Salt Crystals on an Axe

Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry
in Congruent Translation

A Bilingual Mini-Anthology

Compiled and edited by S. Muchnick Translated by A. Shafarenko

Salt Crystals on an Axe

The bilingual collection of works by 56 Russian poets spans the whole of the 20th century, from Innokenty Annensky (1855–1909) to Boris Ryzhy (1974–2001), and reflects some of the characteristic styles and themes of the period. By giving preference to shorter pieces, it also provides a glimpse into the fascinating portable world of small-form poetry that is carried along by every cultured speaker of Russian. The all-new "congruent" translations, based on the system described and justified in Editor's Introduction, offer Anglophone readers a rare opportunity to appreciate Russian verse on its own terms, complete with its characteristic formal features.

The intended audience includes English-language poetry aficionados; students of Russian who wish to get to grips with the poetic language and form, and to understand the differences between English and Russian poetic traditions; translators and linguists interested in the theory and practice of verse translation; youngsters of English-Russian bilingual upbringing whose command of Russian falls short of the necessary standard for appreciating poetry in the original.

The book offers annotation to both the translations and the originals and a concise timeline of 20th-century Russian history putting the poems in context.

Bibliographic data

Salt Crystals on an Axe
  • Slava Muchnick (editor)
  • Alex Shafarenko (translator)
Ancient Purple Translations
Publication date
7 September 2009
Publication place
Godalming, UK
  • ISBN-13: 9780956307514
  • ISBN-10: 0956307515
English, Russian
Physical properties
  • Format: paperback
  • Number of pages: 436
  • Width: 140 mm
  • Height: 216 mm
  • Thickness: 25 mm
  • Weight: 554 g
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Table of contents

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements
  • Note on Presentation
  • Table of Symbols
  • Editor's Introduction
    • What's in a Form?
    • Matching the Russian Form in English
      • Metre
      • Rhyme
      • Other formal features
      • Word order
      • The mapping table
    • Congruent Translation: Trying Harder
    • The Strategy
    • The Method
    • Preserving Individuality
    • The Principles of Selection
    • Organisation of the Content
    • Comparable Collections
    • References
  • Through the pallid window pane  •  сквозь бледное окно
    • Innokenty Annensky
    • Ivan Bunin
    • Alexander Blok
  • The catalogue of ships  •  список кораблей
    • Nikolai Gumilyov
    • Vladislav Khodasevich
    • Anna Akhmatova
    • Boris Pasternak
    • Osip Mandelstam
    • Marina Tsvetayeva
    • Vladimir Mayakovsky
    • Sergey Yesenin
  • A red-chested bullfinch  •  красногрудый снегирь
    • Nikolai Zabolotsky
    • Leonid Martynov
    • Semyon Kirsanov
    • Arseny Tarkovsky
    • Alexander Tvardovsky
    • Yaroslav Smelyakov
    • Yan Satunovsky
  • To see this day  •  до этого дня
    • Alexander Galich
    • Nikolai Glazkov
    • Boris Slutsky
    • Igor Kholin
  • That intense blue colour  •  синего-синего
    • David Samoilov
    • Alexander Mezhirov
    • Bulat Okudzhava
    • Naum Korzhavin
    • Konstantin Vanshenkin
  • Rays empyrean  •  свет небесный
    • Inna Lisnyanskaya
    • Gleb Gorbovsky
    • Robert Rozhdestvensky
    • Andrey Voznesensky
    • Yevgeny Yevtushenko
    • Vsevolod Nekrasov
  • In the ultimate blackness  •  в последнюю темень
    • Evgeny Rein
    • Olzhas Suleimenov
    • Alexander Kushner
    • Yunna Morits
  • As if forever  •  думалось — навеки
    • Lev Loseff
    • Vladimir Vysotsky
    • Oleg Chukhontsev
    • Vladimir Zakharov
    • Joseph Brodsky
    • Dmitri A. Prigov
    • Victor Krivulin
  • The one who wakes  •  проснувшийся
    • Alexei Tsvetkov
    • Ivan Zhdanov
    • Mikhail Aizenberg
    • Bakhyt Kenjeev
    • Alexander Yeryomenko
    • Sergey Gandlevsky
  • The same old heaven  •  все то же небо
    • Vladimir Vishnevsky
    • Evgeny Bunimovich
    • Timur Kibirov
    • Vera Pavlova
    • Konstantin Kravtsov
    • Boris Ryzhy
  • Appendix
    • Russian History of the 20th Century: a Timeline
    • Looking Up Samples
    • Metre Finder
    • Rhyme Scheme Finder
    • Index of Poets
    • Алфавитный список авторов
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Special features for students of Russian

