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Sample Russian-to-English translations

Mikhail Jur'evich Lermontov

Two poems:
Death of a poet [Smert' poèta]
The Dream [Son]
(page updated 6 July 2002)


Lermontov was considered second only to Pushkin among the great poets of mid-nineteenth-century Russia.  His poetic tribute to Pushkin "Death of a poet", written and published shortly after the latter's tragic end in a duel (see first example below), was a major contributing factor in Lermontov's own rise to fame.

In February 2002 JW gave a conference paper at the University of Ottawa, entitled "Meaning & musicality: striking a balance in poetry translation". 
Click here for an audio-recording of this paper.


For the original Russian text of these two poems, accompanied by a voice-recording and a free-verse English translation, please see the comprehensive Russian poetry site: From the ends to the beginning: a bilingual anthology of Russian verse.  You will find Lermontov (1814-1841) listed in reverse chronological order.

The following translation was published in The Ottawa Citizen's Weekly (a weekly literary supplement to  The Ottawa Citizen) in its issue of 6 June 1999, the exact date of the bicentenary of Pushkin's birth (p. C13), along with a translation of three of Pushkin's poems and a brief biographical sketch of Pushkin's life.

Click here for an audio-recording of JW's conference paper of February 2002 entitled "Meaning & musicality: striking a balance in poetry translation".




Death of a poet
(Smert' poèta)

Mikhail Jur'evich Lermontov

A poet's dead -- entrapped by honour,
Felled by slanderous rumours spread --
A bullet in the breast, with vengeful anger,
He bowed at last his noble head.
His soul could not endure the legions
Of trifling insults and their shame,
He stood against the world's opinions,
Alone, as always -- and was slain!
Yes, slain!..  And wherefore now the crying,
The praising choir's empty shout
And wretched babble's justifying --
Fate's sentence has been carried out!
Was it not you who long conspired
To mock his gift so free and bold
And, just for fun, to fan the fire
Whose embers were now growing cold?
So now, you're laughing?!..  This last anguish
The poet simply could not bear.
His genius, like a torch, extinguished,
His laurel wreath -- beyond repair!..
Aloof and poised his killer boldly
Takes aim -- and no escape is near:
His empty heart beats calmly, coldly,
No trembling of the pistol here.
And why the awe?..  Like countless legions
Of fugitives seeking fun and fame,
From some far distant place he came
By quirk of fate into our regions,
Deriding, mocking with disdain
This land, its language and its story;
He had no mercy for our glory,
And, at that point of time so gory,
No thought of what it was he'd slain!

And so he died a death most frightful,
Just like that singer, unknown, but still delightful,
The victim of deaf jealousy,
The one he praised with power of phrase insightful,
Struck down, just like himself, and just as mercilessly.
Now why from peaceful bliss 
and friendship among brothers
Did he come into this world so envious that it smothers
The heart's free reign and flaming passion's tears?
Why did he embrace the fools 
who wrongfully accused him,
Why did he trust the lies of those who so abused him,
He whose insight long surpassed his years!
And taking off the wreath, 
now once again they crowned him --
A crown of laurels, secretly enmeshed
With thorns, whose needles all around him
Pierced through the noble poet's flesh...
His life's last moments venomously blighted,
By mocking fools' sly whisperings aggrieved,
He died with thirst for vengeance unrequited,
Tormented in his soul by fervent hopes deceived...
The poet's sounds are interdicted,
No more their wondrous songs to yield;
His joyless resting-place constricted,
His lips for all eternity now sealed!
And you, you haughty ones, descendants
Of forebears known for shallowness of trait,
Who trample under slavery's heel the remnants
Of generations scarred by whim of fate!
You stand before the throne, a horde of greedy misers,
Who freedom, genius, honour, seek to kill!
You hide behind your lawyers and advisors,
Before you truth and judgement -- both keep still!
But there is a Judge Divine, 
you playmates of perversion,
There is a Judge Almighty -- He awaits,
Your gold for Him is no diversion,
He knows well in advance your thoughts 
and deeds and traits.
In vain now and henceforth will you resort to vileness:
It will not do you any good,
And you will not obliterate 
with all your blood of blackness
The poet's true and righteous blood!

English verse translation © John Woodsworth
Ottawa (Canada)
2-7 May 1999


The Dream

Mikhail Jur'evich Lermontov

A searing sun, a Daghestani valley... 
I lie at noon, a bullet in my breast; 
My steaming wound is deep, no strength to rally 
And drops of blood keep oozing from my chest. 

I lie alone, the valley's sandy edges 
Are crowded in by looming cliffs so steep, 
The sun burns down upon their yellow ledges 
And right through me -- I sleep a deadly sleep.

I dream of flaming torches being paraded --
A night-time feast at home across the sea, 
And young girls with their hair in flowers braided 
Are smiling and conversing about me. 

But one of them does not feel like conversing, 
She sits alone, absorbed in quiet thought, 
Her youthful soul compelled to keep rehearsing 
A doleful dream, God only knows by what. 

She sees that distant Daghestani valley... 
A corpse she recognises lies in mud; 
Its steaming wound grows black, no life to rally, 
And gushes forth a stream of chilling blood. 

English verse translation © John Woodsworth
Ottawa (Canada)
9 April 2000

For Lindsay, who prompted the translation





"Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you... 
Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid."

-- John 14:27

E-mail : <jw[at ]kanadacha.ca>
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