Yesterday I tried translating a poem from Russian. Arion, by Alexander Pushkin, is a poem he published in 1827, when he was 27-28 years old. I’ve read three other translations, and all are good. However, each seems to miss some aspect of the original. So I tried my own translation. Remarks at end. Here is the translation.
Many men on board the bark.
Some strained the sturdy sail,
others set pace with powerful strokes,
oars drawing deep.
In calm control, our wise helmsman
lightly steered the laden ship.
And I – happy of heart,
careless of concern — sang sweetly.
Wild waves suddenly stopped our song …
All hands and helmsman were lost !
Only I, the singer, cast onto the beach.
I dance, chant songs of deliverance
and dry my garments in the sun.
1. Here are three other translations which I enjoy:
At https://russianlegacy.com/russian_culture/poetry/pushkin/arion.htm there are two translations, one by I. Zheleznova, “We many were who filled the boat…”, and the other by an unknown translator, “We sailed in numerous company…”. That site also has Pushkin’s poem in the original Russian.
A translation by Babette Deutsch, “We numbered many in the ship…”, appears on page 63 of “The Poems, Prose and Plays of Alexander Pushkin”. That volume was edited by Avrahm Yarmolinsky, and published by Random House, New York, 1936. It is part of the “Modern Library” collection.
2. Pushkin’s poem is 15 lines long, with a rhyme scheme of ABBA CDDDC EE FGGF. That is a variant of the sonnet form. All three translations also use 15 lines, with a similar rhyme scheme.
I try another approach. Instead of rhyme, I use alliteration to provide rhythmic structure in the poem. There is a tradition of alliterative verse in early English. Arion’s is an old tale and it is suitably respectful of that classic tale, of the poet Arion, and of Pushkin, to use an old form. Arion was the poet who established the dithyrambic poetic form, choral dance and song to be performed in honour of the wine god Dionysus. In telling Arion’s tale, one should not feel confined by the formalities of sonnet.
3. The rhythm is regular at first, then becomes rough when the storm arises. I hope to capture that sea change. In the lines at the end, the structure returns somewhat as the poet offers Thanksgiving and rejoices at his rescue.
4. Pushkin was a young man, age 27-28 when this poem was published, and like many young men held passionate opinions about improvement of the social order.
The classical tale of Arion is that he was captured by pirates, and forced to choose between being killed on-board their ship, or being thrown into the sea – where he would drown. Arion sang while he made his choice, and dolphins gathered around the ship to admire his beautiful song. Arion was thrown into the sea, but was carried safely to shore on the back of a dolphin.
It is not unreasonable to suppose that Pushkin knew that his poem might be read with a political subtext. In Pushkin’s poem, Arion is not a captive, and his shipmates are companions not pirates. However, ships of state can encounter heavy weather. Ambiguity adds to the appeal of “Arion”.
5. Here are some links to articles about Pushkin, Arion, and dithyrambic poetry.
And a link to two readings of the original poem, in Russian. Click on either of the first two “Play” buttons to hear the reading.
6. And finally, to attach an image to this post, here is a painting of Alexander Pushkin.