Academic journal article Canadian Slavonic Papers

Crimean Sonnets

Academic journal article Canadian Slavonic Papers

Crimean Sonnets

Article excerpt


The following English renderings of Adam Mickiewicz's "Crimean Sonnets" are the fruit of some fifteen years of sporadic and highly enjoyable linguistic tinkering. I claim no special credentials either as a poet or as a scholar (my formal study of Mickiewicz ended in 1979 and I have had no time or opportunity to keep abreast of the Mickiewicziana that has flourished since then). What has driven me all these years is the sense of the abyss that separates the pale existing English translations from the radioactive originals which I discovered fully as a student at the University of British Columbia; and poured over incessantly while conducting research in 19751976 for a doctoral thesis on Pushkin's and Mickiewicz's poetic styles at The Institute of Literary Research (IBL) in Warsaw, Poland.

Readers of Mickiewicz may be dismayed by the fact that no attempt has here been made to preserve the sonorous and seemingly effortless rhymes of the original Polish alexandrines. However, my overriding rationale has been to produce "close" rather than "free"1 renderings within the limits and limitations imposed by that standard instrument of the English sonnet, the iambic pentameter line. In their headlong pursuit of the de rigueur rhyme, past translators of Mickiewicz have too frequently (and, one might argue, inevitably) unwoven the seamless web of his verse and admitted the grossest of inaccuracies and licenses. It would take a poet of the calibre of Pushkin to avoid such pitfalls (e.g. his excellent rendering of Mickiewicz's ballad "Trzech Budrysow" in Byapbic H ero cbHOBb5"); yet even he inclines at times toward poetic paraphrase rather than translation sensu strictu (notably in his rendering of "Czaty"_""BoeBoaa.. 2

Poetic translation is perhaps the most confounding and humbling species of artistic creation (or sub-creation): peeling away the onion skins of the "metapoem,"3 draft after draft, in an ever elusive search for a comparable felicitous turn of phrase, striving to satisfy the artistic and cultural exigencies of the target language while remaining faithful to the source text and its cultural norms-and ultimately the final result is never fully satisfactory. Rendering Mickiewicz's sublime sonnets into blank verse may not be everyone's preference or sufficiently challenging or even justifiable in this instance. I am mindful, however, that blank verse has a respectable pedigree in English letters; that John Keats, for one, produced some gems of unrhymed quatorzains; and that Vladimir Nabokov rendered the tetrameters of Eugene Onegin into blank verse; and although his genre is different and his standards of fidelity at times exasperatingly rigorous, I do recall him turning out many a felicitous line. If these renderings succeed in reflecting a glinting facet of Mickiewicz's art unrevealed as yet to "Anglo-Saxon" sensibility, and, better yet, if they could prompt the English-speaking reader to see the intrinsic value of better knowing the art of Mickiewicz, then my efforts will have been amply rewarded.


A vast and desert seascape heaves in view.

The wagon pitches like a boat, plows seas

Of sounding grass and delugings of blooms;

I round the coral reefs of buriyan.

Path, tumuli dissolve, I probe the dusk

For stars, the pilotmen of sailing craft.

That shimmering, a cloud? There Dniester glows.

There daystar spires? The Lamp of Akkerman!

Pull up, what calm; I hear the throb of cranes,

That far the falcon's swooping eye would fail;

Stalk, swaying, creaks beneath the butterfly,

The viper's burnished torso stirs the herb.

How still! I strain my tautened ear-a voice

Might carry clear from Litva. Silence. Ride!



From the Heights of Tarkankut

Flickers the pennant-ribbon in the breeze,

The water's sun-lit torso softly stirs;

So, plunged in blissful dreams, the tender bride

No sooner wakes, to sigh, than sleeps again. …

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