Saturday, October 14, 2023

Translation of Poem by Marina Tsvetaeva, МАРИНА ЦВЕТАЕВА, "Подруга (No. 7) [Как весело сиял снежинками]," HOW

                                                                            Sophia Parnok




Подруга (No. 7)



Как весело сиял снежинками

Ваш – серый, мой – соболий мех,

Как по рождественскому рынку мы

Искали ленты ярче всех.


Как розовыми и несладкими

Я вафлями объелась – шесть!

Как всеми рыжими лошадками

Я умилялась в Вашу честь.


Как рыжие поддевки – парусом,

Божась, сбывали нам тряпье,

Как на чудных московских барышень

Дивилось глупое бабье.


Как в час, когда народ расходится,

Мы нехотя вошли в собор,

Как на старинной Богородице

Вы приостановили взор.


Как этот лик с очами хмурыми

Был благостен и изможден

В киоте с круглыми амурами

Елисаветинских времен.


Как руку Вы мою оставили,

Сказав: "О, я ее хочу!"

С какою бережностью вставили

В подсвечник – желтую свечу...


– О, светская, с кольцом опаловым

Рука! – О, вся моя напасть! –

Как я икону обещала Вам

Сегодня ночью же украсть!


Как в монастырскую гостиницу

– Гул колокольный и закат –

Блаженные, как именинницы,

Мы грянули, как полк солдат.


Как я Вам – хорошеть до старости –

Клялась – и просыпала соль,

Как трижды мне – Вы были в ярости! -

Червонный выходил король.


Как голову мою сжимали Вы,

Лаская каждый завиток,

Как Вашей брошечки эмалевой

Мне губы холодил цветок.


Как я по Вашим узким пальчикам

Водила сонною щекой,

Как Вы меня дразнили мальчиком,

Как я Вам нравилась такой..


December, 1914






Literal Translation


How gayly were shining the snowflakes

On your gray, on my sable fur,

As we [ambled] through the Christmas bazaar,

Searching for ribbons that were brightest of all.


How on pink and not sweetened

Waffled pastries I stuffed myself: six!

How I took delight—in your honor—

In all the rust-red little horses.


How [men in] rust-red poddyovkas [long, tight-waisted coats worn by the Russian merchant class]

Like sails, invoking God as witness, foisted rags [cheap clothing] upon us,

How the stupid peasant women marveled at

The exotic Moscow upper-class ladies.


How at one o’clock, when the folk [hucksters in the bazaar] dispersed,

We reluctantly entered a cathedral,

How you fixed your gaze

On an ancient [icon of] the Mother of God.


How that visage with the morose eyes

Was grace-giving and enervated,

In an icon-case with rotund putti

From the times of Elizabeth [Tsarina Elizaveta Petrovna, reigned 1741-1762].


How you let go of my hand,

Exclaiming, “Oh, I want her [it]!”

With what care you inserted

A yellow candle into the votive stand [metal holder beneath the icon where lit candles are placed].


O that hand, fashionable [genteel, high-class], with an opal ring!

O, the whole of my ruination!

How I promised you

I’d steal the icon this very night!


How into the hotel at the monastery—

To the din of the bells at sunset—

Full of bliss [secondary meaning here: like crazed holy fools], like birthday girls,

We stormed, like a regiment of soldiers.


How I swore to you to retain my good looks

Until old age, and sprinkled some salt,

How three times—you were incensed!—

The king of hearts came up for me.


How you squeezed my head,

Caressing every curl,

How the flower on your enamel brooch

Felt cold against my lips.


How I rubbed my drowsy cheek

Against your narrow [slender] small fingers,

How you teased me, called me a boy,

How you liked me that way. . .




Literary Translation/Adaptation by U.R. Bowie


(From the Series “Girlfriend,” No. 7)


for Sophia Parnok

How gayly did the snowflakes glimmer

On your gray coat, my sable fur,

As through the Christmas market’s shimmer

We shopped for ribbons’ bright allure.  


How waffled pastries, pink, unsweetened,

I stuffed myself on—four plus two!

How folk-carved horsies, rust-red sleek and

Glossy moved me—as they did you.    


