12.20.2009

The Twelve by Aleksandr Blok

I have always loved revolutionary history. It's not a fascination with violence or really even an assumption that the revolutionaries are necessarily right - but just that, in the best of revolutions, I love that feeling of a sort of awakening popular heart. I also love poetry. Blok, a poet who marched the streets of St Petersburg in the Russian Revolution would seem to be a perfect fit for me.
And there was much to love about this poem. The poem described 12 red soldiers tramping through Moscow in a snowstorm in the early days of the Revolution. But the beautiful thing is, Blok believes in the revolution but still sees these men for what they are - devoid of humanity, when who have been whipped up into forces of nature, brimming with hatred and coarseness. Heroes they are not. But at the end, Blok destined them continuing down the streets of Moscow, with Christ at their head, living personifications of the twelve apostles.
It's an uncomfortable ending, as the greatest revolutionary literature should be, and asks all the right questions: can a cruel system be destroyed without cruelty? When we make men into animals, are they responsible for their actions afterward? Can a just god use mass destruction and death as a tool yo create life? Can just men do the same?
Sadly the translation stunk.
I don't read Russian, so maybe Blok just wasn't any good in terms of his prosody, but I doubt it. The writing felt tipsy and sing-song, like a bad imitation of Tennyson. And I went back and read how the book was translated? A Russian professor and a poet who knew no Russian at all worked together. The professor would do a literal translation and then the poet would make it sound like opoetry. Um... That probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but...
There are some snippets of the poem online, in what seems to be a better tanslation. My favorite is the last stanza:

Behind them limps the hungry dog,
and wrapped in wild snow at their head
carrying a blood-red flag ~
soft-footed where the blizzard swirls,
invulnerable where bullets crossed ~
crowned with a crown of snowflake pearls,
a flowery diadem of frost,
ahead of them goes Jesus Christ.

3 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Poetry in the Russian language is very difficult to translate, not only because of the differences in the languages but in the concepts of poetry. It's too bad because it's such an interesting culture, and poetry is valorized there, by the way, much more than here. I was fortunate to go to St. Petersburg several times during the deepest of the winter, and there is just nothing like going then for getting a sense of the culture, not to mention the Revolution.

Eva said...

I've got a Russian language edition of Blok! He's not my fave poet, but he's definitely better than your translation sounds. :D

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Rhapsodyinbooks - Yes, I've heard that, even now, there's still a big emphasis on rhyme and meter, and traditional lyricism, unlike modern English poetry, which leaves those things behind as often as not. There are so many languages I'd love to read poetry in!

Ms Eva - Which are your favorite Russian Poets? I've now read this, Tsvetaeva and Pushkin, and of the three, the Tsvetaeva is the only one that really became a big favorite :). It's so hard with poetry!