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Three poems by Osip Mandelstam

January 21, 2011 12 comments

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.