«Дело было в январе» Агнии Барто

by Don  

Translation is a complex art. You might want a translation to:

  • clearly indicate the words and grammatical structures of the original. This kind of translation is useful for people who have some skill in the original language and are trying to fine-tune their language skills.
  • clearly indicate the informational content of the original without overly worrying about mimicking the grammatical structure of the original. This kind of translation is suitable for technical documents and newspaper and magazine articles.
  • reinterpret the original for a specific target audience in such a way as to catch its emotional content, which is the approach you want to use for poetic translations.

This topic came to mind recently when I ran across a blog entry from the Director of the Vladimir Bakanov School of Translation, in which he cited a poem by Агния Барто, a Russian author of children's poetry whom I had never read before. Judging from this first example, she was talented. I decided to try to produce a translation of the poem for American children. Before I show that translation, I'll adduce the poem along with a fairly close word-for-word translation. And then I'll give you a more poetic interpretation.

Russian original Word-for-word translation
Дело было в январе,
Стояла ёлка на горе,
А возле этой ёлки
Бродили злые волки.
The incident was in January
A fir-tree stood on a hill
And near this tree
Evil wolves wandered
Вот как-то раз, ночной порой,
Когда в лесу так тихо,
Встречают волка под горой
Зайчата и зайчиха.
So once аt night
When in the forest it was so quiet,
A rabbit and her bunny kids
Come across a wolf at the bottom of the hill.
Кому охота в Новый год
Попасться в лапы волку!
Зайчата бросились вперёд
И прыгнули на ёлку.
Who would want for the New Year
To end up in the paws of a wolf!
The bunnies rushed forward
And jumped into the fir.
Они прижали ушки,
Повисли, как игрушки.
The pressed their ears down
And hung there like toys.
Десять маленьких зайчат
Висят на ёлке и молчат.
Обманули волка.
Дело было в январе, —
Подумал он, что на горе
Украшенная ёлка.
Ten little bunnies
Hang on the tree and are quiet.
They tricked the wolf.
The incident was in January.
The wolf thought that on the hill
Was a decorated christmas tree.

When you reinterpret a poem, you hope to first of all produce the overall meaning of the original. That's a minimum. Then you attempt to reproduce the emotion of the original, which is tricky because conflicting cultural values may mean that what's emotionally important in the source culture is not as important (or worse yet, emotionally important in a different way) in the target culture. If you can do those two things, then you have a good a translation. And if you can throw in some relatively non-essential aspects like rhyme scheme or rhythm in addition to those other two, then you have a very good translation.

My translation below has one important modification: I have replaced the New Year imagery with Christmas imagery since the latter is the more important winter holiday for most Americans. The poem also reproduces the rhyme scheme of the original, though not the rhythmic structure. Feel free to comment on the translation's inadequacies.

Months long before the springtime thaw
A pine stood 'neath the winter's gray.
Nearby within a snowy draw
The hungry wolves would prowl for prey.

One winter's night when all was calm,
When no one would expect it least,
Ten bunnies and their bunny mom
Perchanced across one hungry beast.

In the month of Santa Claus
No hare would ever care to be
Consumed by such ferocious jaws,
So they jumped into that lone pine tree.

Those bunnies who had no defense
Just hung like Christmas ornaments.

Ten bunnies hung without a word
Where only snowflakes could be heard.
They tricked the wolf so thoroughly,
Quite long before the springtime thaw,
The only thing he thought he saw
Was a decorated Christmas tree.

(Translation © 2008 Donald E. Livingston, Jr.)


Comment from: anonymous [Visitor]

You’ve preserved the overall meaning, but at the cost of raising the reading level somewhat. It isn’t really a simple singsong poem for small children anymore. Maybe it’s just impossible to reproduce the compact flavor of the Russian in a language with a very different grammar.

Here’s a drastically oversimplified version:

In snowy ground
a fir tree stood
Wolves prowled around
the neighborhood

Some bunnies walked
one quiet night
They got a shock:
a wolf in sight!

Get eaten up?
Oh no, not me!
They all jumped up
into the tree

Clever bunnies found salvation
hung like Christmas decorations

The wolf was fooled
All he could see
was a bejeweled
fir Christmas tree

Don responds: Nicely done!

12/18/10 @ 13:20
Comment from: Eugene Azarenko [Visitor]

Great work! It is very difficult to translate fiction and poems in particular… There is an opinion among translators that it is almost impossible to translate correctly tales, stories and poems conveying not only the plot, but the spirit, true voice of the foreign language… For example, it’s impossible to translate Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer” in Russian or “Evenings near village Dikanka” by Nikolai Gogol in English.

12/03/09 @ 02:53
Comment from: Lee Croft [Visitor]

Very fine discussion of the THREE types/purposes of translation. I, of course, have long favored the effort to preserve the FORM in poetic translation, and you have done it very well here, while transmitting appropriately the “emotional content.” I was surprised you hadn’t heard of Barto…but to the translation I say “Bravo.” Seen the sites www.stihi.ru where Tatyana Dhaliwal is a large figure or www.CATranslation.org which solicits contributions?

12/27/08 @ 10:10
Comment from: Randy [Visitor]  

Awesome work on the poem! Seeing an example of a literal and artistic translation like that was quite interesting. Thanks for posting all of your RWOTD entries… but this one was particularly awesome!!!

Don’s response: thanks for the kind words!

12/23/08 @ 11:30

Form is loading...