The Lutheran, by Osip Mandelstam


“Only in Russia is poetry respected,” said Mandelstam. “It gets people killed.” It was an easier prophecy than the sort he dismisses in this poem, which reveals the ambivalent struggle of one whose Lutheran conversion was but an attempt to escape anti-Semitic persecution. He died in the Gulag in 1938.
It’s perhaps tempting to think that the alien tongue Mandelstam heard was Finnish – he surely spoke German, and perhaps this funeral was of an Ingrian Lutheran in a village somewhere near St Petersburg…
The poem presents quite a challenge to the translator. How to remain faithful to metre, preserve something close to rhyme, retain the sardonic tone and vivid imagery, while staying as close as possible to the original? I’m not especially pleased with my attempt, but I fear this is the best that I can do…

And I, out walking, chanced upon a funeral
Cortège, on Sunday, close to Lutheran village.
I watched bewildered as it passed, and soon full
Aware became of mourners’ hearted pillage.

An alien tongue uncomprehended; only
A harness thinly shone in cold sun’s glimmer,
And, bridge-reflected hollow solemn lonely
Clip-clopping made the winding road the grimmer.

And in the darkness-stretching carriage rumbling
There huddled, face-hid, Janus-saddened false one –
Ignoring, wordless, tearless, mourners’ mumbling –
With autumn-roses twining in her button.

Among the foreign band the blackly flapping
Be-ribboned weeping ladies carriage followed –
With ruddy eyes behind their veils. And, strapping,
The horseman urged his team with brow be-furrowed.

I did not know you, Lutheran now departed –
Without a fuss you’re buried now so simply.
A decent teary glance the mourners granted;
Restrained, the bells your dismal loss told deeply.

And pondered I the fraud foretelling seers –
We are not prophets, nor the wild John’s mutter.
We love not Eden, but we’re not hell-fearers.
As noon-lit candles, dimly on we gutter.


Я на прогулке похороны встретил
Близ протестантской кирки, в воскресенье.
Рассеянный прохожий, я заметил
Тех прихожан суровое волненье.

Чужая речь не достигала слуха,
И только упряжь тонкая сияла,
Да мостовая праздничная глухо
Ленивые подковы отражала.

А в эластичном сумраке кареты,
Куда печаль забилась, лицемерка,
Без слов, без слез, скупая на приветы,
Осенних роз мелькнула бутоньерка.

Тянулись иностранцы лентой черной,
И шли пешком заплаканные дамы,
Румянец под вуалью, и упорно
Над ними кучер правил вдаль, упрямый.

Кто б ни был ты, покойный лютеранин,-
Тебя легко и просто хоронили.
Был взор слезой приличной затуманен,
И сдержанно колокола звонили.

И думал я: витийствовать не надо.
Мы не пророки, даже не предтечи,
Не любим рая, не боимся ада,
И в полдень матовый горим, как свечи.

Translation by Rupert Moreton

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