How in God’s name smooth-talking hucksters

Were foisting on us furbelows,

As stupid crones stood round in clusters,

And leered at Moscow demoiselles.


How when the marketfolk dispersed

At one, into a church we plod,

How you, enthralled, stood long immersed

In icon age-old: the Mother of God. 


And how that face with eyes of gloom

Looked drained, grace-giving, cool, serene,  

In icon-case baroque, festooned

With round-cheeked rosy cherubim.


How you exclaimed, my hand releasing,

“I’d like to take her home with me!”

Then charily, into slot easing,

You placed a taper tenderly.


Your hand, how posh, with opal ring,

The key to my ruination!

How I then promised you to bring

(To steal) the icon—desecration! 


How we, in blissful festive mode,

To din of bells, at evening’s gloaming,

Into the convent hostel flowed,

Went bursting in like hightide foaming.


How I’d stay young, to age adverse,

I crossed my heart and hoped to die,

How three times straight the king of hearts

Came up for me; your angry sigh!


And how you gently squeezed my head,

Caressing each and every curling,

While your enamel brooch dispread

Its chill against my lips’ warm yearning.


How my drowsy cheek felt pleased

Against your fingers’ slenderness,   

And how you called me “schoolboy,” teased,

How much you liked my boyishness . . .



Translator’s Commentary


Interesting how Marina Tsvetaeva maintains the illusion—at least at first glance—that the love story here is heterosexual. In addressing her lesbian lover Sophia Parnok, she uses the polite “you” form, which does not distinguish grammatically the sex of the person addressed. One wonders if in actuality she used the familiar “ты” with Parnok.


Almost every stanza of this poem presents problems for someone translating it into English, especially for one attempting to retain meter and rhyme. What my final version amounts to is a paraphrase, but, I hope, a genuine poem in English, which retains the gist of the original, and, above all, the almost giddy happiness. For this poem about lesbian love ranks among the happiest that Tsvetaeva ever wrote.


Proponents of literal translation, of course, will find my efforts unacceptable, to say the least. There are just too many metaphors and words that I had to sacrifice, in order to stay true to the gods of meter and rhyme.


Here are a few examples of problems for the translator:


Stanza Two: The little rust-red horses; just what are they? If I could go back in time and walk along with Tsvetaeva and Parnok through that Christmas bazaar, I could find out. Could they be artificial horses that are part of a carousel running round and round? Or real ponies? I finally decided (guessed) that they were folk carvings of horses, children’s toys on sale at the bazaar.


Stanza Three: What does the translator do with the personified “rust-red poddyovki,” the merchant-class coats that (synecdoche) invoke God’s name (as to the quality of their products)? The men in these coats are trying to foist off cheap clothing on our heroines. And what in the world is this image of sails that the poet uses in describing these coats? Dunno, and even if I knew I still could not begin to get that imagery into English, while keeping the meter. Unfortunately, there is no good translation for poddyovki, and we end up giving up on the coats and the “sails” altogether. Who are the Moscow demoiselles the peasant women are marveling at? Probably our heroines, Tsvetaeva and Parnok, stylishly dressed, upper-class.


Stanza Five: Reluctant to leave the bazaar (which is closing down for business), the heroines go into a cathedral, where they come upon an ancient icon in an icon-casing “from Elizabethan times.” I gave up on getting the Tsarina Elizabeth into the translation. She would not fit into the meter, and, besides, “Elizabethan times” immediately suggests British history to the reader in English.

Stanza Eight: I hated to lose the metaphor of the regiment of soldiers storming into the monastery hotel, but that horde of marching men just could not cram itself into the meter, and I had to settle for a different storming image.

Stanza Nine: I assume that the sprinkling of salt is a superstition connected with warding off evil (like knocking on wood), but somehow the salt sprinkling wouldn’t fit, no matter how I twisted it. So I came up with a way of swearing (in English) that you’ll do something—in this case swearing to remain young and beautiful: “cross my heart and hope to die.”

Stanza Ten: Had to sacrifice the flower on the brooch here. I did, however, retain the image of the enamel brooch and the way it felt cold against Marina’s lips.


                                           Sergei Efron and Marina Tsvetaeva, Newlyweds 

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