Most people will tell you that Pushkin without meter and rhyme isn’t really Pushkin. Just about any English translation of his famous poem, the Bronze Horseman, follows the rhyme scheme of the original. However, the tradeoff is that much of the original meaning is lost in translation.
I was fascinated by the Bronze Horseman before I traveled to St. Petersburg. The poem paints the city as a creation that the Neva River seeks to reclaim, its floods driving the hero, Evgeni, insane until he believes the giant bronze statue of Peter the Great is chasing him through the streets. I wanted to read the Bronze Horseman in its original Russian, side by side with a translation that didn’t sacrifice accuracy for meter. There was nothing else for it. I sat down in my crowded dorm room, began to translate, and let the project consume my time.
I had a deadline – I told myself I would translate the entire poem in time for the next class discussion. At the same time, it was surprisingly easy to let myself slip into autopilot as I worked. I used both a dictionary and online translating apps, kept a running list of words I didn’t recognize, and carefully penned in lines of English alongside the Russian. I would start by unraveling the structure of sentences that often ran frighteningly long, then transcribe them in English as close to the original meaning as I could.
It was at the same time more time-consuming and more engrossing than I had anticipated, and once I started I couldn’t make myself stop. After finally finishing the first few blocks of text, I glanced at my phone to realize it was four in the morning. I ended up falling asleep notebook in hand that night, woke up late the next morning next to my pages, and kept working.
So much meaning packed into such small phrases – for example, with a little work I discovered that a word another translator had written as “midnight” really meant “far north enough that there is only nighttime”. Another few lines I pored over revealed more disparities. Instead of holding Russia back from leaping into the abyss, as Peter the Great was doing in some translations, I found that he was raising Russia up onto its back legs before it. All of these details I never would have otherwise picked up on made me wonder – how much was I missing as I read Dostoevsky in English? Tolstoy?
A couple days in, I was forgetting to eat. The thought of leaving the dorm room occurred to me occasionally, but I always dismissed it in favor of finishing just a few more lines, and promptly forgot the thought had ever crossed my mind. I let the project take over until it felt as though nothing else existed for me besides Evgeni and the Neva. I had just been in St. Petersburg the week before, had seen the river in person and noted just how far removed the level, still waters were in comparison to the furious river in the Bronze Horseman. Still, the images Pushkin had created were so clear as I was translating, I could have easily convinced myself that’s what I had seen when I stood in the square, facing the statue.
When I was finally done, I knew I had been right – translating the poem myself had given me a more intimate understanding of it than reading a few translations ever could have. At the same time it helped me realize I didn’t actually understand much at all. With my two years of Russian, without outside help there was no way I could know that the “idol” used to describe the statue of Peter the Great alludes to a false idol in a biblical sense as opposed to a heroic or worshiped idol. I wouldn’t have noticed the onomatopoeic nouns derived from verbs, all grouped into one line. I ne eded the help of someone else to find meanings of words I couldn’t find anywhere else (“deep blood red” and “regal garment-bearing” to name a few).
In the end, while the quality of my translation was debatable, it served my own purpose fine. I had come out of my project smarter, no worse for wear, and ready to take on the next narrative poem to come my way.