«A COOPERATION OF SOULS»: Edgar Allan Poe's Poetry Translated By Russian Symbolists
When Russian poet Konstantin Bal'mont decided to translate the complete
works of Edgar Allan Poe in 1895, it was not the first time that Russian
readers had had the opportunity to become acquainted with the great American
romanticist. He was known in Russia as the author of tales and short stories
already in 1848. In the 1850s and 60s his popularity grew: there were Baudelaire's
essays about his work, Russian translations printed in many Russian magazines,
and Rufus Griswold's memoir. Poe's writings and personality attracted the
attention and curiosity of many Russian writers and critics, Dostoevsky
and Grigor'ev among them, but the "Russian interest in the American
author during the very decade of his great popularity in France was [nevertheless]
intermittent and scattered."2 As for Poe's poems, they
were translated only in the late 1870s, when all at once three Russian
versions of "The Raven" appeared one after another.3
There were also attempts to translate his other poems, for example "Annabel
Lee." After that time-through the 1880s and into the early 1900s--poetic
translations into Russian of Poe's work, made directly from the English,
became more and more numerous, as well as more skillful.
The Russian interest in Poe at the end of the 19th and beginning of
the 20th centuries may be explained by many factors, the most important
being the peculiarities of Russian culture of that period, known as "The
Silver Age." This period was extremely rich in various trends and
tendencies in painting, music, drama, and theater. Russian literature blossomed,
too, building on its great traditions of Romanticism and Realism and tending
to focus on the novel as the leading genre. But though realistic writings
continued to appear in Russia, by the late 19th century the center of the
literary gravity had shifted from prose to poetry.
The turn of the century and the first decades of the 20th century represented
a poetic Renaissance in Russia. There was a great variety of poetic schools
and groupings, including Futurism (with its different foci of Ego-Futurism
and Cubo-Futurism), Imaginism, and Acmeism. But the first and most influential
poetic movement of the Russian Silver Age was Symbolism. It was in this
atmosphere of poetic flourishing that Poe's poetry became necessary
for Russian culture.
The first generation of Russian Symbolists, led by Valerii Briusov
and Konstantin Bai'mont, presented Poe as a great poet to the Russian reader.
Their interest in Poe's writings was strongly connected with their own
desire to innovate poetry, that is, to discover new themes, new devices,
and new opportunities for the poetic language. They perceived Poe as someone
who responded to this desire. Though they highly appreciated the traditions
of such Russian poets as Lermontov, Tiutchev and Fet, and although they
admired Baudelaire and the French Symbolists along with Maeterlink, Oscar
Wilde, and Hamsun, "the cult of Poe was supreme."4
At the same time, they never thought of Poe as a predecessor or older
teacher. "The works of Poe are as if written in our times," noted
Aleksandr Blok, the Symbolist, in 1906.5 He was their contemporary,
their kindred spirit, especially for Konstantin Bal'mont in the 1890s and
early 1900s when he even tried to emulate Poe in appearance and behavior.
"Bal'mont just dropped by, exultant, mad, Poe-like," writes Briusov
in his diary on December 18, 1895. "Of course a great deal in his
mood was affected, but nonetheless he cheered me up and distracted me.
As if a moonbeam slipped through the clouds and scorched the waves with
a brief kiss."6 As these words indicate, Bal 'mont's "Poe-likeness"
attracts Briusov. notwithstanding his irony. His attitude to the Poe-likeness
as a sign of exclusive eccentricity is characteristic of that generation
of young people in Russia. But it was not only a vogue and an imitation.
The "cult of Poe" led Russian intellectuals and artists to serious
and profound studies, as well as to a high level of translation of his
Thus, BaI'mont "infected" Briusov with Poe, and he was the
first of the two to translate Poe's verse and prose.7 He also
wrote a preface to Poe's selected works (1895) with the significant title
of "The Genius ofDiscovery." Containing his own
image of Poe, this piece was influenced by Baudelaire's essay, yet also
very subjective.8 It was highly characteristic of the Russian
attitude to Poe in "The Silver Age."
