The Old Viking (Старый викинг), Valery Bryusov

By Wavepainter, artwork created by Nina Niss-Goldman (1893-1990) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Valery Bryusov (1873-1924) was born in Moscow. He was a leading figure in the Russian symbolist movement.

This is a poem from 1900.

He stood on the cliff and the wind in his face there was mocking
And chucking with thistle-like prickles its spraying and foaming.
The billow arose and then crumbled, white-headed. And knocking
The sea at the granite sheer walls it slapped in the gloaming.

And tacking beyond there a sail the expanses was threading,
To Vinland his son his unshakeable course now directed.
Each moment elapsing between them the ocean was spreading –
The voice of the sea like funereal cry was projected.

And there out beyond in the water’s unending waste spaces
Afresh will erupt the old battles where looming is Skraeling;
Yet he will remain in the safety of burial places,
And hear how the women with praying are timidly wailing!

Oh, woe to the one who then witnessed his children’s own children
Departing for lands his vainglorious sword could not plunder!
For those who by military bugles no longer are summoned
To terms must now come with their grandfathers’ glory and thunder.

For ever I want to be ready and strong for the battle,
So, granite and slimy, the walls may not, heavy, oppress us,
As vessel is sailing amidst all the howling and rattle
And spatter and foam hit our face as the winds then address us.


Он встал на утесе; в лицо ему ветер суровый
Бросал, насмехаясь, колючими брызгами пены.
И вал возносился и рушился, белоголовый,
И море стучало у ног о гранитные стены.

Под ветром уклончивым парус скользил на просторе,
К Винландии внук его правил свой бег непреклонный.
И с каждым мгновеньем меж ними все ширилось море,
А голос морской разносился, как вопль похоронный.

Там, там за простором воды неисчерпно-обильной,
Где Скрелингов остров, вновь грянут губящие битвы,
Ему же коснеть безопасно под кровлей могильной,
Да слушать, как женщины робко лепечут молитвы!

О, горе, кто видел, как дети детей уплывают
В страну, недоступную больше мечу и победам!
Кого и напевы военных рогов не сзывают,
Кто должен мириться со славой, уступленной дедам.

Хочу навсегда быть желанным и сильным для боя,
Чтоб не были тяжки гранитные, косные стены,
Когда уплывает корабль среди шума и воя
И ветер в лицо нам швыряется брызгами пены.

Translation by Rupert Moreton

“Yes, I dreamt before our parting” (“До утра перед разлукой”), Konstantin Simonov

Simonov in 1941

This is one of those poems which perhaps more than anything illustrates the challenges a translator faces. I struggle with trochees; and felt I had to take more liberties here than were warranted. I lost a lot at the start: the first line means “Until the morning of our parting”, but I finally sacrificed this to the (I think) unavoidable need to bring the dreaming of the second line into the first. But perhaps I have retained the original’s acerbic tone and most of its meaning.

Simonov wrote this in 1945.

Yes, I dreamt before our parting
I’d be at your wedding feast.
At the porch – and this my dreaming –
You’re the bride; I’m begging beast.

Let it happen as I dreamt it,
I beseech you, soothe my qualms –
As you exit, show me pity,
Don’t dismiss me with your alms.


До утра перед разлукой
Свадьба снилась мне твоя.
Паперть… Сон, должно быть, в руку:
Ты — невеста. Нищий — я.

Пусть случится все, как снилось,
Только в жизни обещай —
Выходя, мне, сделай милость,
Милостыни не давай.

Translation by Rupert Moreton

The Anarchist (Анархист), Sasha Chorny


Sasha Chorny (1880-1932) was born Alexander Mikhailovich Glikberg in Odessa – at the time a major centre of Russian-Jewish culture. (Eduard Bagritsky, for example, was a contemporary.) He was one of five children, one of whom, bizarrely, was also called Alexander. One Sasha was dark; the other fair. This is where his nom de plume comes from: one Sasha was called “Чёрный Саша” (Chorniy Sasha, Black Sasha), the other “Белый Саша” (Beliy Sasha, White Sasha). Like Mandelstam, Chorny was a student at Heidelberg (though he left two years before Mandelstam arrived). He died in exile in the South of France.

This poem was written in 1910.

Once there was an anarchist,
Beard and cheeks he died – so cocky.
Mädchen he’d in Terijoki.
Sadist too – you get the gist.

Round his neck the wrinkles clustered
Forming there a crimson shawl.
Lots he ate, with gloves he flustered –
In a word he did it all.

At a party, scratching itch,
Priest’s son, whipper-idealist
Questioned, bravely: “Petr Petrovich,
Why are you an anarchist?”

Petr Petrovich, eyebrows raising,
Turning crimson as a beet,
Clucked in his staccato phrasing:
“Ignoramus! Fool effete!”


