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In June I came across a poem by Anna Akhmatova that was new to me. I disliked the translation that was presented with it, so I decided to make a new one. To go about the process, I began with a word for word gloss next to the original:
Я пью за разорённый дом,
|I drink to the destroyed home
To my cruel life
To loneliness two-together
And to you I drink
За ложь меня предавших губ,
|To the lie of lips that betrayed me
To the dead cold of eyes
To the fact that that world is harsh and crude
To the fact that God did not rescue
|27 июня 1934, Шереметьевский Дом||June 27, 1934
I wanted my final translation to reflect the original rhyme scheme, but I couldn't come up with any lines with “did not rescue” or “did not save” that flowed in neat iambs, so I eliminated the “not” approach and rephrased it in the positive with “God let this be.” With that established, I could then work backwards so that all the previous lines would lead up to it. Here's what I came up with:
The Last Toast
Here's to our family, now in shatters
And here's to all my cruel days
The loneliness of two in tatters
And cheers to you and all your ways
Here's to the lips that fin'lly cheated
To cold dead eyes that cannot see
A world where justice is not meted
And cheers to God that let this be
June 27, 1934
What can we say about this translation? It captures the bitterness and despondency which are the essence of the original. That by itself makes it a decent translation. It flows decently in English. That makes it a good translation. It captures the irony of each line of the toast, and it approximates the ABAB rhyme scheme of the original. That combination of successes makes it a very good translation.
- I am not an Akhmatova scholar and have never properly researched her life, so it is entirely possible that my translation misses autobiographical references from the original.
- Akhmatova lived in an apartment in the garden wing of Sheremetev Palace on the Fontanka embankment from the mid 1920s till 1952. (Wikipedia)
- If you are interested in poetic translation as a topic, you can see some variations I played with here.
- The third line means “to the loneliness of two together.” It is so concisely put in Russian that I don't know of any way to capture its punchiness in English. The word одиночество contains the root один one, and “two together” contains the stem дв- ‘two,’ and the contrast between them is heart-rendingly obvious in Russian. (The English word ‘lonely’ also comes from a phrase that used to mean “all one,” but we no longer feel the ‘one’ part of the word as clearly as the Russians understand один in одиночество.) The only option is to find some phrase in English that gathers heartbreak neatly. “In tatters” is my best attempt.
- Line 7 is the one most open to criticism. It is only loosely connected with the original in that a world without justice is ipso facto a cruel world. Doubtless I will be accused of отсебятина. If anyone can come up with a line to replace it, making whatever other adjustments are necessary for the poem to work, I'd love to see it.
- The word “cheated” in line 5 will be first interpreted by the English reader as meaning spousal cheating. If upon study it turns out that it was betrayal that had nothing to do with the marital relationship, then the line needs to be rewritten. That of course means the rhyme in line 7 will most likely have to change as well.
- Feel free to add your own translation in the comment section.
I also enjoyed this post and still read your blog daily. Dobrii den.
I drink to a dismantled roof,
and to my ruinous view,
to friendship which makes me aloof,
and I must drink to you,
to my lying lips and false word,
and icy, lifeless stare,
to the rough and cruel in the world,
and God, who was not there.
Don responds: Kyle, I like it. Your version takes the lips as being Akhmatova's own, which is an interpretation that had not crossed my mind, but there is no grammatical reason that precludes it. (I just came across a web page that made me think she might have had in mind the lips of her son Лев Николаевич Гумилёв, who was forced to denounce her while under interrogation in May of 1934.)
I like the phrase “ruinous view.” It first brought to my mind a view of ancient ruins, then a view from a building whose roof had been torn off during war time, and then a reinterpretation of ruinous in the sense of "foreboding disaster."
On page 244 of the "Anna Akhmatova, Poet and Prophet" biogravy by Roberta Reeder you can get information about the poem. ISBN 0-312-13429-0
It seems that " in the bitter poems entitled 'parting'Akhmatova reflect on her feelings about her relationship with Punin. In the first she talks about the long and dreadful duration of their parting"
There is also a translation of the poem there, more literal that yours.
I drink to our ruined house,
to the dolor of my life
to our lonliness together;
and to you I raise my glass,
to lying lips that have betryaed us,
to dead-cold, pitiless eyes
and to the hard realities:
that the world is brutal and coarse,
that God in fact has not saved us.
Personally I think that this peom might be an analog for the Russian Revolution.