Translating Yazykov: Evening

Nikolay Mikhaylovich Yazykov (1803-46) was a major Russian poet who, as a result of earlier excesses and indifferent health, was much given to wandering from spa town to spa town in search of remedies. He visited Germany and Italy, recording his impressions of street scenes, of the Alps and the Mediterranean, often only vignettes but evocative and sharply drawn.

translating Yazikov's Evening

'Evening' is a short piece, only six lines long, but, being written in iambic hexameters, so natural to Russian verse but foreign to English, gives many translation problems. Here I show ways round the difficulty, but also how to escape the banality of 'faithful, word for word' translation.

Russian Text

Вечер: Стих

Ложатся тени гор на дремлющий залив;
Прибрежные сады лимонов и олив
Пустеют; чуть блестит над морем запад ясный,
И скоро божий день, веселый и прекрасный,
С огнистым пурпуром и золотом уйдет
Из чистого стекла необозримых

Poem structure

Yazykov's poem is written in iambic hexameters, quite regular and rhymed aa BB cc:

Ложа́тся те́ни гор на дре́млющий зали́в;     6a
Прибре́жные сады́ лимо́нов и оли́в     6a
Пусте́ют; чуть блести́т над мо́рем за́пад я́сный,    6B
И ско́ро бо́жий день, весёлый и прекра́сный,     6B
С огни́стым пу́рпуром и зо́лотом уйдёт     6c
Из чи́стого стекла́ необозри́мых вод.     6c

A TTS (text to speech) recording of the first five stanzas is:

Previous Translations

Evelyn Bristol has this simple, fairly literal rendering: {1}

Now shade of mountains fall across the sleepy bay,
While rows of lemon, olive trees upon the shore
Are emptied, clear, the west does scarcely gleam upon the seas,
And soon the goodly day, so full of mirth and beauty,
With hues of fiery gold and purple will depart
From off the chastened glass of waters beyond sight.

This is a little pedestrian, of course, as Professor Bristol's intention in her most useful book is to give a fairly accurate rendering, conveying meaning and line length, but not the rhyme and small modifications the translator makes to create a poem acceptable in English, i.e. not one all too obviously a translation.


The machine translation of Yazikov's text is:

Evening: Verse

The shadows of the mountains fall on the dormant bay;
Coastal gardens of lemons and olives
Empty; the west is shining a little over the sea, clear,
And soon God's day, cheerful and beautiful,
With fiery purple and gold will go away
Made of pure glass of boundless waters.

The real need is to reproduce the drama and beauty of the original. We can start with:

Shadows of great mountains line a drowsy bay.
Olive and lemons gardens that mark the coastal way
fade out, are nothing; the west glimmers on the sea
where soon, in cheerful loveliness, God's day will be
a mass of fiery golds and purples that level out and pass
over the boundless waters as clear and thin as glass.

If we then concentrate on the last line, the 'pure' in particular, we get:

Shadows of great mountains across a drowsy bay.
Olive and lemons gardens that mark the coastal way
empty to nothing; the west glimmers on the sea
where soon, in cheerful loveliness, God's day will be
but molten gold and purples that level out and pass
out over wide waters shimmering in silvered glass.

Preferred Translation


Vast shadows of mountains surround the drowsy bay.
Olive and lemons gardens that line the coastal way
thin out to nothing; the west glimmers on the sea
where soon, in cheerful loveliness, God's day will be
a fiery mass of gold and purple clouds that pass
levelly over waters shimmering as silvered glass.


Not everyone will be happy with this rendering. I have expanded 'go away' to rise and pass'. Worse, the 'pure glass' has become 'shimmering in silvered glass'. My reasons are two-fold. First is to re-imagine the scene that Yazikov describes, i.e. write an English poem on the scene as Yazikov depicts. Second is a consequence of the hexameter, commonly used in Russian verse but rare in English because so difficult to handle.

Generally, to be metrically readable, the six stress hexameter is broken into smaller units (5 1, 4 2, 3 3, 2 4, 1 5, 2 2 2 etc. ), where each unit has to be properly cadenced and form a pleasing part of the whole line. Readers will notice what I have done with the hexameter in other translations on this site. Here, however, because the poem is so short, it's possible to write more six-stress units, as lines 2 5 and 6. Line 1 is 2 4, however, as is line 3.

If, however, we say a) that since Yazikov did not use 'silver' nor should we, and b) the waters would not be silver anyway but dyed with sunset colours (though I think Yazikov is referring to lines of breakers), we could rewrite the last line as:

wide over shimmering waters as clear and chaste as glass.

This is closer to the Russian, and may be better verse, where the long vowels give an effective ending. Since the overall balance has now changed, however, we may want to rewrite the poem, bringing it closer to the Russian text:

Great shades of mountains quietly mirrored on the bay.
The olive and lemon groves along the coastal way
look thin and empty. The west lightens on the sea
where soon God's day, in cheerful loveliness, will be
radiating gold and purple flames that pass
wide over shimmering waters as clear and chaste as glass.

Looking back at these efforts some weeks later, I now think some composite of these renderings may be best:


Vast shades of mountains fall about the dormant bay.
The olive and lemons gardens leave the coastal way
in darkness. To the west the brilliant glitterings of the sea
announce a cheerful loveliness. God’s day will be
a heaped-up mass of purples and bright golds that pass
across extended waters clear and chaste as glass.

References and Resources

1. Bristol, E. A History of Russian Poetry (1991, O.U.P.) 120.

2. Mirsky, D.S. A History of Russian Literature. (Alfred A: Knopf, 1926 / Vintage, 1958) 107-9.

Russian poem translations on this site: listing.