Pushkin's Ты и вы in English

Translation Challenge: Pushkin’s “Ты и вы” in English

In 1828, the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin wrote a short, lighthearted love poem to Anna Olenina, a girl he was pursuing at the time.

Anna Olenina and Pushkin
Anna Olenina, 1828

Almost two hundred years later, that small poem is one of Pushkin’s most well-known and beloved verses. It also has a reputation for causing a particular conundrum for English translations.

The very title will tell you why: it’s literally You and You. The entire poem is based on a linguistic distinction of the second-person pronoun that does not exist in modern English.

Ты and вы could be likened to tu and vous in French, du and Sie in German, or perhaps tú and usted in Spanish.

The first one (ты) is informal, used for close friends and family members — or maybe not even then, if someone living back in those imperial days wanted to address their esteemed parents. It was also the way one addressed God. The second (вы) was the formal you for everyone else.

The story is that Anna Olenina misspoke and addressed Pushkin with the informal ты form, which inspired the following poem:

Ты и вы

Пустое вы сердечным ты
Она, обмолвясь, заменила
И все счастливые мечты
В душе влюблённой возбудила.

Пред ней задумчиво стою,
Свести очей с неё нет силы;
И говорю ей: как вы милы!
И мыслю: как тебя люблю!

If you’d like to listen, here’s a serious reading and a fun, expressive reading. (Guess which one I prefer!)

So how can one translate this poem, if the wordplay itself won’t translate?

We’ll come back to that in a sec. First, let’s do a breakdown of the form.

Pushkin’s original appears in two quatrains of iambic tetrameter, or a “da-DA” pattern that occurs four times per line.

The rhyme scheme is aBaB cDDc, in which the a and c rhymes are masculine (they end on a stressed syllable) and the B and D rhymes are feminine (they end on an unstressed syllable). Because the a and D rhymes share the same ending vowel (ы), I thought about treating them as a/A, but the masculine/feminine distinction in the original made them sound sufficiently different to be considered not the same rhyme.

All right. So much for the rhyme and meter. Now …. the wordplay.

Other English translations have made use of the now-archaic thou and you, which correspond to ты and вы, respectively. (For more information, check out this breakdown of Thou and You as used in Shakespeare.) While clever, I thought this didn’t have the right effect. It sounded archaic, for one thing, and for another, English speakers often associate thou with more formality, not less, thanks to its appearance in Shakespeare’s plays, the KJV translation of the Bible, and other Serious Old Stuff.

Instead, I chose …

… dun dun dun …

French tu and vous. Why on earth?

Lemme 'splain...

Who says a translation has to be made of 100% pureblood English words? Doesn’t English borrow words all the time? That’s how we got this impressive many-layered vocabulary in the first place.

Not only that, but I love code-switching, and doggone it, T. S. Eliot went to town borrowing from other languages in The Waste Land, so I feel no shame pulling a stunt like this for the sake of a translation.

The reason I chose French is twofold: first, French is a language more widely known to native English speakers than Russian or German, while Spanish usted just … wasn’t pretty enough. Second, it was a language Pushkin himself spoke and wrote fluently as a member of the Russian aristocracy. He even wrote his letters to his wife (who was not Anna Olenina, alas) in French.

So there!

Anyway, one more thing — the second stanza is probably going to raise some eyebrows among those who know the original, so I’ll ‘splain this one, too.

In my first reading of the poem, I thought the second stanza was the speaker’s immediate reaction to the mistake. Then, as I discussed it with classmates in a Pushkin seminar — and paid more attention to the tense change from past to present — another interpretation emerged. This poem was written to Anna Olenina and possibly hand-delivered to her by Pushkin himself, so that he would be standing in front of her as she read the poem. I liked that additional dimension, so I decided to make it more obvious in the translation:

Tu and Vous

A cordial tu for empty vous
Slipped out instead when she addressed me,
And with this cozy lover’s you
Awakened hopes that soon possessed me.

I stand here as she reads this through,
Can’t look away, the wait is frightful;
I say with vous, aren’t you delightful!
But think with tu, how I love you!

🙂

I’m still not happy with the feminine rhymes, as they caused me more than their fair share of trouble, only to end in less-than-stellar results. Pfut!

On the other hand, I like the lighthearted tone, the flow, the preserved pattern of rhyme and meter, and the way tu and vous are explained within the poem and linked to their English meaning with an end-rhyme. Most importantly, I like how much fun I had doing it. I’ll call it a win for now.


UPDATE!

After some much-appreciated reader feedback, I realized the second stanza needed a little TLC. The final line, for example, wasn’t working metrically — you would have to stress and you, which doesn’t feel natural. Also, in Pushkin’s poem, the final emphasis is on люблю — love.

How can this be fixed, without resorting to inverted syntax? The aforementioned reader suggested including je t’aime (French “I love you”) to stay in line with the use of French pronouns.

So I tried that:

Tu and Vous

A cordial tu for empty vous
Slipped out instead when she addressed me,
And with this cozy lover’s you
Awakened hopes that soon possessed me.

I stand here as she reads this through,
To look away now just won’t do;
I say with vous, aren’t you a gem!
But think with tu, how much je t’aime!

However, in order to make it work, I changed the rhyme scheme to ccdd and cut out the feminine rhymes. Not pleased about that, especially since it destroys the symmetry.

Here is another version, which both ends on the English word love and uses the cDDc scheme:

Tu and Vous

A cordial tu for empty vous
Slipped out instead when she addressed me,
And with this cozy lover’s you
Awakened hopes that soon possessed me.

And now, what am I thinking of,
Can’t look away, her smile’s disarming;
I say with vous, well aren’t you charming!
But think with tu, it’s you I love!

But for that to work, I sacrificed some things I liked about the literal meaning, as well as the interpretation. Perhaps I must keep trying.


Which version do you prefer?

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2 thoughts on “Translation Challenge: Pushkin’s “Ты и вы” in English

  1. Randi,
    How utterly delightful!
    A language/translation/literature/history/poetry lesson all-in-one! Without sounding preachy. Quite an achievement!
    I loved this:
    I say with vous, aren’t you delightful!
    But think with tu, how I love you!
    Tu & vous—excellent choice!

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