young moon has set; the country's shrouded in mist; I can't hold up my head for sleep.

This is a faithful, intelligent and sensitive rendering, clearly so, but also perhaps a little flat — not through any fault of the translator but because prose is the less emphatic medium. Verse can do things that prose can't, or, at least, not easily so, without rhetorical devices that would be out of place in this simple description. And that prose leads to a few problems:

1. Is 'lad' the appropriate term for Aléko, who partners the wild Zemfíra, and on whom the tragedy turns? Pushkin is not suggesting that the callowness of youth precipitates trouble, but someone whose faults embody the failures in us all.
2. Do gypsies sleep 'under the open sky'? The text doesn't say so, and Pushkin would have known that the Romani sleep in wagons and/or tents. The sense, I think, is rather more that the heavens keep watch over this peaceful race.
3. Is not 'precious' a trifle unfortunate? Pushkin simply implies she's important to the old man through the narrative, and the word in English also carries a disapproving sense of someone affectedly over-sensitive, which Zemfíra is not.
4. Again, is 'as she fancied' quite what's wanted?  Zemfíra is not little Miss Contrary but a full-blooded and determined woman.

All this could be corrected with a little work, but I suspect it's the prolix nature of a pleasing and balanced prose that betrays the translator into filling out sentences with extra matter. All translation styles need a careful choice of words.

Postscript: The Bronze Horseman

Currently, looking at translations of Pushkin's The Bronze Horseman, I am even more thinking that the feminine rhyme is ill advised. Here are opening sections of the poem by three distinguished translators:

There, by the billows desolate,
He stood, with mighty thoughts elate,
And gazed; but in the distance only
A sorry skiff on the broad spate
Of Neva drifted seaward, lonely.
The moss-grown miry banks with rare
Hovels were dotted here and there
Where wretched Finns for shelter crowded;
The murmuring woodlands had no share
Of sunshine, all in mist beshrouded. {10}

A wave-swept shore, remote, forlorn:
Here stood he,
rapt in thought and drawn
To distant prospects. Broad and chartless
The river ran, along it borne
A lonely skiff, rough-hewn and artless.
Darker against the marshy green
Of moss-grown banks appeared some mean
Log huts: the poor Finns’ habitation;
And forests which had never seen
The mist-veiled sun’s illumination {11}

On a deserted, wave-swept shore,
He stood – in his mind great thoughts grow –
And gazed afar. The northern river
Sped on its wide course him before;
One humble skiff cut the waves’ silver.
On banks of mosses and wet grass
Black huts were dotted there by chance –
The miserable Finn’s abode;
The wood unknown to the rays
Of the dull sun, by clouds stowed,
Hummed all around. {12}

The Russian text is:

На берегу пустынных волн
Стоял он, дум великих полн,
И вдаль глядел. Пред ним широко
Река неслася; бедный чёлн
По ней стремился одиноко.
По мшистым, топким берегам
Чернели избы здесь и там,
Приют убогого чухонца;
И лес, неведомый лучам
В тумане спрятанного солнца,
Кругом шумел. {13}

The Yandex code translation shows how simple is the prose sense:

On the shore of desert waves
He stood, full of great thoughts,
And looked away. Before him widely
River necklace; poor shuttle
On it sought to.
On mossy, swampy shores
Blackened huts here and there,
Shelter wretched Finn;
And the wood unknown to the rays
In the fog of the hidden sun,
It was noisy.

Many other translations can be found on line, at least in selections, {14} but few are acceptable verse. Some are fairly dreadful: wrenched accents, tin ear, contrived rhymes. In short, to anything that reads naturally, with a seeming inevitability in the lines that verse deepens into significance, the feminine rhyme is a decided obstacle.


I have now completed the translation of Pushkin's The Gypsies: the free ebook can be download from Ocaso Press site. Readers will find a formal translation with facing Russian text, an Introduction to the poem, and an Appendix containing a literal word-for-rendering and a full description of Pushkin's prosody. Pushkin's rhyme schemes are faithfully reproduced, but as masculine rhymes only, for reasons given above and in the ebook itself.

References and Resources

References can now be found in a free pdf compilation of Ocaso Press's Russian pages.