Translator’s Note


In rendering the poems of Afanasy Fet included in this volume, the translator has tried to avoid the Scylla of a literal translation designed to provide merely the verbal sense of a given poem, and the Charybdis of a versified translation preserving the poem’s exact «shape» (its pattern of rhymes and rhythm) at the expense of precise meaning.

A translation is always an altar on which, wittingly or unwittingly, something is sacrificed. A literal translation sacrifices everything but the bare bones of a poem; it is, in fact, nothing but a «trot» to ease the labors of students preparing for, say, the next French lesson.

The late Samuel Marshak called translation the transplanting of a poem from the soil of one language into that of another. It is a delicate operation, dealing as it does with such fragile materials as overtones, imagery, association, implication—wispy roots, which, if too badly damaged in the process, can cause the death of the substance, to say nothing of the spirit, of a poem. Nothing imperils these roots more seriously than the pinching and squeezing of a translation to fit the exact measurements of the original.

Yet «shape» is as integral a part of a poem as its sense; in molding the sense, it becomes inseparable from it.

Unfortunately, the prevailing custom of translating all poetry into free verse all too often results in gross misrepresentation. It is a pusillanimous habit. Surely, if the task is undertaken at all, the difficulties so plainly presented should be faced courageously.

For the purposes of this book, which does not permit too free a handling of the poetry selected to illustrate the text, the compromise has been adopted of retaining the approximate metrical structure of the poems while discarding the rhyme scheme. This approach has made possible a faithful adherence «to the sequence of thoughts and images in the original (violated only when differences in language structure made it patently impossible or undesirable), without sacrificing the emotional tension inherent in the rhythm.

For the convenience of those who can read Russian, a number has been placed at the end of each poem indicating the page on which it is to be found in Fet’s Polnoe sobranie stikhotvorenii, second edition, 1959.

Margaret Wettlin