“When Blok consumes my idle hours” (“Когда я думаю о Блоке”), Yevgeny Yevtushenko


An unsuccessful entry for the Stephen Spender Prize. My required commentary is below.

To I. Glazunov

When Blok consumes my idle hours,
when grieving for his early end,
I don’t recall his verses’ powers,
but bridge and cab and river’s bend.
Above nocturnal voices’ purring
the horseman’s beaten features loom –
the rings beneath those grim eyes stirring
the thought of frockcoat in the gloom.
Towards the light are shadows chasing,
on pavements stars in pieces fall,
those waxen fingers’ interlacing
is somehow higher than the squall.
As prologue on some baffling matter
of substance vague though deeply felt,
in mists begin the cabby’s clatter,
the cobbles, Blok and clouds to melt.

Translation by Rupert Moreton


И. Глазунову

Когда я думаю о Блоке,
когда тоскую по нему,
то вспоминаю я не строки,
а мост, пролетку и Неву.
И над ночными голосами
чеканный облик седока —
круги под страшными глазами
и черный очерк сюртука.
Летят навстречу светы, тени,
дробятся звезды в мостовых,
и что-то выше, чем смятенье,
в сплетенье пальцев восковых.
И, как в загадочном прологе,
чья суть смутна и глубока,
в тумане тают стук пролетки,
булыжник, Блок и облака…



I chose this poem because I was immediately struck by two allusions: Yevtushenko deliberately evokes Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman”; and his final line contains an echo of Blok’s famous “Night, street, street-light, drugstore”.

Russian’s inflection allows a clarity and brevity all but impossible to emulate in English. If metre and rhyme are to be maintained, a certain amount of padding is inevitable – the challenge is to keep this to a minimum, and to ensure that any departure retains the original’s spirit. I find some comfort in Yevtushenko himself, who comments: “Losses are inevitable whenever one translates, but it is better to compensate … through victories of the imagination instead of submitting to literal content.”

Thus, the problems encountered in this translation related, for the most part, to the need to pad. The original’s first line means simply “When I think about Blok”, and there is no mention of his “early end” in the second. I also had to sacrifice “Neva” (“Неву” in the original) because I did not wish to resort to the stress of the English “Neva”. It was especially important to capture the image of the frock-coated Yevgeny pursued by the horseman, which I hope will not be missed by anyone familiar with Pushkin’s epic. It was no less important to try to echo the alliteration of the final two lines, which themselves echo the poem by Blok referred to above.

I felt it was imperative to follow Yevtushenko’s deliberate use of the iambic tetrameter of the Bronze Horseman. To dispense with it would have been to miss the poem’s point. It is no less about a city than it is about two of its greatest sons – and only the sound of the greater of the two could convey the spirit of St Petersburg here.

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