Zinaida Gippius’s “The Passerby”

Gippius - Bakst - 1906.jpg

Portrait of Zinaida Gippius (1906), by Léon Bakst (1866-1924)

Last week I posted my translation of a poem from 1924, in which the Polish poet Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska imagines the future life of a fashionable young woman. This week I’d like to share my translation of another poem from that same year, written by the Russian poet Zinaida Gippius (1869-1945), whose verse has appeared here before. In “The Passerby,” Gippius writes of the deep desire to do what Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska has done, in her impressionistic way — to penetrate the heart of a stranger, to know their life from the inside. Gippius opens with an expression of extreme, overwhelming empathy, but ends on a shocking note of megalomania. I read the poem as an acknowledgement of the awesome responsibility of omniscience and omnipotence, powers that belong in the hands of deities, not those of mere mortals.

In my translation, I made the decision to render the masculine third-person pronouns — which here, I feel, refer to a general person, rather than a man — as feminine. The masculine forms felt unduly exclusionary, and the feminine allowed for a nice off-rhyme (“love her”—“over”). I don’t think Gippius, who played with gender roles both in her verse and in life (as the portrait above demonstrates), would have minded too much. In the original poem, Gippius surprises us by using the masculine form of “I would like (khotel by),” a choice that is impossible to render elegantly in English. Perhaps the “she” is precisely the twist the English translation needed in order to recreate that effect.

The Passerby

Each person who may chance to pass you by,
even just once — only to disappear —
has her own story, her own mystery,
her luckiest and her most bitter year.

Whoever she may be, this passerby,
there must be people in this world who love her…
She’s not been blindly cast from some great height:
she’s being watched, until her days are over.

Like God, I’d like to know each person’s fate,
to see their hearts as if they were my own,
to quench their thirst with the immortal water —
while drowning others in oblivion.


Идущий мимо

У каждого, кто встретится случайно
Хотя бы раз — и сгинет навсегда,
Своя история, своя живая тайна,
Свои счастливые и скорбные года.

Какой бы ни был он, прошедший мимо,
Его наверно любит кто-нибудь…
И он не брошен: с высоты, незримо,
За ним следят, пока не кончен путь.

Как Бог, хотел бы знать я все о каждом,
Чужое сердце видеть, как свое,
Водой бессмертья утолить их жажду —
И возвращать иных в небытие.


9 thoughts on “Zinaida Gippius’s “The Passerby”

  1. Love this, Boris! I never really read her–just a few factoids about her ability to carry a grudge, against Block for The 12 and later, against Tsvetaeva in emigration, for prsising Mayakovsky, I belirve. Love to talk about that sometime. Look forward to going back snd forth from the English to the Russian–so glad you include the original! Bilingual editions are the peculiar pleasure of the half-baked language student. Hope you’re well and had a great trip to New York, to the heady stratosphere of the Natl Book Awards, you both looked so happy! Are you in London, or are you home? Things fine here, just looking for an epigraph to Chimes…might go w Mandelstam… still trying to digest Thanksgiving dinner. Much love,Janet Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

    Liked by 1 person

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