While Bal'mont's translations of Poe were perceived as an important
event in Russian cultural life, their evaluations differed. Young poets
were the most enthusiastic and interested part of the audience. For example,
Aleksandr Blok, the Symbolist, wrote in his introduction to the second
volume of Poe's Collected Works, which had been translated by BaI'mont:
"Edgar Poe calls for a translator who is close to his spirit and who
certainly is a poet with an ear keen to the music of words. Bal'mont's
translation of Poe seems to be the first to satisfy these demands."9
Blok also pointed out the profundity and magic of Poe's writings as revealed
by BaI'mont, especially in comparison with the previous attempts at poetic
translations of Poe, which had been made by Engelhardt and which were "smooth
and lovely but far from Poe's depths."10
Blok's evaluation of Bal'mont's translations coincided with the impressions
of most of the Russian readers. They felt that new features of the American
writer were presented to them: not only Poe, the entertainer and enigmatic,
slightly infernal figure, but also Poe, the brilliant poet, philosopher
and psychologist, a suffering soul that was especially close to the Russian
mentality and values.
At the same time, however, Bal'mont's translations were authentic neither
in their contents nor in their imagery. If we compare the most illustrious
of them, "The Bells," we can find more differences than similarities.
For example, even the name of Poe's poem is translated by two nouns instead
of the original one: "Kolokol'chiki i Kolokola" ("Small
Bells and Large Bells"). This is because BaI'mont wanted to be closer
to the Russian perception and vocabulary: the different kinds of bells
that Poe describes in his poem are named by different words in the Russian
The other differences between the original and the translation occur
mostly in the middle of the first part. Where Poe has :
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the Heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells-
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells 11 1\
О как звонко, звонко, звонко,
(Oh, how ringing, ringing, ringing)
Точно звучный смех ребенка
(Like the ringing of a child's laughter)
В ясном воздухе ночном
(In the clear night air)
Говорят они о том, что за снами заблужденья
(They say that after days of delusion)
(There comes a resurrection)
Что возможно наслажденье, наслажденье нежным сном.12
(That enjoyment is possible, the enjoyment of a gentle
As may be noticed, Poe says nothing of a "delusion" and "resurrection,"
nothing of "the enjoyment of a gentle dream." These images seem
to have appeared from the arsenal of Russian Symbolism and from Bal'mont's
own poetry, rather than from Poe's original poem. Nevertheless, the differences
and examples of poetic license were excused by the reading public (if not
by the critics and the specialists of English and American poetry), because
"Poe's basic properties were retained--their evocation of the life-cycle."13
In addition, the melody and the mood seemed close to the original and were
natural for the Russian poetic language.
For this reason, composer Sergei Rachmaninov agreed to write the music
for "The Bells," as proposed by "a young cellist, a pupil
of his friend,"14 who like many young people in Russia
at that time was excited by Poe's poem in Bal'mont's translation. Although
Rachmaninov understood and was able to use the original English text, he
intentionally "asked Bal'mont to furnish him with the Russian version
of it."15 Rachmaninov's decision to write his Choral Symphony
based on "The Bells" stemmed not only from his admiration of
Poe's poem but also, for the most part, from his reception of it as a fact
that had become associated with Russian life: "If I have been at all
successful in making the bells vibrate with human emotion in my work, it
is largely due to the fact that most of my life was lived amid the vibrations
of the bells of Moscow. In the drowsy quiet of a Roman afternoon, with
Poe's verses before me, I heard the bells' voices and tried to set down
on paper their lovely tones."16
Naturally, Bal'mont's contemporaries, as well as latter-day readers,
noticed that his translations of Poe's poems and of other poets were adaptations
and paraphrases rather than literal translations. This was not unexpected
for Bal'mont himself, because such was his concept of artistic translation.
He called his method "a reconstructing translation" and was convinced
that a translation could not possibly be an exact copy of the original.
