Last Saturday The Guardian published my translation of Marina Tsvetaeva’s ravishing poem “Night.—Northeaster,” drawn from my forthcoming anthology 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, December 2016). Written in “the last days of October 1917” in the Crimean port of Feodosia, Tsvetaeva’s nervy, reeling lyric captures the chaotic atmosphere of that period better than any piece of prose ever could. Its very form — the markedly irregular lines, the dense pattern of echoes (in place of regular end-rhymes) — pummels the reader like a strong wind, washing away all semblance of solidity in a flood of stolen wine. That image of stolen wine, incidentally, swims up time after time in the verse and prose of 1917; the raids on wine cellars breaking out across Russia throughout that year came to serve as an emblem of the spirits let loose by revolution. Tsvetaeva seizes on the image with a heady blend of gusto and dread, imbuing every inch of the poem’s texture with a sense of drunken unpredictability. Objects and sounds, phenomena and phonemes fall together unexpectedly, crashing, merging, and flowing off in an uncertain direction.
In my translation, I aim to reproduce these crashes and mergers by introducing a few irregular monosyllabic end-rhymes, which collide like clashing cymbals in the second stanza. These sharp rhymes make up for some inevitable loses, like the peculiar effect of Tsvetaeva’s monosyllabic line endings (relatively rare in Russian). I do not feel that a stronger network of English end-rhymes runs contrary to Tsvetaeva’s intent. Tsvetaeva was one of the great poetic innovators of her time and was especially sensitive to new possibilities of rhyme; indeed, when read aloud, what seems at first glance to be blank verse announces its hidden scheme of assonance and consonance: voln-sten, ptits-pust, noch’-nash, potok-kak byk, luna-vino-vine, etc. The radical nature of Tsvetaeva’s formal choices is lost on contemporary Anglophone readers, who are unaware of the context in which those choices were made. Many of these readers will have encountered Tsvetaeva’s work exclusively in free verse translations. In fact, one could argue that a rhymed Tsvetaeva poem is as unusual for an Anglophone reader as an un-rhymed one is for a Russian, so that the only way to reproduce the shock of her semi-blank verse is to render it in rhyme. But such speculations are ultimately beside the point. The point is that any English translation must make its impact on its own terms, affecting the reader in a new context; it must, in other words, be a poem in its own right.
Night.—Northeaster.—Roar of soldiers.—Roar of waves.
Wine cellars raided.—Down every street,
every gutter—a flood, a precious flood,
and in it, dancing, a moon the colour of blood.
Tall poplars stand dazed.
Birds sing all night—crazed.
A tsar’s statue—razed,
black night in its place.
Barracks and harbour drink, drink.
The world and its wine—ours!
The town stamps about like a bull,
swills from the turbid puddles.
The moon in a cloud of wine.—Who’s that? Stop!
Be my comrade, sweetheart: drink up!
Merry stories go round:
Deep in wine—a couple has drowned.
Feodosia, the last days of October 1917
Ночь.—Норд-Ост.—Рёв солдат.—Рёв волн.
Разгромили винный склад.—Вдоль стен
По канавам—драгоценный поток,
И кровавая в нём пляшет луна.
Ошалелые столбы тополей.
Ошалелое—в ночи́—пенье птиц.
Царский памятник вчерашний—пуст,
И над памятником царским—ночь.
Гавань пьёт, казармы пьют. Мир—наш!
Наше в княжеских подвалах вино!
Целый город, топоча как бык,
К мутной луже припадая—пьёт.
В винном облаке—луна.—Кто здесь?
Будь товарищем, красотка: пей!
А по городу—весёлый слух:
Где-то двое потонули в вине.
Феодосия, последние дни Октября