Home > Translation > Three poems by Osip Mandelstam

Three poems by Osip Mandelstam

January 21, 2011

translated by Stephen Dodson

Mandelstam in 1914

Mandelstam in 1914 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)


Есть иволги в лесах, и гласных долгота
В тонических стихах единственная мера.
Но только раз в году бывает разлита
В природе длительность, как в метрике Гомера.

Как бы цезурою зияет этот день:
Уже с утра покой и трудные длинноты,
Волы на пастбище, и золотая лень
Из тростника извлечь богатство целой ноты.


In the woods are orioles: the length of vowels
in tonic verses is the only measure.
But only once each year does nature lavish out
lagniappe duration, as in Homer’s metrics.

Like a caesura yawns this day; since morning
there have been peace and arduous longueurs,
oxen in pastures, and a golden languor
to draw out of a reed a whole note’s richness.

* * *

Возьми на радость из моих ладоней
Немного солнца и немного меда,
Как нам велели пчелы Персефоны.

Не отвязать неприкрепленной лодки,
Не услыхать в меха обутой тени,
Не превозмочь в дремучей жизни страха.

Нам остаются только поцелуи,
Мохнатые, как маленькие пчелы,
Что умирают, вылетев из улья.

Они шуршат в прозрачных дебрях ночи,
Их родина — дремучий лес Тайгета,
Их пища — время, медуница, мята.

Возьми ж на радость дикий мой подарок,
Невзрачное сухое ожерелье
Из мертвых пчел, мед превративших в солнце.


Take—for the sake of joy—out of my palms
a little sunlight and a little honey,
as we were told to by Persephone’s bees.

You can’t untie a boat that isn’t moored,
nor can you hear a shadow shod in fur,
nor—in this dense life—overpower fear.

The only thing that’s left to us is kisses:
fuzzy kisses, like the little bees
who die in midair, flying from their hive.

They rustle in the night’s transparent thickets,
their homeland the dense forest of Taygetus,
their food: time, pulmonaria, mint…

Here, take—for the sake of joy—my wild gift,
this necklace, dry and unattractive,
of dead bees who turned honey into sun.

* * *

Бессонница. Гомер. Тугие паруса.
Я список кораблей прочел до середины:
Сей длинный выводок, сей поезд журавлиный,
Что над Элладою когда-то поднялся.

Как журавлиный клин в чужие рубежи—
На головах царей божественная пена—
Куда плывете вы? Когда бы не Елена,
Что Троя вам одна, ахейские мужи?

И море, и Гомер — всё движется любовью.
Кого же слушать мне? И вот Гомер молчит,
И море черное, витийствуя, шумит
И с тяжким грохотом подходит к изголовью.


Insomnia. Homer. Taut sails.
To midpoint have I read the catalog of ships:
That long, that drawn-out brood, those cranes, a crane procession
That over Hellas rose how many years ago,

Cranes like a wedge of cranes aimed at an alien shore—
A godly foam spread out upon the heads of kings—
Where are you sailing to? If Helen were not there,
What would Troy be to you, mere Troy, Achaean men?

Both Homer and the sea—everything moves by love.
Who shall I listen to? Homer is silent now,
And a black sea, a noisy orator, resounds,
And with a grinding crash comes up to the bed’s head.

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Osip Mandelstam is universally considered one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. He was born in 1891, grievously offended Joseph Stalin through his insistence on truth-telling, and died in 1938 on his way to a prison camp. These three poems are from his early, classical period; they are among his most famous. The translator has not attempted to reproduce the rhymes but has tried to provide an equivalent sonic richness, and the rhythms have been carried across as accurately as possible.

Stephen Dodson was born in 1951 into a Foreign Service family; he has seen many cities and learned many languages. Having given up on an attempt to join academia as a linguist, he earns his living as a freelance copyeditor and since 2002 has written the blog Languagehat, where language and poetry, among other things, are discussed. He has both hats and cats.

  1. January 21, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    Good, Stephen! And I like how you read

  2. January 22, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    wonderful – rich, moving, beautifully ‘built’ if that makes sense. one small question — in the 2nd poem/last line of the 4th stanza, it reads:

    their food: time, pulmonaria, mint…

    surely, it is ‘thyme,’ right?

  3. January 22, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    surely, it is ‘thyme,’ right?

    No, it’s “time,” and that’s one of the difficulties of translating the poem. It’s even worse if you’re reading it out loud and the listener doesn’t have a text, of course. But what can you do? Mandelstam wrote время ‘time,’ and there’s no other way to say it. (Another problem is медуница, which one would love to translate “honeysuckle,” because both plant names are based on honey, but alas, that’s not what it means; the choices are “lungwort” and “pulmonaria,” and I went with the latter for what I hope are obvious reasons.)

  4. Alex Cigale
    January 22, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    Your English versions are wonderfully sinuous, stately and inventive, in diction, phrasing and syntax, Stephen. It is a special pleasure for me to be able to present them. I will also be presenting Eugene Ostashevsky’s translation of January 1, 1924 in an upcoming issue of another magazine I’m editing. And Irina who commented above had just taken 4 of my own Mandelstam miniature and 3 of his children’s verses for her Cardinal Points. The next Modern Poetry in Translation, a “Poet and the State” issue, will have a large selection of Mandelstam, including my own from the late Voronezh Notebooks. It’s truly an honor to have your excellent versions of these three classics that I think improve on what’s been done before!

  5. Alex Cigale
    January 22, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    I meant to add about the measures which, as many who have attempted it know, being pentameters that are not as common in Russian as they are in English, and given that Russian is far more polysyllabic than the blunt Anglo-Saxon, are hard to reproduce without either collapsing them to tetrameter or “padding” the lines. You have faithfully represented the original measures of a good many lines here, Stephen. BravO!

  6. January 23, 2011 at 9:01 am

    Pulmonaria-медуница is a very difficult case indeed, because English names of the plant have no evocation of honey, so important in the poem. I think Mandelstam uses honey as a metaphor for pleasurable moments in one’s life, happy memories. Maybe replace pulmonaria with melissa, a different plant altogether, but also a herb with the name that evokes honey? Just to avoid the unpleasant evocation of ‘pulmonary diseases’?

  7. nbmandel
    January 23, 2011 at 10:05 am

    These poems (the translations) are really beautiful. I know no Russian, but it’s great to have the sounds and rhythms of the originals echoing through the English.

  8. January 23, 2011 at 7:50 pm

    It’s wonderful to see your work here. I’m very fond of these poems, as you know.

  9. alex cigale
    February 12, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    Thought you might be interested to read the wonderful Peter France tackle one of these in the new issue of Cardinal Points, along with 2 other of M’s “honey poems”. You will no doubt be interested in his discussion of prosody, and even of the particular cross-language diction issue with “lungworth”. http://www.stosvet.net/12/france/. Again, you may be rightfully proud of your work here, Stephen.

  10. February 13, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    Yes, I saw those; I like them a lot, but (you will not be surprised to learn) I continue to prefer my own. I understand his reasoning about “honeysuckle,” but I still reject it.

  1. January 22, 2011 at 8:21 am
  2. May 9, 2011 at 3:30 pm
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