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Apr 13, 2007

The clouds glide by

When I get too busy, I slow down. This is probably a way of calming myself, and fighting anxiety. I will either read a book that has nothing to do with my work, or will try to figure out some quirky computer thing, or do something else totally irrelevant and low-priority. It really does help, perhaps because a different part of the brain is engaged. After such a exercise for a couple of hours, some creative solution inevitably come, new energies come from somewhere, and life generally looks a lot better. So today is such a day. I have been shamelessly wasting my work time on trying to translate Joseph Brodsky’s poem “The clouds glide by”; also listen to a song written by Elena Frolova on Brodsky’s lyrics.

Now, there is probably a better translation somewhere; and I probably have butchered English poetic expression horribly. Sorry, I still don’t know that well how this language sounds. One rule of a good translation: people can translate into their native language, but never from it. It is also a fall poem, and is out of season. But guess what? I don’t care, this is something I need to do to stay sane, OK? So there. Eugene (he is our Dean), if you are reading this and want to mark this day as vacation, go ahead. I am taking a day off (although I am sitting in my office and answering the goddamned e-mails).
The clouds glide by

Can you really hear when children sing in the grove,
those voices ringing, ringing over the dusky trees,
vanishing, gradually disappearing into the dusky air,
the heavens vanishing into the dusky air?

Among the trees, the shiny threads of rain intertwine
and quietly hum, quietly hum in the bleached grass blades.
Can you hear the voices, see red combs in children’s hair,
see the small palms raised to touch the wet leaves?

“The clouds glide; they glide by and vanish…”
children sing and sing in the bustle of black branches,
through leaves and blurred tree trunks, the voices rise
in the dusky air, one cannot hug and hold voices back.

Only wet leaves ride the wind, hurry back to groves,
flying away, as if to answer a secret autumn call.
“The clouds glide by…,” children sing in the darkness,
from the grass to treetops, nothing but pulsing, trembling voices.

The clouds glide by, your life glides by, glides by,
Learn to live with it, this death we carry within,
Among the black branches, clouds with voices, loving…
“The clouds glide by…, ”children sing about it all.

Can you really hear, when children sing in the grove,
the shiny threads of rain intertwine, voices ring,
near narrow treetops, in the new dusk, for an instant
do you see heavens fading again, yes, fading again?

The clouds glide by, they glide over the grove.
Water falls somewhere; time to cry and to sing by autumn fences,
to weep and weep, to look upwards, to be a child in the night,
to look upwards, just to weep and to sing, and to know no loss.

Water falls somewhere, along the autumn fences and vague tree rows,
Singing in the new dusk, just to weep and to sing, just to rake leaves.
Something higher than us. Something higher than us glides by and fades,
just to weep and to sing, just to weep and to sing, just to live.


Thanks to Bob King for providing great feedback. OK, I cheated, and rewrote based on his input.

This is hard. Russian has longer words, so it can use the multi-syllable words to create this peculiar chanting rhythm. In Brodsky’s original, it’s Anapest, the meter where two weak syllables are followed by a strong one. In English, the anapest is not only very difficult to reproduce, but it also sounds silly. Also, Russian has grammatical cases, and a free word order, while English depends on words order to express grammatical meaning. So, the first line in Russian reads, literally “Hear if, hear if you in the grove, children’s’ singing?” Because English word order is relatively locked, it takes a lot more skill to provide a variety of patterns; a skill I clearly lack. Also, because of its long poetic history, English has run out of good simple rhymes a long time ago; that is why rhyming sounds so silly. Russian, on the other hand, has an inexhaustible rhyming bank, because words can be changed with various particles. Although English has a much bigger number of available roots, Russian can produce many more word forms from a smaller number of roots.

Russian does not have articles, so children, groves, fences, and other objects Brodsky has in mind, are all somewhere between “the” and “a”, somewhere vaguely undefined. You would never know if he is there physically present listening to specific children singing or he has some abstract children in mind. The same thing can be said about tenses: Russian does not make a distinction between continuous present and simple present tense. So, you cannot know a difference between “is singing” and “sings,” unless the speaker intentionally uses another way of specifying this distinction. And of course, poets like to keep it vague. Much of Russian poetic expression is derived from this grammatical vagueness of the language itself. English is a lot more specific about the definite/indefinite status of its nouns, and is enormously more precise about the timing of any event. Yet English poets seems to be much more concerned about the sound, about alliterations, internal rhyming, half-rhyming, etc.

As a more or less bilingual person, I always struggle with the limits and possibilities that both languages have. Certain things cannot be said economically in one of the languages. I don’t believe in the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. All people think alike, and anything can be said in any language. However, certain things just sound much better in one language than in another. Here is a couple of examples: try to speak and write for a week without ever using such common words as “issue”, “sophisticated,” “challenge” or “proficient.” Yet all these words are lacking in Russian language. I mean, you can express the same ideas, using different words in different context, but just try avoiding use of these four words. I can give a long list of reverse examples, where a handy Russian word just does not have an equivalent in English.

I have learned to tolerate these linguistic limits, and to work around them. It strikes me that not only in speaking, but in the rest of out lives, we operate within a set of certain limits. Monolingual people often fail to perceive the profound weirdness of their only language, because they have nothing to compare it to. Similarly, people who used to working and living in similar cultural and social systems fail to recognize the implied limits of those systems, but also the unique opportunities the systems provide. Moreover, when exposed to another language or culture, many see difference in terms of hierarchy, and just have to say which one is better and which is worse. How do we get to understand difference without pecking order? One useful exercise is to translate a poem. Another is to see what can and what cannot be done in YOUR organization or culture, and what can and cannot be done if things were otherwise.

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