"The work is always unique," he wrote in one of his articles,
"It is possible only to give something more or less approximate. But
generally speaking, a poetic translation is a kind of echo, a response
or a reflection. As a rule, an echo is more meager than the sound itself.
But sometimes in the mountains, in caves, or in arched castles, an echo
may be seven times more beautiful and louder than the original sound. A
reflection is a vague reproduction of a face. But if a mirror is of high
quality and the lighting good enough, a beautiful face in a mirror may
seem more beautiful than in real life. This happens sometimes, though rather
rarely, with poetic translations. Still, an echo in the forest is one of
the best forest charms."17
As a translator, Bal'mont was constant in his idea of the reconstructing
translation. Sometimes this theory helped him to understand and to reveal
the essence of other poets' art, as in the case of Poe. But sometimes Bal'mont
"bal'montized" and "corrected" foreign poets too much.
This occurred, for instance, with the verse of Walt Whitman, whom he loved
greatly but of whom he was not a successful translator. For this he was
severely criticized by Kornei Chukovskii, the prominent literary criticand
translator. In the early 1900s, another Russian poet, Valerii Briusov,
also made several attempts to translate Edgar Allan Poe. At this time Briusov's
views on poetry and poetic translation were akin to Bal'mont's. He, too,
thought that "a translator usually tries to retain one or two elements
(mostly images and meter) of the original, changing other elements.'' He
called a free translation "an appearance of a lyrical poem."18
But later in the 1920s, Briusov came to insist on overly literal renditions.
"When we speak of translating great poets it seems necessary to render
not only their thoughts and images but also their style, all the words
and expressions," he wrote in his article "On Translating Virgil's
Aeneid " (1920).19
This difference in Briusov's attitude to the translator's goal is seen
mostly in his theoretical declarations. His early translations, including
those of Poe' writings, have a tendency to exaggerate the literal meaning
rather than allowing for free translation. Thus, in his version of "The
Bells," Briusov is very close to the original. He follows its rhythm,
imagery, and vocabulary. The same lines from the first section of the poem
that we examined previously in Bal'mont's translation run as follows:
Vnemlesh zvonam, zvonam, zvonam
(You hear bells, bells, bells)
V 1'distom vozdukhe nochnom
(In the icy air of night)
Pod zvezdistym nebosklonom
(Under the starry sky)
V svete tysiach iskr zazhzhennom
(In the light of a thousand sparks)
(By a crystalline fire)
S ritmom vernym, vernym, vernym,
(With the rhythm right, right, right)
Slovno strofy sag razmernym,
(In the rhyme of sagas' strophes)
S perezviakivaniem miagkim, s sonnym otzvukom vremen,
(With a gentle tinkling-ringing, with a sleepy echo of
Zvon, zvon, zvon,zvon, zvon, zvon, zvon,
(Bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells)
Zvon, zvon, zvon.
(Bells, bells, bells)20
The interlinear translation shows how closely Briusov comes to Poe's
poem. This accuracy is a characteristic feature of his translations. But
although they are correct in content and poetical devices, many of his
translations, including those of Poe, have something artificial in their
Russian sound and express only part of the charm of the original. Whereas
Bal'mont's paraphrases of Poe seemed so natural to the Russian readers
and retained the magic of the American verse, Briusov's accurate renditions
lack life. This may be because Briusov's translations, as well as his own
writings, are more "the work of a scholar than of a poet;"21
rather than offering magical sounds, they appeal to the intellect and the
visual aspects of poetry. "Briusov has mostly an eyesight but not
an ear, he is fond of measurements, numbers, and drawings," said Anatolii
Lunacharskii, the early Soviet minister of culture.22 Bal'rnont's
translations, by contrast, appeal to the emotions and are full of the music
I do not intend here to praise one of the translators and to criticize
the other. They both did very much for the popularization in Russia of
world poetry in general and of Poe's verse in particular. He was their
idol for a long time, and they felt that his soul was close to their own.