The presence of form-preserving translations alongside the originals makes the texts accessible as works of art even to beginners whose knowledge of the language is modest.

The notes are not lumped together at the back of the book but accompany individual author's entries. This makes it easier to look them up (which students would need to do much more often than lay readers) and also simplifies photocopying poems together with the attendant notes.

The indexes of metres and rhyme schemes included in the Appendix help to locate samples of poems written in a particular form, making the book a valuable resource for studying Russian prosody. The anthology includes examples of all primary Russian metrical schemes as well as of logaoedics, imitative classical verse, dolnik and accentual verse. The rhyme schemes range from no rhyme at all to the French sonnet, interlocking rubaiyat and even more complex arrangements.

The necessary background information on Russian realities and culture is given in the annotation.

All dedications and important inter-textual references are explained. Where appropriate, the passages to which the poem refers or alludes are quoted in the notes alongside their translation into English.

Explanation is provided of unusual or irregular language in the originals. We have aimed to explain everything that may not be found in a medium-size dictionary.

Letter ё is printed wherever there is even the slightest chance of the е/ё ambiguity.

To aid scansion, the position of word stress is indicated where it may be ambiguous, where a non-normative stress was intended by the author, and also in rare proper names.

When transliterated Russian words occur in translation (which mainly happens with proper names), the stress is marked with accented vowels, so that the words may be read correctly.

Unusual formal features of the originals are pointed out and explained. The table of symbols in the beginning of the book summarises the notation used for this.

Notes are given on finer artistic aspects of poems that may easily be overlooked.

The index of authors is provided in both languages, so that works of poets who are known to the reader only from Russian-language sources could be easily looked up without guessing the transliterated spelling of the surname.

The bibliography includes the details of 26 other anthologies of Russian poetry in English translation (with at least some 20th-century authors included) published between 1957 and 2009. The comparison table at the end of Editor’s Introduction shows how the content of Salt Crystals on an Axe differs from that of the competing anthologies and also indicates whether each of those anthologies is bilingual or English-only and whether it pays systematic attention, some attention or no attention at all to reproducing poetic form in translation.

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Excerpts from Editor's Introduction

Russian poetry of the 20th century is generally metrical and usually rhymed, and in this respect it stands in sharp contrast to the English poetic tradition of the same period. Moreover, the role of form in mainstream Russian poetry is critically important: it often carries as much of the overall message of the poem as its verbal substance. Not only are metre and rhyme aesthetically pleasing, and thus contribute to the emotional impact of the poem, their repetitive nature makes them efficient rhetorical devices which can "drive home" the message, thus contributing to the impact of the poem on the mind. The musical qualities of poetic form are often used for semantic purposes: strong metrical positions can emphasise the key words, and end rhymes stand out much more prominently than simple line ends. Rhyme is also capable of linking together words that would not otherwise be linked, to create additional shades of meaning.

... Poetic form supports a range of special effects. In "A drunk – less often, less willing…" by Yan Satunovsky the gradual descent from fully rhymed syllabic-accentual verse through partially rhymed accentual verse to vers libre emphasises the change of tone from self-deprecating and confessional through philosophical to dark and bitter. It would hardly be possible to achieve this by words alone in such a short poem. Similarly, Olzhas Suleimenov used form to make his poem "Every night someone steadily rides through my dream…" feel at once unmistakably Oriental (interlocking rubaiyat, equally exotic in Russian and English), very Russian (a disguised 8-liner in a ternary metre) and nearly Italian (the tight aaba bbab rhyme scheme, which resembles the beginning of a sonnet, and which creates a similar level of intensity). [In a case of life imitating art, Suleimenov served as Kazakhstan's ambassador to Italy many years later.] ... Last but not least, the demands of form contribute to the balance between freedom of expression and certain structural constraints, which is essential for art.

