Translating poetry is, in my opinion, the ultimate translation exercise, and I like to try my hand at it from time to time, just as a musician practises scales or a dancer stretches to keep the body supple. It is also a lot of fun, and a different way to enjoy and appreciate good poetry. Below is my recent attempt at translating Mikhail Lermontov’s poem ‘Ангел’ [The Angel].
Lermontov was one of the first writers I read when I began studying Russian literature. His novella ‘A Hero of Our Time’ and a book of his poetry sent to me by a penfriend made me fall in love with the Russian language and its literature, long before I visited Russia.
What appeals most to me about Lermontov’s poetry is its apparently effortless lyricism and romanticism. The rhyme and rhythm seem to fall naturally under the tongue which, of course, presented a challenge when trying to reflect this in the translation. The original poem flows as smoothly as the angel flying through the sky, so my task was to find a way to do the same in English whilst preserving the simplicity, almost innocence, of Lermontov’s language.
To translate the poem in blank verse would have changed it completely, potentially losing its musicality, so I chose to produce a rhyming version with a similar feel, although the Russian language lends itself to rhyme quite naturally, as word endings tend to follow similar patterns, such as declensions of adjectives and nouns, or verb conjugations. Reading the translation aloud helped, as did listening to various recordings of actors reciting the original Russian poem. I may not have achieved anything quite so beautiful as Lermontov’s creation, but I did eventually settle on a version that I felt reasonably comfortable with in spoken and written form. Nevertheless, there must be many more variations in existence, and I would welcome any recommendations of particularly good ones.
An angel sang softly as he did fly
Far across the midnight sky;
And the moon, the stars and the clouds in a throng
Heeded that sacred song.
He sang of the blessedness of spirits without sin
In heaven’s gardens, beneath the boughs therein;
To God almighty his melody he did raise,
Sincere and unfeigned his praise.
A young soul in his arms he bore
For a world of tears and sorrow sore,
And in that young soul his song was secured –
Wordless, yet alive, it endured.
For a long time in the world it languished,
While for marvels it wished;
But earth could not replace with its tedious sounds
The music with which heaven abounds.
По небу полуночи ангел летел
И тихую песню он пел;
И месяц, и звезды, и тучи толпой
Внимали той песне святой.
Он пел о блаженстве безгрешных духов
Под кущами райских садов;
О Боге великом он пел, и хвала
Его непритворна была.
Он душу младую в объятиях нес
Для мира печали и слез,
И звук его песни в душе молодой
Остался — без слов, но живой.
И долго на свете томилась она,
Желанием чудным полна;
И звуков небес заменить не могли
Ей скучные песни земли.