The translations of Poe that the Russian symbolists produced are indicative
of the ''cooperation of souls" to which Bal'mont once referred. As
he stated about literary translations: "A translation is a cooperation
of souls, and a duel, and a running together to the same goal."23
It is significant that both the symbolists and the representatives
of the other poetry groups of "The Silver Age" understood literary
translation as part and parcel of their creative work; indeed, after the
October Revolution it became for many of them the only possibility to survive.
Most of them were highly educated people with a knowledge of foreign languages,
both ancient and modem. Though the traditions of poetic translation were
rich in the Russia of the 18th and 19th centuries--with prominent translations
by major poets such as Lomonosov, Zhukovskii, Pushkin, Gnedich, and Lermontov--the
poets of "The Silver Age" inaugurated a new period of translation:
they laid the foundation for the contemporary, highly professional school
of literary translation that has been remarkably productive and effective
in 20th century Russia. The translations of Poe's poetry by Bal'mont and
Briusov are only a small example of this difficult and important work.
Translations are great and complex challenges. But they are also a
bridge where different cultures can meet and engage in a dialogue, despite
the zigzags of history. The talent, energy, and devotion of the Russian
poets of "The Silver Age," as well as of their many successors,
have made this dialogue between our countries possible and fruitful, leading
to better knowledge and a keener understanding between our peoples.
"An American Treasure Hunter" ("The Gold
Bug") in The New Library/or Education, 1848, tr. from the French
version by Alphonse Borghers. See Joan D. Grossman, Edgar Allan Poe
in Russia: A Study in Legend and Literary Influence (Jal -Wurzburg,
1973), pp. 24-25.
Ibid., pp. 30-31.
S. A. Andreevskii, "Voron," Vestnik Evropv,
No. 3; L. Obolenskii, "Voron,' Svet, No. 11, 1879; N. Kondrat'ev,
"Voron," Mirskoi'Tolk, No. 12, 1880.
Moissei J. Olgin, A Guide to Russian Literature
(New York, 1971), p. 167.
Aleksandr Blok, Sobranie sochinenii, v. 5 (Moskva
- Leningrad: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1963), p. 617.
The Diary ofValerii Briusov (1893-1905), ed. Joan
D. Grossman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), p. 44.
Konstantin Bal'rnont, "Voron" ("The Raven"),
Artist, No. 41, 1894; Edgar Poe, Ballady i Fantazii, translated
English (Moskva: Izd. Bogdanova, 1895).
On the subjectivism of Bal'mont's view of Poe, see Grossman,
Edgar Allan Poe in Russia, pp. 81-82.
Aleksandr Blok, "Edgar Poe," Sobranie sochinenii,
v. 5, p. 617.
Edgar Allan Poe, Poetry and Tales (The Library
of America, 1984), p. 92.
Konstantin Bal'mont, Izbrannoe (Moskva: Khudozhestvennaia
literatura, 1990), p. 524. The interlinear translation is by T. G. B.
Olga Gordon, "Sergei Rachmaninov's 'The Bells',"
Op. 35, Introductory notes, 1990, n. p.
Alexander Romanenko ,"An Echo in the Forest,"
in Konstantin Bal'mont, Zolotaia Rossyp ':Izbrannye perevody (Moskva:
Sovetskaia Rossiia, 1990), p. 10.
Nikolai Bannikov, Valerii Briusov (Moskva: Detskaia
literatura, 1971), p. 32.
Ibid., p. 53. At this time Briusov severely criticized
Bal'mont's translations which he had loved earlier. He also criticized
Bal'mont's poetry as too decadent.
Valerii Briusov, Izbrannye sochineniia v 2-kh tomakh,
v. 2 (Moskva: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1953), p. 130.
S. B. Jimbinov, "Introduction," American
Poetry in Russian Translations of the 19th-2()th Centuries (Moskva:
Raduga, 1983), p. 39.
Nikolai Bannikov, Valerii Briusov, p. 5.
Alexander Romanenko, "An Echo in the Forest,"