“As people their last breath are taking” (“Когда человек умирает”), Anna Akhmatova



Akhmatova wrote this in 1940, perhaps in response to the death of Mikhail Bulgakov. It was her fate to outlive most of her contemporaries – her first husband, Nikolai Gumilev, was shot by the Chekha in 1921; Yesenin killed himself (or perhaps was murdered) in 1925; Mandelstam perished in the Gulag in 1938. Bulgakov at least succeeded in dying of natural causes, though he was only 48. The poem is double-edged: Akhmatova is referring both to the bereaved’s diminishing memory of the departed’s features, but also to the vagaries of rehabilitation and loss of official favour in the Soviet world.

Sometimes, the less Akhmatova writes, the more she seems to say – and here’s a case in point. I opted to replicate her metre, which perhaps entails a loss of directness. DM Thomas’s version, in taking a freer approach to metre, certainly retains it better.

As people their last breath are taking,
Then their portraits start a transformation.
The appearance of eyes is different,
And their lips start to smile like another’s.
And I noticed this first when returning
From the funeral of a young poet.
And since then I have checked this often,
And conjecture’s true on each occasion.


Когда человек умирает,
Изменяются его портреты.
По-другому глаза глядят, и губы
Улыбаются другой улыбкой.
Я заметила это, вернувшись
С похорон одного поэта.
И с тех пор проверяла часто,
И моя догадка подтвердилась.

Translation by Rupert Moreton

2 thoughts on ““As people their last breath are taking” (“Когда человек умирает”), Anna Akhmatova

  1. Here’s a horrible translation – but there’s a really good one I have in Collected Works of AA that I can’t find on line. What would you do with this poem?

    Why is this age worse than earlier ages?
    In a stupor of grief and dread
    have we not fingered the foulest wounds
    and left them unhealed by our hands?

    In the west the falling light still glows,
    and the clustered housetops glitter in the sun,
    but here Death is already chalking the doors with crosses,
    and calling the ravens, and the ravens are flying in.
    Anna Akhmatova


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