Жил на свете анархист,
Красил бороду и щеки,
Ездил к немке в Териоки
И при этом был садист.

Вдоль затылка жались складки
На багровой полосе.
Ел за двух, носил перчатки –
Словом, делал то, что все.

Раз на вечере попович,
Молодой идеалист,
Обратился: “Петр Петрович,
Отчего вы анархист?”

Петр Петрович поднял брови
И, багровый, как бурак,
Оборвал на полуслове:
“Вы невежа и дурак”.

Translation by Rupert Moreton

The Ballad of Dick Whittington (Баллада о Виттингтоне), Eduard Bagritsky

A fascinating poem from 1923, with a sting in its tail. I confess my hazy knowledge of Dick Whittington is largely derived from a Ladybird book: at one point I began to wonder if Bagritsky was confusing Dick Whittington with Robinson Crusoe.

The third and fourth lines were challenging – I may have departed too much from the original. Literally, they mean “You won’t patch with a needle/A hole made by the sword”. Bagritsky flits easily between past and present, which I have emulated here.

He lifeless fell. And by my hand
A savage courage it was leading.
A needle’s useless – understand –
To staunch a swordsman’s wounded bleeding.
My debt’s repaid. No wonder now
I find my conscience reminisces
About the purest love and how
For blood blood’s paid and kiss for kisses.
Oh, in the rainy, lamp-lit night
You blast my ears with dreaded gusting,
At first you cow ’neath judge’s height,
Then comes the axeman’s blockwards thrusting.
Hard lesson learned I took to heart
Amidst the sleep-filled nighted vapours –
To south, to west, to north then start,
Propel me, ship, through spumy capers.
The far-off shore behind the stern
Recedes, recedes as sea is spraying
Where lies my sword, concealed by fern,
In grassy verge it is decaying.
And from the shore the chime is borne,
Its distant song distinctly ringing:
“Turn back, turn back, Dick Whittington,
Oh, Whittington turn back!” it’s singing.
And cruel was the dawn’s first draught.
As, raw and scarlet, sun was rising,
The sand now scraped the flimsy craft,
And foundered ship apart was prising.
It is the first time anyone
Has stepped on shores unknown to ages
Whose monstrous stretch was never done
By folk in any annal’s pages.
We raised up logpiles in a row,
For doors cut through some simple niches,
Together palm leaves set to sew
A kind of roof with hurried stitches.
We raised the roof with hammer’s thwack,
We ripped the rocks apart with shovel…
“Oh Whittington, turn back, turn back,”
The waves addressed our humble hovel.
At random then we laid a track
That cut through seaside’s scrub, meandering.
“Oh, Whittington, turn back, turn back,”
caressed our ears fresh wind’s philandering.
And from the sea there came a sound,
An indistinct and gentle ringing:
“Turn back, turn back, Dick Whittington,
Turn back, turn back,” its voice was singing.
For days and nights without a break
We planes and knives and axes wielded –
A clumsy raft we set to make,
We put to sea – to summons yielded.
Without a compass or a wheel
We weren’t aware where we were carried,
And all the while our rough-hewn keel
With sagging sails in doldrums tarried.
And we are home. We’re there at last.
The prodigal’s returned – assemble!
O canvas, flap against the mast.
O vessel harboured, clink and tremble.
And from the shore a chime is borne,
Its nearby song distinctly ringing:
“Get out of here, Dick Whittington,
Dick, turn again,” its voice is singing.


Он мертвым пал. Моей рукой
Водила дикая отвага.
Ты не заштопаешь иглой
Прореху, сделанную шпагой.
Я заплатил свой долг, любовь,
Не возмущаясь, не ревнуя,-
Недаром помню: кровь за кровь
И поцелуй за поцелуи.
О ночь в дожде и в фонарях,
Ты дуешь в уши ветром страха,
Сначала судьи в париках,
А там палач, топор и плаха.
Я трудный затвердил урок
В тумане ночи непробудной,-
На юг, на запад, на восток
Мотай меня по волнам, судно.
И дальний берег за кормой,
Омытый морем, тает, тает,-
Там шпага, брошенная мной,
В дорожных травах истлевает.
А с берега несется звон,
И песня дальняя понятна:
“Вернись обратно, Виттингтон,
О Виттингтон, вернись обратно!”
Был ветер в сумерках жесток.
А на заре, сырой и алой,
По днищу заскрипел песок,
И судно, вздрогнув, затрещало.
Вступила в первый раз нога
На незнакомые от века
Чудовищные берега,
Не видевшие человека.
Мы сваи подымали в ряд,
Дверные прорубали ниши,
Из листьев пальмовых накат
Накладывали вместо крыши.
Мы балки подымали ввысь,
Лопатами срывали скалы…
“О Виттингтон, вернись, вернись”,-
Вода у взморья ворковала.
Прокладывали наугад
Дорогу средь степных прибрежий.
“О Виттингтон, вернись назад”,-
Нам веял в уши ветер свежий.
И с моря доносился звон,
Гудевший нежно и невнятно:
“Вернись обратно, Виттингтон,
О Виттингтон, вернись обратно!”
Мы дни и ночи напролет
Стругали, резали, рубили –
И грузный сколотили плот,
И оттолкнулись, и поплыли.
Без компаса и без руля
Нас мчало тайными путями,
Покуда корпус корабля
Не встал, сверкая парусами.
Домой. Прощение дано.
И снова сын приходит блудный.
Гуди ж на мачтах, полотно,
Звени и содрогайся, судно.
А с берега несется звон,
И песня близкая понятна:
“Уйди отсюда, Виттингтон,
О Виттингтон, вернись обратно!”