... In both languages the foreground rhythm of syllabic-accentual verse, represented by the lexical and phrasal stresses, is not enslaved by the background metrical beat; rather, the two form a loose hierarchy where the background is compulsive but permissive of some contradiction. The weaker English stress, which leads to a higher tolerance of foot inversions, creates additional opportunities in that respect: the occasional freedom enjoyed by the poetic foreground in this language is not dissimilar to what a jazz player experiences when he runs ahead of the bass rhythm, only to slip slightly behind it before finally culminating in a perfectly timed cadence. By contrast, Russian verse reserves its very conspicuous foot inversions and hypermetrical stresses for special effects; the polyphony of metre and rhythm manifests itself in this language mainly via unrealised stresses in binary feet. ... This difference means that, on the one hand, a translator from Russian into English gets a very welcome additional freedom in the target language (occasional foot inversions); on the other hand, capturing the characteristic music of Russian syllabic-accentual verse demands a higher emphasis on pyrrhic substitutions and fewer occurrences of foot inversions than one tends to observe in English poetry of this type.

... Caesura plays a prominent role in Russian verse. Its rhythmic strength can vary widely: from an essential pause similar to that of Old English alliterative verse to merely a word boundary at the same metrical point in every line. Caesura is not used as a formal feature in modern English, so we render the Russian caesura by enforcing a word boundary. The goal is to make sure that the intonation created by the caesura in the original can be reproduced when reciting the translation without splitting or stretching English words.

... The contrast between the rhyming powers of the English and Russian languages decreased in the 20th century, which saw movement towards lesser, assonant and consonant, rhymes in Russian poetry. Few would argue that English is anything less than capable of producing such rhymes; moreover, in many cases a mere semblance of rhyme is all that is needed to represent the all-important sound patterns of the original. When such rhymes are permitted in translation, the degrees of "natural rhymability" of the languages in question do not appear to be very different. In this volume we take this approach for modern and traditional rhymes alike, which is unavoidable: as Glad and Weissbort rightly pointed out, the equivalent of a Russian rhyme is not necessarily a rhyme of equal strength in English.

... One degree of freedom available for rendering artistically important alliterations is the choice of the repeated sound: the translator has to establish whether that sound refers to, or hints at, something specific or is repeated for purely melodic purposes achieved by the repetition as such. Accordingly, the translation may need to produce a closely matching sound, a sound of a specific kind ... or any repeated sound. Vowel for vowel and consonant for consonant is usually a safe bet when attempting to reproduce non-specific Russian alliterations in English.

... Our fundamental assumption is that aiming to preserve both the key image-making semantics and the essential poetic form does not create an irresolvable conflict. Indeed, there is usually enough non-key meaning in a poem to exploit: otherwise a poetic form could only be created by chance. ... In short, we suggest reconciling the meaning and the form all over again on behalf of the author. In our view, this is the only way to preserve what Boris Pasternak famously called "точность тайн" (the precision of mysteries), compared with which the precision of meaning does not stand for much. The exact words chosen in the original are of course important, but they are secondary in importance to the two masters served by them: the image and the form. ... From this point of view the modern approach to translating Russian poetry ... is counterproductive: by slavishly translating the scaffolding elements while failing to reproduce the form that they were meant to support, such translations do the originals a double injustice. Paradoxically, the same fallacy often makes the resulting translations look more convincing: the scaffolding protruding into the air gives the text a certain mysterious quality, helping a willing reader to see the unmotivated idiosyncratic prose as highly artistic free verse and thus completing the illusion of poetry. Genuine vers libre translations cannot possibly be literal because of the requirement "to compose in the sequence of a musical phrase", as Ezra Pound put it. ... our approach should be deemed just as fair to the translation as it is to the original: the translator takes just as much liberty with the meaning for reproducing the form as the poet took to create it in the first place. Because of that, the results certainly qualify as translations rather than imitations in the Lowellian sense – "reckless with literal meaning".

