Thursday, January 17, 2013

Marina Tsvetaeva, "Magdalene"

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy (1606) / Image courtesy of Wikipedia

by Marina Tsvetaeva

I will not say a thing about your wayward
path, for now you are fine, my dear.
I was barefoot, but you shod me
with cascades of hair —
and tears.

Nor will I ever ask you at what cost
you bought these fragrances and oils.
I was naked, but you engulfed
me like a wave — you formed
my roof and walls.

I will caress your naked body now —
softer than water and lower than grass.
I was upright, but you forced me down
and warped me with your tenderness.

Set aside this flax and make my swaddling
by tearing out a patch of hair.
Anointer! What use to me is ointment?
Your very body washed me
like a wave.

Translated from the Russian by Jamie Olson

*       *       *

Марина Цветаева 

О путях твоих пытать не буду, —
Милая, ведь все сбылось.
Я был бос, а ты меня обула
Ливнями волос
И слез.

Не спрошу тебя, — какой ценою
Эти куплены масла.
Я был наг, а ты меня волною
Телакак стеною

Наготу твою перстами трону
Тише вод и ниже трав.
Я был прям, а ты меня наклону
Нежности наставила, припав.

В волосах своих мне яму вырой,
Спеленай меня без льна.
Мироносица! К чему мне миро?
Ты меня омыла,
Как волна.

Источник: Марина Цветаева. Где отстуается любовь… : Сборник 40-го года; последние стихи и письма; воспоминания современников. Сост. Н. В. Ларцева. Петрозаводск, Карелия, 1991. С. 157.


  1. Great translation, truly!

    But maybe I could ask - why do the best translators of Russian verse lose most of the meter and rhymes that is giving the original at least a part of its crude force? Of course, T. uses rules only to better break them, but it still starts to sound to me as if it had been originally written by Brodsky. I think my being deaf to English and not very sensitive in general is certainly part of the problem, but maybe there's more to it than that?

  2. Well, for me, sense and tone outrank meter and rhyme, but I have done my best to retain the formal elements of Tsvetaeva's poem. The number of beats per line in my translation follows the original pretty closely, though I have begun some of my lines with iambs, not trochees, which feels more natural in English. I've also tried to keep ghosts of rhyme: e.g., сбылось / волос / слез --> dear / hair / tears. (My third stanza makes the rhymes even more obvious.)

    In any case, I'm glad you liked my translation. Thanks for your comment, Maxim!

    1. Thanks, Jamie, so it's just me and my ignorance.

      I guess I would gain in sensitivity if I could read more on English meters and rhymes. Do you have a resource (on-line or not) to recommend?

    2. It costs far too much on Amazon, but Paul Fussell's "Poetic Meter and Poetic Form" is the best book I know on the subject:

    3. Thanks, that looks just like the book I need.

  3. Looking back at the rhymes now, I see that the final stanza is the weakest. I remember having trouble with that stanza when I worked on it last summer, but perhaps I'll return to it someday and tinker with it again.

  4. Thanks for a wonderful translation from my favorite poet!

    I'm curious why you decided to translate "Тише вод и ниже трав" as "softer than water and lower than grass." I always thought "тише воды, ниже травы" was an idiom used a little like the English "keep your head down." (One tries to avoid trouble by not attracting the attention of the powerful and dangerous, who can't see you in the grass or hear you over the river if you keep down and are quiet enough. I don't know if this sounds ridiculous to a native speaker, but that's how I picture it.) Vikislovar' gives "очень тихо, смиренно" or the English translation "meek and mild."

    I'm asking not just because I can't get to смиренно from English water and grass, but also because I don't understand the poem well enough to know what that idiom is doing there in the Russian, or why (other than metrical reasons, or to surprise the reader) трав and вод are plural. Is this Christ the speaker asserting his humility before the sensual revelations of M.M.? You've obviously thought about the poem a lot - how do you take that line?

    1. Excellent questions! And my answers will essentially amount to, "I don't know." I certainly don't know why Tsvetaeva put the nouns in plural, other than for the rhyme and rhythm. I think only a native speaker could describe the effect of changing a fixed idiom from singular to plural. (Brodsky often messed with the language in this same way.)

      I do like your suggestion of playing with the phrase "meek and mild," but what it comes down to is that I liked the sound of "softer than water and lower than grass" in English. So why not keep it? Even though it's not idiomatic in the same way that the Russian phrase was, it still communicates the same general meaning of care and quiet.

      Finally, I really don't know why she used the phrase in the first place. It's one thing to act or live meekly and mildly, but can you really 'touch' another person that way? Maybe you can, I don't know.

      Like I said, excellent questions!

    2. As a native speaker - and only speaking for myself - I can say that "тише вод и ниже трав" does invoke the idiom, so a hypothesis that T. changed it to plural just for the meter doesn't seem far-fetched.

      Also, the verb "touch" doesn't connect to the idiom, so much so that, reading the poem in Russian, I - again, only speaking for myself - was unconsciously interpreting the idiom as saying that it was the touching person, not the touch, that was described as "quite and humble", as if it were "... буду тише вод и ниже трав".