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Marina Tsvetaeva's Attempt at Jealousy


Marina Tsvetaeva's (1892-1941) life was even harder than Akhmatova's. She was born in Moscow, the daughter of a professor of graphic arts. Her mother was an accomplished pianist. Her first collection of poems, published in 1910, established her as a promising poet, which she confirmed in extensive publications before the 1917 Revolution. She married early, and in 1912 her daughter Ariadne was born. During the Civil War her husband, Sergey Efron, fought with the volunteer White Army in the Crimea, and she was able to join him only in 1923. The couple emigrated and lived in Berlin, Prague and Paris. A son was born in 1923. Unfortunately, Efron was unmasked as a Soviet agent and returned to Russia with their daughter. Tsvetaeva followed with their son in 1939. Efron and Ariadne were subsequently arrested. Bereft of family, friends and future, Tsvetaeva was evacuated to the small town of Elebuga, where hanged herself in 1941.

Tsvetaeva was a member of no particular literary movement. Many of the poems are autobiographical, relating to a life that was lived intensely but unhappily, with exaggerated feelings of attachment to individual poets of both sexes, which sometimes grew into romantic infatuations. From 1917 to 1922, Tsvetaeva wrote poems commemorating the White Army, but it is poems written in the mid twenties, celebrating mother Russia, that are her most accomplished and popular. {1}

tsvetaeva, attempt at jealousy, translation

Tsvetaeva's style was quite radical. She mixed an everyday language with one that was much more bookish (even incorporating eighteenth century words), often incorporating references to the classical world. Typology was also novel. The poem contains 22 dashes, 21 question marks, 7 exclamation marks and 1 ellipsis.

The sense thus appears more fragmentary and discursive, and is not always contained by individual lines and stanzas. {2}

Russian Text

Попытка ревности

Как живётся вам с другою, —
Проще ведь? — Удар весла! —
Линией береговою
Скоро ль память отошла

Обо мне, плавучем острове
(По́ небу — не по водам!)
Души, души! быть вам сёстрами,
Не любовницами — вам!

Как живётся вам с простою
Женщиною? Без божеств?
Государыню с престола
Свергши (с оного сошед),

Как живётся вам — хлопочется —
Ёжится? Встаётся — как?
С пошлиной бессмертной пошлости
Как справляетесь, бедняк?

«Судорог да перебоев —
Хватит! Дом себе найму».
Как живётся вам с любою —
Избранному моему!

Свойственнее и съедобнее —
Снедь? Приестся — не пеняй…
Как живётся вам с подобием —
Вам, поправшему Синай!

Как живётся вам с чужою,
Здешнею? Ребром — люба?
Стыд Зевесовой вожжою
Не охлёстывает лба?

Как живётся вам — здоровится —
Можется? Поётся — как?
С язвою бессмертной совести
Как справляетесь, бедняк?

Как живётся вам с товаром
Рыночным? Оброк — крутой?
После мраморов Каррары
Как живётся вам с трухой

Гипсовой? (Из глыбы высечен
Бог — и на́чисто разбит!)
Как живётся вам с сто-тысячной —
Вам, познавшему Лилит!

Рыночною новизною
Сыты ли? К волшбам остыв,
Как живётся вам с земною
Женщиною, бе́з шестых
Чувств?

       ‎Ну, за голову: счастливы?
Нет? В провале без глубин —
Как живётся, милый? Тяжче ли,
Так же ли, как мне с другим?

November 19, 1924


The TTS Audio Recording is:



Analysis of Poem 'An Attempt at Jealousy'

The poem is in trochaic tetrameters, rhymed AbAb: Stanza one

Как живётся вам с друго́ю,     — 4A
Про́ще ведь? — Уда́р весла́!     — 4b
Ли́нией берегово́ю     4A
Ско́ро ль па́мять отошла́     4b

Sometimes a little irregularly: Stanza two

Обо мне́, плаву́чем о́строве     - u – u – u – u u 4C
(По́ не́бу — не по во́дам!)     - - u – u - u 4D
Ду́ши, ду́ши! быть вам сёстрами,     - u – u – u – u u 4C
Не любо́вницами — вам!     – u – u – u - 4d

Previous Translations

The poem is very popular, and Ruverses alone has nine translations into English. I give the first stanza of each:

1. Elaine Feinstein

How is your life with the other one,
simpler, isn’t it? One stroke of the oar
then a long coastline, and soon
even the memory of me

2. Maya Jouravel

How’re you living with another?
Easier? — A splash of oar! —
Has your memory quickly rather
Vanished like an ocean shore?