... We tried to include poems that we felt could only be written by a Russian poet, but also those that could have been written anywhere in the world and some of those that did not at all look as if they were written by a Russian; poems invoking the shared European or Christian roots, but also works that are distinctly non-European. Special attention was given to inter-cultural themes. ... We made an effort to choose a good number of works that, to the best of our knowledge, had never been published in English. At the same time, we felt that it was important to demonstrate the difference that congruent translation made, so we also included famous poems for which multiple translations had already existed.

... We have given preference to shorter poems, the majority of which fit into one page ... This is not unreasonable because of the traditional brevity of Russian verse; there is even a dedicated Russian word, стихотворение, meaning a short poem. Eight lines (two quatrains or four couplets) and twelve lines (three quatrains) have been signature formats of this poetic tradition since the 19th century. ... In choosing shorter poems over longer ones we were also mindful of those readers who might want to learn some of the poems by heart, recite them at a school poetry-reading competition, etc. A certain number of longer poems were included to avoid a distortion of the overall picture; naturally, we gave that extra space to poets who excelled in longer forms.

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Examples of annotation

Note 2 to Alexaner Blok's entry
The seemingly illogical combination of the verb глядеться (to look at oneself), which strongly suggests a mirror and takes the preposition в (in), with the preposition сквозь (through) is suggestive of the dawn light when it is possible to look through the window glass at the city beyond and see one's reflection in that glass at the same time.

Note 3 to Boris Pasternak's entry
The whole final line of the original is a Russian proverb which contrasts living one's life with walking across a field; its standard interpretation is "life was never meant to be easy". The choice of the word "play" (used in two meanings) in the translation of this line is justified by the multi-layered extended metaphor of life as a theatrical play which underpins the poem. Hamlet is acting insane and is being watched by everybody in Elsinore; the actor is playing a demanding role and is being watched by the audience; Pasternak is reflecting on his life while writing on behalf of his character Zhivago, who is reflecting on his. The identification with both Hamlet and the actor is strengthened by the fact that the play (which has another play performed within it) is presumably being staged in Pasternak's own controversial translation into Russian.

Note 10 to Osip Mandelstam's entry
Salt is associated with sacrifice (Lev. 2: 13) and purification (2 Kings 2: 21, Ezra 16: 4) in the Old Testament and is mentioned in that context in Mark 9: 49. It is also referred to as punishment in Judg. 9: 45 and as instrument of God's wrath in Gen. 19: 26 and Deut. 29: 23.
    All the key words of the poem (star/stellar, salt, chilling/chilly, barrel, earth, pure, truth) make a striking re-appearance in the last stanza, with the two most important words – "star" and "salt" – occurring three times in the poem. This feature of the original is preserved in the translation.
    Expert opinion is divided on whether or not Mandelstam was already aware of the execution of his friend Nikolai Gumilyov (a poet included in this anthology) at the time of writing.

Note 3 to Marina Tsvetayeva's entry
The form of the original is unusual in employing dactylic rhymes in iamb: aB'aB'. This, and the drastic difference in metrical length (4 feet versus 2), creates a strong contrast between the odd and even lines and makes the poem really stand out rhythmically.

Note 2 to Nikolai Glazkov's entry
This is a light-hearted reference to a deadly serious matter. The poem was written at a time when the authorities were obsessed with unmasking hidden enemies and the atmosphere in the country was bordering on hysterical. There is also an element of black humour involved here: "черный ворон" (black raven) was a nickname for the prisoner-transporting vehicle used by NKVD.
    The switch from AbAb to AbbA rhyming in the final stanza is a feature of the original; it emphasises the trick nature of the last question.

Note 3 to David Samoilov's entry
The word "thin", in the sense of being malnourished, continues the chain of downbeat details revealed while zooming in from the initial all-encompassing view (which stretches with the rails beyond the horizon to the east and the west and also upwards into the stratospheric cold) all the way down to the crude star on the dirty flapped cap. But this same word, "thin", in the sense of being youthfully slim, also forms part of the chain of upbeat details associated with the "I am doing just fine" theme. That theme starts in the previous stanza, with the red star which indicates that the protagonist is a soldier rather than one of the refugees or a passive observer. So both the star and being thin belong to the downbeat and upbeat sequences at the same time: the two themes interlock in lines 11–14, forming the emotional focus of the poem. This is mirrored by the collision stated in lines 21–22, this time from a distance of many years.

