Speaking In Tongues
Guided by Voices

Tamara Bogolepova
Far Eastern State University
Vladivostok, Russia

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 writings.
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 of Discovery." 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 language.
The other differences between the original and the translation occur mostly in the middle of the first part. Where Poe has :

Bal'mont has:

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:

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 of words.
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.

  1. "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.
  2. Ibid., pp. 30-31.
  3. S. A. Andreevskii, "Voron," Vestnik Evropv, No. 3; L. Obolenskii, "Voron,' Svet, No. 11, 1879; N. Kondrat'ev, "Voron," Mirskoi'Tolk, No. 12, 1880.
  4. Moissei J. Olgin, A Guide to Russian Literature (New York, 1971), p. 167.
  5. Aleksandr Blok, Sobranie sochinenii, v. 5 (Moskva - Leningrad: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1963), p. 617.
  6. The Diary ofValerii Briusov (1893-1905), ed. Joan D. Grossman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), p. 44.
  7. Konstantin Bal'rnont, "Voron" ("The Raven"), Artist, No. 41, 1894; Edgar Poe, Ballady i Fantazii, translated from the
  8. English (Moskva: Izd. Bogdanova, 1895).
  9. On the subjectivism of Bal'mont's view of Poe, see Grossman, Edgar Allan Poe in Russia, pp. 81-82.
  10. Aleksandr Blok, "Edgar Poe," Sobranie sochinenii, v. 5, p. 617.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Edgar Allan Poe, Poetry and Tales (The Library of America, 1984), p. 92.
  13. Konstantin Bal'mont, Izbrannoe (Moskva: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1990), p. 524. The interlinear translation is by T. G. B.
  14. Olga Gordon, "Sergei Rachmaninov's 'The Bells'," Op. 35, Introductory notes, 1990, n. p.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Alexander Romanenko ,"An Echo in the Forest," in Konstantin Bal'mont, Zolotaia Rossyp ':Izbrannye perevody (Moskva: Sovetskaia Rossiia, 1990), p. 10.
  19. Nikolai Bannikov, Valerii Briusov (Moskva: Detskaia literatura, 1971), p. 32.
  20. 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.
  21. Valerii Briusov, Izbrannye sochineniia v 2-kh tomakh, v. 2 (Moskva: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1953), p. 130.
  22. S. B. Jimbinov, "Introduction," American Poetry in Russian Translations of the 19th-2()th Centuries (Moskva: Raduga, 1983), p. 39.
  23. Nikolai Bannikov, Valerii Briusov, p. 5.
  24. Alexander Romanenko, "An Echo in the Forest," p.10