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Marina Tsvetaeva's Poets


Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) has become a popular choice for translators of Russian poetry, and with good reason. There's the exemplary courage of a life spent battling the Soviet regime. There's the woman poet with a distinctly feminist outlook, speaking frankly of women's affairs. There's the friend of Russia's leading poets of the day, who often wrote of or to them. There's the emigre writer, describing tellingly that often dispiriting experience. And there's the distinctive style, disjointed, direct and experimental, which translates well into the free verse styles preferred today.

The early poetry was autobiographical, and sometimes verged on a false innocence, but her two volumes entitled 'Milestones', published in 1921 and 1922, were a major addition to European literature and created a mirror of the Russian mind, often at an instinctive and peasant level. {1}

For all the novelty of Tsvetaeva's style, and its apparent randomness, the poems still rhymed and employed regular stanza forms. How these forms can be transferred to English, or if they should be at all, is the subject of this little demonstration.

tsvetaeva, attempt at jealousy, translation

In 'Poets', one of a series of such poems, Tsvetaeva mimics the apparently discursive nature of the poet's thought in a piece that jumps from thought to thought, which employs five regular stanzas of rhymed iambic pentameters with three odd lines, two acting as an introductory couplet, and one (line 19) that doesn't rhyme and doesn't follow the overall shape of the piece. {2}

Russian Text

Поэты Поэт

Поэт — издалека заводит речь.
Поэта — далеко заводит речь.

Планетами, приметами, окольных
Притч рытвинами… Между да и нет
Он даже размахнувшись с колокольни
Крюк выморочит… Ибо путь комет —

Поэтов путь. Развеянные звенья
Причинности — вот связь его! Кверх лбом —
Отчаетесь! Поэтовы затменья
Не предугаданы календарём.

Он тот, кто смешивает карты,
Обманывает вес и счёт,
Он тот, кто спрашивает с парты,
Кто Канта наголову бьёт,

Кто в каменном гробу Бастилий
Как дерево в своей красе.
Тот, чьи следы — всегда простыли,
Тот поезд, на который все

Опаздывают…
                — ибо путь комет

Поэтов путь: жжя, а не согревая.
Рвя, а не взращивая — взрыв и взлом —
Твоя стезя, гривастая кривая,
Не предугадана календарём!

April 8, 1923


The TTS Audio Recording is:



Prosodic Analysis

The opening lines are:

Поэ́т — издалека́ заво́дит речь.     4a
Поэ́та — далеко́ заво́дит речь.     4a

Плане́тами, приме́тами, око́льных    5B
Притч ры́твинами… Ме́жду да и нет    5c
Он да́же размахну́вшись с колоко́льни    5B
Крюк выморочит… И́бо путь коме́т —    5c

Previous Translations

Tsvetaeva has been widely translated and many publications are listed on the Internet, often with helpful notes and biographies. Of this poem I can only find two renderings, however, but give the first six lines of each.

1. Elaine Feinstein

A poet’s speech begins a great way off.
A poet is carried far away by speech

by way of planets, signs, and the ruts
of roundabout parables, between yes and no,
in his hands even sweeping gestures from a bell-tower
become hook-like. For the way of comets

2. Ilya Shambat

Poet - from afar starts a speech.
A poet - far away starts the speech.

With planets, with marks, with roundabout
Tales' hollows... between yes and nay
He even having swung from the belltower
Took out the hook... For comets' way


Starting the Translation


As usual, we tackle the translation in stages, starting by trying to get the abab rhyme in simple pentameters:

Poet's Poet

A long way off begins the poet’s speech.
The poet is carried a long way by far-off speech.

By way of omens, of planets and roundabouts,
parables with potholes, between yea and nay.
His hands are hung like a bell-tower hereabouts
though the curved path dies out. The comet’s way

Is the poet’s way. Indeed the blown up links
of causality make his connection. Take care
of him without hope. Indeed a poetic eclipse
is not as foretold by the calendar.

He is also the card-cheat –dicer and the chancer,
confusing the weight of things with arithmetic.
Bullying as a child at school-bench demanding answer
but soundly beats Kant when he needs to think.

His is the Bastille’s coffin, renowned and old,
he is like the tree in its loveliness.
He is the one with the footprints that are always cold,
or the train that all take for togetherness.

It is late, of course,
                     for the comet’s way

that's the poet’s way: burning up and not warming,
breaking up, not growing, leaving the door ajar,
and the curved mane of their path is always performing
in ways not predicted by the calendar.

Final Translation


There are several issues here. Most obvious is the Bastille reference, which I have tagged for the moment with 'renowned and old' to get the rhyme. What is it doing in the poem, and what is it saying? I have to say I don't know, and haven't been able to find out in the Russian articles consulted. The only safe way of proceeding in those circumstances is to leave a strict translation from the Russian: Кто в каменном гробу Бастилий (Who is in the stone coffin of the Bastille). In fact, I suspect it's a throwaway line used to rhyme with Тот, чьи следы — всегда простыли (The one whose footprints are always cold), which, of course, helps not at all.

The second issue is the rhythm, plain iambic in the original but a varying, loose free-verse in the rendering so far. So let's try to correct both issues, also making the the verse livelier, more idiomatic, and closer to the original Russian text:

Poet's Poet

A poet’s speech begins a long way off.
The poet's carried hence by distant speech

by way of omens, of planets and roundabouts,
of parables with potholes, between yea and nay.
His hands swing like a bell-tower hereabouts,
whose curve takes in all. The comet’s way

is the poet’s way. Indeed the scattered links
for him are vital connection. So, yes, despair
of a hopeless case. Poetic eclipse
is not as foretold by the calendar.

He muddles the cards up, mimics the chancer,
supposing the weight of things means arithmetic.
He is the desk-bound child demanding an answer
who beats Kant over the head when he needs to think.

His coffin is in stone in the Bastille’s fold;
he is like the tree in its loveliness,
the one with the footprints that are always cold,
or the train that all take for togetherness.

It is late, of course, for the comet’s way

is the poet’s way: brilliant, not warming,
breaking up, not growing, leaving the door ajar,
with the curved trajectory always performing
and in no way foretold by the calendar.

With that, by thinking what the lines mean rather than simply transcribing their oddness, we get a charming and persuasive little poem on the poet's craft.

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) 49, 103-09.