Untranslatables ➲ Translating A. Fet's Sensual “Whispers…”
Updated: Jul 8
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Afanasy Fet’s Lyrical “Whispers…” and Its Six Different Translations (Лирическое стихотворение Афанасия Фета «Шепот, робкое дыханье» и шесть вариантов его перевода)
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A lyrical genius and a pragmatic landowner, Fet struggled to fit in the pre-revolutionary Russia. Withdrawn and increasingly low-spirited, he found refuge and escape in his poetry, his style reaching virtuosic heights.
Fet’s 12-line poem “Whispers…” was Dostoevsky’s favorite. Consisting of only nouns and adjectives, it is not unlike an impressionistic sketch: With its suggestiveness and restless dynamism, it makes no statements. It just feels.
There have been many translations of this tiny poem. When it was first published in 1850, it caused quite a stir. Here, I have put together several different translations, some more recent than the others. This is a great way to examine different styles, as well as to contemplate the vastness of the linguistic world we share.
Interestingly enough, the last two versions were created by the same translators, Babette Deutsch (1895–1982) and Avrahm Yarmolinsky (1890–1975). The first version appeared in the Anthology of Modern Russian Poetry in 1921, the fruit of the Deutsch–Yarmolinsky collaboration. Then, Yarmolinsky revised and augmented the collection, which was published in 1949 under the title A Treasury of Russian Verse.
Шепот, робкое дыханье
Шепот, робкое дыханье,
Серебро и колыханье
Свет ночной, ночные тени,
Тени без конца,
Ряд волшебных изменений
В дымных тучках пурпур розы,
И лобзания, и слезы,
И заря, заря!..
Whispers and the Timid Breathing Tryst
trans. by M. G. Dickinson Bianchi trans. by J. Pollen
Whispers and the timid breathing, A whisper, a gentle sigh,
Nightingale's long trill, Trills of the nightingale;
Silver moonlight and the rocking The silver flash of the brook
Of the dreaming rill; Asleep in the sleepy vale.
Nightly light and nightly shadow, The shadows and shine of night—
Shadow’s endless lace— Shadows in endless race;
Neath the moon's enchanted changes The sweep of a magical change
The Beloved’s face. Over a sweet young face.
Blinking stars as flash of amber, The blush of a rose in the mist,
Snowy clouds on-rush, An amber gleam on the lawn;
Tears and happiness and kisses— A rush of kisses and tears—
And the dawn's red blush And oh, “the Dawn! the Dawn!”
Whispering and timid breathings… • • •
trans. by E. Dubnov and J. Heath-Stubbs trans. by Unanimous
Whispering and timid breathings, Nightingales, a sigh, a whisper
Nightingale's soft trill, In a shady nook
Silvery and rippling motion And the lullaby in silver
Of the drowsy rill, Of a lazy brook.
Nighttime radiance, nighttime shadows, Light of night and midnight shadow
Shadows' endless dance, Falling from above
Magic sequences transforming And the changing mood and magic
Love's dear countenance, Of a face you love.
In the little smokey cloudlets Through dark clouds a red rose peeping
Rose's purple hue, And an amber gleam,
Gleam of amber, tears, caresses— And the kissing and the weeping
Dawn, the dawn, anew!.. And the dawn serene!
Whispers. Timid Breathing Whispers
trans. by B. Deutsch & A. Yarmolinsky (1921) trans. by B. Deutsch & A. Yarmolinsky (1949)
Whispers. Timid breathing. Trilling Whispers. Timid breathing. Trilling
Of a nightingale. Of a nightingale.
Heaving silver waters trilling And below the runnel rocking,
In the quiet vale. Sleepy, silver-pale.
Night's dim light and shadows dreaming Strange nocturnal lights and shadows,
Through the haze of space. Shadows that enlace.
Moods like faery lanterns gleaming Row on row of magic changes
On the dearest face. On the dearest face.
Smoky clouds show roses sleeping, Smoky cloudlets, rose and purple,
Amber lights and fawn. With a tinge of fawn.
Kisses soft, and softer weeping. Kisses. Ah, and tears among them.
And the dawn, the dawn! And the dawn, the dawn!