Night flowers

Translated Poem: Afanasy Fet’s “I’ll say nothing…”

Ever had feelings for someone, and you just couldn’t work up the nerve to tell them? Or worse, you tried to hide that you liked them at all?

Today’s poem, written by the 19th-century Russian poet Afanasy Fet, expresses that feeling with poignant simplicity and elegance.

I tried to preserve as much of that tone as possible in my translation (at the bottom of this post), but whether or not I was successful — you must be the judge.

Have a listen to the original first …

Я тебе ничего не скажу… (1885)

Я тебе ничего не скажу,
И тебя не встревожу ничуть,
И о том, что я молча твержу,
Не решусь ни за что намекнуть.

Целый день спят ночные цветы,
Но лишь солнце за рощу зайдёт,
Раскрываются тихо листы
И я слышу, как сердце цветёт.

И в больную, усталую грудь
Веет влагой ночной… я дрожу,
Я тебя не встревожу ничуть,
Я тебе ничего не скажу.

Like many classic Russian poems, it has also been set to music. Here’s a version set by Tatyana Tolstaya, with lovely violin and piano:

Translating this poem with rhyme and meter comes with a particular challenge, because it’s not your usual iambic tetrameter à la Pushkin. No. It’s anapestic trimeter.

Now, if you were an A student in English and still don’t know what that means, you cannot be blamed! Basically, the rhythm of each line is supposed to go like this: da-da-DA, da-da-DA, da-da-DA

(You know, like a cantering horse! Or King Arthur’s coconuts!)

On the other hand, it has only masculine rhymes (stressed on the last syllable), which are easier to do in English, and the rhyme scheme is abab cdcd baba.

The rhyme scheme proved most difficult to preserve in the final stanza, where two lines repeat (but in reverse order), and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how to follow the sense AND the rhyme without making it awkward and complicated. (Whereas the original reads very simply.) Then it happened again when I realized I’d completely forgotten to translate a line in the second stanza, and it threw off everything.


Eventually I remembered you can’t save everything. So — fare thee well, literal meaning.


Anyway, here’s my translation, as it stands so far:

I’ll say nothing whatever to you,
I’ll not trouble you with it one bit,
And of thoughts harped upon all day through,
I don’t dare give the tiniest hint.

All day sleeping, the night flowers curl,
But when dusk past the grove drops and looms,
In soft silence the leaves all unfurl
And I hear how my heart itself blooms.

Yet at night comes the chill, I admit,
As my aching breast shakes… and I, too;
I’ll not trouble you with it one bit,
I’ll say nothing whatever to you.

Has Fet got it right, or what?

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4 thoughts on “Translated Poem: Afanasy Fet’s “I’ll say nothing…”

  1. Now I know less than nothing about the Russian language so all I can “judge” (barely) is the line’s rhythm and I must say I love how you preserved it – along with the rhyme scheme – without making the whole thing sound like a Dr.Seuss monster of some kind.
    The sentiment is universal too and I could feel it in my heart loud and clear which I think is the best sign of a really good translation!

    • A good translation should result in a good target-language poem, with or without reference to the original….unless, of course, you’re Vladimir Nabokov, and then you translate with brute literalness just to punish the reader for not knowing Russian! 😉

      I’m glad you could get a sense of the sentiment! 🙂 Those second-stanza images are the best part, in my opinion, and I was glad I could preserve most of them.

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