3. Mary Jane White

How is your life with another, —
Simpler, is it? — One stroke of an oar!—
And as easily as some coastline
Your memory of me

4. U. R. Bowie

How goest your life with another?
Any easier? One oar in the water, plink!
And off drifts the erstwhile once-lover.
Did all too soon the memory shrink

5. Andrey Kneller

How is living with another?
Simpler? The thud of oars! —
Memories of me soon start to
Drift like wave-lines by the shores,

6. Rolf W. F. Gross

How can you live with another woman —
Simpler? — Pull at the oar! —
Head for the coast line
Soon your memory will have departed

7. A.S. Kline

What’s it like with another woman —
Simpler? — a flash of the oar! —
Did the memory of me
soon fade off-shore,

8. Ilya Kaminsky and Jean Valentine

How is your life with that other one?
Simpler, is it? A stroke of the oars
and a long coastline —
and the memory of me

9. A. Z. Foreman

How's life with the other woman?
Simpler, yeah? A stroke of oars
by a long coastline, and even
memory of me unmoors


Several features of Tsvetaeva's verse are important. The lines are tetrameters, are rhymed AbAb, sometimes approximately. The language is everyday and unelevated, but contains the odd, old-fashioned word. The content is not wholly contained by the the line, or even the stanza. The verse is nonetheless accomplished and pleasing.

So how do the above versions check out with respect to these features? Aesthetics will always be personal, but my reading of the poems as a whole is:

1. Tetrameters:     1 2 4 5 9
2. Rhymed AbAb:     2 4
3. Rhymed abab:     -
4. Rhymed xaxa     5 7 9
5. Language unelevated:     1 2 3 5 7 8
6. Content outflows line:     1 2 5
7. Content outflows stanza:     1 3 4 5 6 9
8. Pleasing verse:     1 2 3 6 7 9

Starting the Translation


We tackle the translation in stages, starting by trying to get the abab rhyme in simple tetrameters.:

How is life with the other one?
Simpler, isn’t it? A stroke of oar
and even the thought of me has gone,
us drifting along on memory’s shore.

Where I am a floating island in
the sky, please note, not the waters.
Don’t worry: souls don’t live in sin!
You’ll be as sisters, never lovers.

What’s life like with an ordinary broad,
someone not raised to godhead yet,
now your sovereign has been floored,
(and you’ve stepped down a bit, my pet)?

So still you’re not nonplussed and lost.
Mornings find you up, as best you can.
Plain banality not come at cost?
No, you cope with it, good man.

What hysterical tantrums there’s been,
I’d find some other place. Enough!
It’s going well? The life, I mean,
compared to me your chosen love?

Her food is good, damn delicious?
You’re not to sicken on the sly?
So how is life with one ambitious
enough to prance on Sinai?

How do you live with a stranger not
of this world? Tell me, is love torrid
enough for you? Or shame you’ve got
with reins of Zeus tied to your forehead?

How are you doing? — keeping well
I hope. Do you sing at all?
Doesn’t your immortal conscience tell
you your coping is headed for a fall?

How is life now with a rather
over-priced bit of fluff?
After dealing with Carrara
marble, isn’t this plaster stuff

a bit degrading? God was hewn
from stone, true, but smashed to bits.
How do you live with one poor loon
out of the thousands that Lilith fits?

Had enough, have we, of the newest fling?
Simply grown cold to all magic hence?
How is life with a mortal thing,
a plain dull woman with no sixth sense?

Are you really happy? tell
me now. Is life shallower than
my life in love was? Could well
be hard as mine with another man?

Final Translation


Now we have to improve the verse, making it livelier, more idiomatic, and closer to the original Russian text:

How's life now with the other one?
Simpler, isn't it? One stroke of oar
and then the unending coastline's gone
with frank memories of one before

become a floating island — of
the sky, of course, and not the waters.
May the spirits up above
pronounce you sisters, never lovers.

Say how life is with that plain broad
who's not aspired to godhead yet.
A sovereignty she can't afford?
(Or stepping down from it, my pet.)

No trembling yet? Nothing lost?
You get up, mornings, best you can?
Banalities don't come at cost?
But you will cope, my poor dear man.

'What ugly tempers we have got!
I’m moving out. No, that's enough!'
How's life with any woman not,
my dearest one, a chosen love?

No doubt the food is passing good?
But please to not then bitch at me.
Grand the life with someone stood
bold as brass on Sinai?

So, now you're with a stranger not
of this wide world, are bedtimes torrid?
You really love her? Shame you’ve got
the reins of Zeus to lash your forehead.

So how's your health? Still keeping well?
You sing that much, these days — at all?
An immortal conscience doesn't spell
out impotence and likely fall?

In short, how's life now with that rather
over-promoted bit of fluff?
After dealing with Carrara
marble isn’t plaster stuff

a big step down. A god was hewn
from stone, true, but smashed to bits.
You chose from thousands one poor loon
and not the one that Lilith fits?

Happy with this market fling?
Or cold to all the magic hence?
How's living with some ordinary thing,
a woman lacking my sixth sense?

So tell me, you are happy? Tell
me there's no feeling emptier than
the lives that were. Nor hard as well —
as mine is with this other man?

References and Resources

1. Bristol, E., A History of Russian Poetry (O.U.P.) 241-44.

2. Watchel, M. The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Poetry (C.U.P., 2004) 103-09.