Rowan Berry Poem - Marina Tsvetaeva - Russian to English translation

Marina Tsvetaeva’s Rowan Berry Poem, Translated from Russian

I promised Facebook I would, and so it is done! Presenting a Russian-to-English translation of this brief but beautiful poem by famed Silver Age poet Marina Tsvetaeva:

Marina Tsvetaeva - Krasnoyu Kistyu -
Poem by Marina Tsvetaeva; photo by me as I walked down my street in Novosibirsk.

You can listen to a nice reading of it here.

I loved this poem as soon as I saw the word рябина (ryabina) — rowan. Besides the Siberian birch, which must always take the top spot, the rowan was my favorite tree in Russia. When the berries started to turn red in autumn — and to cluster even more in winter — I couldn’t stop taking pictures.

In fact, this post’s featured photo is one I took on Novosibirsk’s Pervomaisky Square on October 8, Marina Tsvetaeva’s birthday!

It’s very relevant to this poem, as the first two stanzas take place on the poet’s actual birthday — the Orthodox feast of St. John the Evangelist, on September 26. (October 8 according to the Gregorian calendar.)

To get a better sense of the original’s content, here is an UGLY LITERAL TRANSLATION (with some lines switched around because of Russian vs. English word order):

In red clusters
The rowan tree came alight.
The leaves fell,
I was born.

Hundreds of bells
The day was a Saturday,
[the feast of] St. John the Evangelist.

Even to this day
I have the urge to gnaw
On the hot rowan tree’s
Bitter clusters.

Now, for a formal translation, this poem presents some interesting challenges.

The rhyme scheme is fairly straightforward: AbAb CdCd EfEf, with alternating feminine and masculine rhymes. The meter, however, is not so easy to pin down.

Each line has two stresses, except for “Колоколов,” which is a single word and can have only one stress in Russian. (An English speaker reading it would instinctively insert a secondary stress.) So far, so good.

But is the rhythm iambic? Trochaic? Dactylic? Anapestic? The answer is not so clear-cut as in Pushkin and Fet.

The first and third lines of each stanza have the same meter: a dactyl (DA-da-da) followed by a trochee (DA-da). A similar stress pattern in English would be “Carrots and apples.”

KRAS-no-yu KIST-yu

PAD-a-li LIST-ya

This rhythm gives the poem a sing-song, rather folkloric feel.

In between, in the second and fourth lines, the meter is rather different … and it’s not uniform among all the lines. For the most part, we start with a dactyl (DA-da-da) and end with a single stressed syllable. A comparable pattern in English would be “Peaches and plums.” This is particularly strong in the last stanza:

KHO-chet-sya GRYZT

GOR-ku-yu KIST

However, in the first stanza/second line, and in the entire second stanza, Tsvetaeva inserts some extra unstressed syllables at the beginning. (Exception: the “колоколов” line, which would be partially stressed at the beginning … if an English speaker like me were reading. 🙂 )

Since Tsvetaeva took the liberty of some near-rhymes and variations in meter, I decided I could let my hair down a little, too … even to the point of omitting the feminine rhymes. (I know, here’s my wrist, you may slap it.)

Perhaps I’ll return to this later and make it a fully rhyming poem, but for now, here’s the metered and partially rhymed version:

Bright rowan berries
Lit up the tree.
Leaves fell in flurries,
I came to be.

Hundreds of church bells
Clamored at dawn.
That day was solemn:
The feast of St. John.

Even to this hour
I long to chew
The hot rowan’s cluster
Of bitter red fruit.

I’m not quite happy with the word chew, as it feels somewhat jarring; nor hour, which is more specific than I wanted (but I didn’t want to repeat “day”); nor the word flurries, which evokes snow (more of a reality at the Catholic feast of St. John than at the Orthodox feast). I also interpreted субботний as referring to a solemn religious day or “sabbath” rather than specifically to Saturday, although she was literally born on Saturday. Still, the meter is there, and I’m happy for now.

What feeling do you get from Tsvetaeva’s poem? What do you think it means?

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