Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

Thoughts on the Translation into English of 'Twelve,' by Aleksandr Blok

Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

Thoughts on the Translation into English of 'Twelve,' by Aleksandr Blok

Article excerpt

This paper is a condensed version of a lecture given in the Department of Slavonic Studies of the University of Cambridge in January 1992. I am grateful to Professor A. G. Cross, his students and faculty colleagues for their comments on that occasion, and also to Doctor Avril Pyman of the University of Durham, who helped earlier with several points of interpretation.


Poetry is an abnormal form of language. It makes its effects by exaggerating features which are present in, but generally peripheral to, ordinary language.

Ordinary language is rarely precise, and often conveys a meaning different from the apparent sense of the component words. Dickens has the Artful Dodger say 'Too rul lol loo. Gammon and spinnage. The frog he wouldn't, and high cockalorum', in circumstances where he clearly means something like 'Fagin will be exceedingly displeased'. To eliminate such overtones of meaning, special forms of language are needed, which is why scientific papers are linguistically distinct from ordinary language: their authors are aiming at a degree of precision which is foreign to it.

Poetry, on the other hand, deviates from ordinary usage in the opposite direction, by intensifying the overtones: secondary semantic effects of verbal association, and musical effects of rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, assonance and dissonance. Literal meaning is only one of the components of a poem.

There are therefore two distinct approaches to translating poetry. Dr Pyman, in her edition of The Twelve, published in the Durham Modern Language Series in 1989, provides an excellent example of the first, when she takes the literal meaning of the text alone, with no regard for anything else. For the opening of Twelve, she has

Black evening. White snow. Wind, wind. A man cannot keep his feet. Wind, wind -- over all God's earth!

There is no rhythm, no rhyme, no concern for musical effects or for the right or wrong associations of words such as evening and wind: no attempt even to reproduce Blok's layout on the page (the layout above was dictated purely by the format of Dr Pyman's own page). Obviously, it is not that she is impervious to these elements. Simply, she has chosen to aim at one of the two available targets, and not the other. The result is eminently practical: it facilitates discussion of the original in English by English speakers who may have no Russian at all, and it permits someone with only a little Russian to read the original work direct. But it does not aspire to be poetry itself.

The alternative is to aim at the poet's own target, and to seek to evoke a similar emotional response in the reader, by reproducing as closely as possible in the second language all the linguistic effects of the first. Only the bilingual reader can judge to what extent his emotional response to the two versions is similar, but the purely linguistic elements of translation are open to objective analysis. Not only the literal meaning of the two versions can be compared, but also the effects of verbal association, and the musical effects of rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, assonance and dissonance.

It is this second approach which I have followed in my own translation (see p. 357). When, aiming at the total effect of Blok's original, I have found it necessary to depart from his linguistic mechanisms, I have made the adjustment wherever it seemed to me to be least harmful to that over-riding objective, and on occasion, without apology, I have deliberately altered the literal sense, in order to be more faithful to his other effects.

TWELVE by Aleksandr Blok


Black night.

White snow.

The wind doth blow.

If it catches you, over you go!

The wind, oh, the wind --

All over God's wide world.

Whirled by the wind

Is the white snow.

And it's icy below. …

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