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Osip Mandelstam
translated from Russian by Peter France
about the translator 


Peter France
   Peter France
    photo by Robin Gillanders

Here are three poems that buzz with bees and honey. All of them refer to the South, the Crimea and thence to the Greece that meant so much to Mandelstam. One (the second here) was actually written in Koktebel, where the poet was frequently the guest of Maximilian Voloshin, the other two were apparently written in Petrograd (Petropolis for Mandestam), one in the year of Revolution, the other in the winter of 1920, in conditions of poverty, cold and hunger. In all of them, it seems to me, there is a balance - or an interweaving - of fulfilment and loss; the first is no doubt the most richly positive, with its Odyssean conclusion, but even here there are signs of fragility.
I have long loved these poems, as have many other readers. In relation to the first of them the poet Odoevtseva wrote: 'Mandelstam's voice flows like that "thread of golden honey", and I [...] become all hearing, and my heart, in the wake of the orphic melody of his verse, alternately soars up like a swallow or plunges like a top'. There is a magical play of sound here, which makes you want to translate, to prolong the poem and live with it, trying to give it a new life in another language. But you are bound to approach Mandelstam with trepidation too; his rich poems are like a sacred text, resisting translation, and at the same time attracting many translators, who buzz round them like bees round honey plants.
I have attempted quite a few of his poems, mainly from the Voronezh notebooks, jagged, enigmatic poems, but often richly sonorous too. In these, as in the poems presented here, I have backed away from a precise imitation of Mandelstam's prosody, beautiful though it is. In Russian, the first two poems are cast as anapaestic pentameters, a meter which doesn't seem to me well suited to English - though I'm sure there must be fine examples. I have aimed to convey this unhurried richness by going for long lines, with five stresses each but a fair number of unstressed syllables, so that the lines almost all have between eleven and thirteen syllables. In the first poem, but not in the second, I do what comes naturally in Russian verse, but not so naturally in English and alternate (though not regularly) masculine and feminine endings. Rhyme is the great loser. The final poem here is (happily) unrhymed in Russian; for the first two I have tried to suggest some of the patterning through the use of assonance, alliteration, slant rhymes, internal rhymes, etc.
In doing this, I hope I have made English poems that carry with them something not only of Mandelstam's thought and vision, but also of his hypnotic sound world. Like all translated poems, these are the result of a long exploration, but they still feel tentative to me. I am still not sure about the use of the definite article in stanza 2 of the third poem ('the boat', 'the shadow'). And on one point I have very consciously mistranslated the original: the word medunitsa means both the honey bee (as in line two of 'Heaviness, tenderness...', an unusual usage), and the plant lungwort, as in the twelfth line of 'Take from palms'. I don't think 'lungwort' means a great deal to non-botanists in English, and I guess that Mandelstam was attracted to the word because it contains honey (med'). So I have gone for the more familiar and more evocative 'honeysuckle' - may St Jerome forgive me!

Three Poems

* * *

The thread of golden honey flowed from the bottle
so heavy and slow that our hostess had time to declare:
Here in melancholy Tauris, where fate has brought us,
we are not at all bored - and glanced back over her shoulder.

On all side the rites of Bacchus, as if the world
held only watchmen and dogs, not a soul to be seen -
the days roll peacefully by like heavy barrels:
Away in the hut are voices, you can't hear or reply.

We drank tea, then went out to the huge brown garden,
dark blinds were down like lashes over the eyes,
we walked past the white columns to look at the vineyard
where the somnolent hills are coated in airy glass.

I said: the vines are alive like ancient battles,
where curly horsemen are fighting in curving order,
in stony Tauris the science of Hellas lives on -
and the noble rusty array of golden acres.

And in the white room quiet stands like a spinning wheel,
smells of vinegar, paint and wine that is fresh from the cellar.
Remember, in that Greek house, the much loved wife -
Not Helen - the other wife - how long she embroidered?

Golden fleece, oh where are you now, you golden fleece?
All the journey long the heavy sea waves were loud,
and leaving his ship, his sails worn out by the seas,
full of space and time, Odysseus came home.


* * *

Heaviness, tenderness - sisters - your marks are the same.
The wasps and the honey bees suck at the heavy rose.
Man dies, heat drains from the once warm sand,
and on a black bier they carry off yesterday's sun.

Oh, you tender nets and you heavy honeycombs,
Easier to lift a stone than to speak your name!
Only one care is left to me in the world:
a care that is golden, to shed the burden of time.

I drink the mutinous air like some dark water.
Time is turned up by the plough, and the rose was earth.
Slowly they eddy, the heavy, the tender roses,
roses of heaviness, tenderness, twofold wreath.

                                                                                    Koktebel, March 1920

* * *

Take from my palms some sun to bring you joy
and take a little honey - so the bees
of cold Persephone commanded us.

No loosing of the boat that is not moored,
no hearing of the shadow shod in fur,
no overcoming fear in life's dense wood.

And kisses are all that's left us now,
kisses as hairy as the little bees
who perish if they fly out of the hive.

They rustle in transparent depths of night,
their home dense forests on Taigetos' slopes,
their food is honeysuckle, mint and time.

So for your joy receive my savage gift,
a dry and homely necklace of dead bees
who have transmuted honey into sun.

                                                                                    November 1920

Translated from Russian by Peter France                                   

© Copyright:  translation by Peter France
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