Note 6 to Alexander Mezhirov's entry
The base plates of high-quality billiard tables are made of polished slate. Billiard tables by Freiber were highly sought after, and some of them still exist. The exposed slates are part of the image of devastation, of the demise of billiard clubs in Moscow, but also a sign of the passage of time more generally.

Note 9 to Evgeny Rein's entry
The colour of turning leaves (багряный, багрец – not to be confused with багровый which is darker and has a bluish hue) has been mentioned by Pushkin in his celebrated poems describing autumn. On at least one occasion it occurs in combination with the golden colour: "в багрец и золото одетые леса" (woods dressed in ancient purple and gold). This precise combination "багряно-золотое" (ancient purple with gold) in the original of 'Darkling Glitter' is likely to be a deliberate reference to Pushkin's vision of autumn.
    "Ancient purple" is an approximation of the colour described by багряный/багрец, the latter being redder and brighter. English translations from Pushkin variously render it as "purple", "crimson" or "scarlet", none of which does full justice to the colour either. The word багряный is based on an ancient Slavic root, which gives it an old-fashioned and noble character in modern Russian. "Ancient purple" captures this aspect better than the alternative descriptions.

Note 4 to Joseph Brodsky's entry
The word залив may initially be perceived here as a noun, meaning a bay or a shallow creek, because of the presence of the word остров (island) in the same position within a grammatically similar structure earlier in the line. However, the following line reveals that залив is actually an adverbial participle, meaning "having filled up", "having flooded" or "having covered [with liquid]". The utilisation of this homonymy, in combination with Brodsky's signature enjambment, is likely to be a ploy intended to emphasise the theme of frustrated expectations.

Note 1 to Victor Krivulin's entry
"Трава Патрикевна" is based on "Лиса Патрикевна", the fox of Russian folk tales. Her nickname is actually a patronymic derived from the name Патрикей, the Russian variant of Patrick. St Patrick (св. Патрикей) is venerated in the Orthodox Church too, as he was canonised before the East-West schism. At the same time, this line expressly refers to red hair, an Irish trait. So both the name of the fox and the colour of its fur reinforce the parallel between the two emigrations.

Note 3 to Sergey Gandlevsky's entry
A clue to the initials can be found in Gandlevsky's short novel Трепанация черепа (Trepanation): "Или права была моя почти первая любовь, Ирина Бороздина, что я волшебник, и все, к чему я прикасаюсь, превращается в дерьмо?" (Perhaps my almost first love Irina Borozdina was right all along: I am indeed a magician and everything I touch turns into shit). There seems to be a faint sound of the name Irína Borozdiná at the very end of the original, immediately following the words "Имя, девичью фамилию" (the name and maiden surname); this sound is reproduced in the translation.

Note 2 to Timur Kibirov's entry
This time "Песня песней" is not only the title of the Song of Songs but also a special phrasal pattern of the Russian language. Two adjacent occurrences of the same noun, the first in the nominative and the second in the ablative case, form a phrase whose meaning is "setting <the noun> aside, ...". Furthermore, only the first word of a title is normally capitalised under the Russian orthographic conventions, which is what enabled the poet to create the intended dual meaning.

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"It's been a great pleasure to read your translations. You are surely right in your belief that a poem's meaning and effect are inextricably bound up with its formal properties. These must be retained or approximated as far as possible if the translated poetry is to live as poetry and not dissolve into watery prose." Timothy Steele
Professor of English, California State University
Winner of the Robert Fitzgerald Prosody Award

"I very much liked the introduction; it is truly one of the few cases when I have seen an English translator from Russian consider in depth what meter and rhyme can mean for a translation. In a way I miss the old days of the Nabokov-Arndt polemic, when people were at least taking these matters seriously rather than ignoring them. Translations of Evgeny Rein's poems are particularly fine, but many others struck me as quite successful including those of the works by Korzhavin and Slutsky – and I could name others as well." Barry Scherr
Professor of Russian, Dartmouth College

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