Now I need to  want to say goodbye

I used to know you loved me by your eyes
Not the eyes  of judgement cruel and  dark
 Yet I need to  learn to say goodbye

Every day  deserted lovers cry
Our eyes grow dim, they lose their living spark
I used to know you loved me by your eyes

You were full of humour, I can’t sigh
Remember swans, the  frozen lake, the park?
Now I need to  want to say goodbye

Like a lark, your soul flew to the sky
Near Studland Bay,  where small birds seem to talk
I used to know you loved me by your eyes

My tears fell like a  curtain from each eye
I could only see you in the dark
Now I need the will to say goodbye

Though not  violent, you have made your mark
We got into that  rhythm when we walked
I used to know you’d  love me till I died
Even after death, I feel you by.


Translation across the Iron Curtain


low angle photo of ceiling
Photo by Daria Shevtsova on


This is the beginning

          It is impossible that any Russian poem should survive, undamaged, magically transported into the English language. The simplest Russian word has no exact equivalent in English. A table is a different table. The food on it is different. The life around it is different. Its image, its behaviour as a word is different; rectangular and immutable in English, possibly round and probably inflected in Russian. Better to admit defeat at the outset. It will be a different poem. All the more important, therefore, to try and preserve whatever you can. Not only the sense, but the spirit of the thing conveyed through the rhyme, the rhythm, the music of the original. If you are not a poet when you start to translate poetry, you will be by the time you are finished. It becomes so natural a means of expression that you find yourself writing your own stuff.

          Some translators, of course, were poets before they began. Great writers have translated other great writers. But you have only to compare the original with the translation to hear the persistence of the poet-translator’s creative voice, even while submitting himself to the discipline of faithfully following someone else’s ideas, someone else’s choice of the form in which they are to be expressed.

          Since the thing, then, is inherently impossible, why try? Why do it at all? There are, of course, some advantages for the English reader. He can satisfy his curiosity. For instance, why all the fuss about Griboedov? What is this wonderful verse-comedy of his? What characters did he create, what views did he hold, what feelings did he express? Why is he so great? This last, alas, is a question which no translation will answer. No, the true beneficiary of any translation is the translator. There is no better way of valuing a work, getting under the skin of it, sucking the juice out of every last line of it, than trying to translate it.

          I encountered Gore ot uma during my first year at London University, studying Russian language and literature. And here I must mention my only advantage over you Russians; I didn’t ‘do’ Gore ot uma  at school. (Imagine reading it for the first time at sixty-two.) One of our professors gave a lecture on the literature of the early 19th Century. ‘There is this brilliant verse-comedy by Aleksandr Griboedov’, he said, ‘but it is completely untranslatable.’ The challenge was irresistible. I went to the library after the lecture, took out the play and started at once.

          The problems were numerous. How to preserve Griboedov’s laconic style, compressed sometimes to the point of obscurity? What to do, for instance, with that reference to Tolstoi Amerikanets? Short of a footnote, how is the English reader to guess at that disastrous voyage of his? How to convey the irony implicit in Griboedov’s double game, in which Chatskii shows us the flaws in Moscow while Griboedov shows us the flaws in Chatskii? In the attempt to convey a sense of Griboedov’s  masterpiece, one is required to joke like an ambitious bureaucrat, think like a revolutionary, feel like a Moscow socialite or a young man in love – in short, to jettision one’s own view of the world, and share, briefly, for the space of a play, the author’s – or his characters’ – experience of it. the problems are varied; the challenge is always the same. How to preserve the spirit of the original.

Darkening sky

How the sky tried to turn black but the cloud thinned
Leaving a dull yellow ochre,  lightening slowly
To cream
A black cat leaped onto the fence
I think he’s sleeping here
But he never shows me his face
He runs as if a banger has gone off behind him
As if he’s going to take off like an aeroplane
He hides in the dark green shade
The honeysuckle chuckles, wishes to see more
The wrens ignore him from their holly tree
Too prickly for domestic cats