Translation by Rupert Moreton

“Don’t distort your smile” (“Не криви улыбку”), Sergei Yesenin

A late poem, written two months before Yesenin’s death.

Don’t distort your smile, away with teasing hands –
For I love another – off with your demands.

Tell the truth, you know it – know it very well –
My regard’s not yours – another’s cast her spell.

Passer-by I was. My heart’s not really here –
Only loitered then through window there to peer.


Не криви улыбку, руки теребя,-
Я люблю другую, только не тебя.

Ты сама ведь знаешь, знаешь хорошо –
Не тебя я вижу, не к тебе пришел.

Проходил я мимо, сердцу все равно –
Просто захотелось заглянуть в окно.

Translation by Rupert Moreton

“With all your empty words’ addresses” (“Ты говорил слова пустые”), Nikolai Gumilev

With all your empty words’ addresses
The girl’s besotted and she’s bloomed,
For there she combs her golden tresses,
By festive mood she’s all-consumed.
Now summoned by the church bells ringing
For you she takes her prayer’s refrain.
The sun and sky to her you’re bringing,
You have become her tender rain.
Her eyes grow dim as thunder’s brewing
Uneven, often, comes her sigh.
For now before you flowers she’s strewing,
But only ask – for you she’ll die.


Ты говорил слова пустые,
А девушка и расцвела,
Вот чешет кудри золотые,
По-праздничному весела.
Теперь ко всем церковным требам
Молиться ходит о твоем.
Ты стал ей солнцем, стал ей небом,
Ты стал ей ласковым дождем.
Глаза темнеют, чуя грозы.
Неровен вздох ее и част.
Она пока приносит розы,
Но захоти, и жизнь отдаст.

Translation by Rupert Moreton

Nicotine Cross

There is dry rot, of course. The agents think
it might be worth four hundred thousand euro.
Like most, we are not here to buy. We drink
it in – the untold tale. Abandoned bureau
does not reveal the quested letter’s clue.
The carpet’s stink belies its florid pattern,
and certain stains are rather troubling too.
And yet it cannot be that here a slattern
eked out the modest Dublin life which then
was quite enough for most, and which we curious
would never now accept. Those days were when
pretence like ours, based as it is on spurious
belief that things are better now, would be
dismissed because somehow our ease unsettles
with sense that beggarment once made us free.
We climb the stairs towards a view of nettles
where pipe-fumed freedom, we allow ourselves
to fancy, waited for a tweedy teacher’s
green-fingered efforts once. The landing’s shelves
are bookless now. We guess their major features
were unread classics with a tome or two
of thumbed Britannica or maybe National
Geographic. Dusty spare room and the loo
were home to Reader’s Digest. And irrational
and idle speculation sharing, now
we enter where our dowdy couple rested.
A recent smell suggests that Tom’s miaow
has rent a room in which he has molested
his female friends with ardour quite unknown
by others here. But now we cease our chatter.
It’s not the ancient bedside telephone
or even bedspread’s suspect yellow spatter
which shuts us up. It’s not the damp. Instead,
our eyes are drawn towards the wall. The faded
tint isn’t what we’d first supposed. Misled,
because it covers everything with jaded
oppressive shadowed beige, we startled find
it used to be a steely white. The smoker’s
dry pall has spread its deathly hack-breathed rind
across the buckling ceiling’s dampening ochres,
enfolded all with mucus-heavy drape,
but left behind the spectral shape of passion
and stringy, almost Dali-esque, arms scrape
the wall beside the beams in tortured fashion.
It reeks of death. And yet grim reaper’s bond
speaks both of lonely, drawn-out suffocation
and white-crossed pulls our thoughts to place beyond
where our suburban drama meets salvation.

Rupert Moreton