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The Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize 2011

Joint third prize

Read the judges’ report

Alyssa Gillespie


Two trees desire to come together.
Two trees. Just opposite my window.
The trees are old. My house is also.
But I am young, or else, quite likely,
I would not pity strange trees’ sorrows.

The smaller one, its arms outreaching,
Just like a woman, overreaches
Its furthest sinews—cruel to watch it,
Still reaching—toward that one, the other:
The older, more unbending being—
And yet the more forlorn one, maybe.

Two trees: amidst the sunset’s ardor
And in the rain—and when the snow falls—
Forevermore: one toward the other,
Such is the law: one toward the other,
Unchanging law: one toward the other.

Translated from the Russian by Alyssa Gillespie
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Два дерева хотят друг к другу.
Два дерева. Напротив дом мой.
Деревья старые. Дом старый.
Я молода, а то б, пожалуй,
Чужих деревьев не жалела.

То, что поменьше, тянет руки,
Как женщина, из жил последних
Вытянулось, — смотреть жестоко,
Как тянется — к тому, другому,
Что старше, стойче и — кто знает? —
Еще несчастнее, быть может.

Два дерева: в пылу заката
И под дождем — еще под снегом —
Всегда, всегда: одно к другому,
Таков закон: одно к другому,
Закон один: одно к другому.

Marina Tsvetaeva
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Translation commentary


This short, seemingly simple poem is written in a much quieter, more reserved tone than the majority of Tsvetaeva’s works, and yet it captures, in its charming, understated way, one of the key ideas of her poetics: the aesthetic and emotional power of a desired yet impossible meeting. For both these reasons, I have always found it to be extremely moving. This was my reason for choosing to translate it: I wanted to try my hand at rendering its poignant beauty into my own native language.

Because this poem, unlike most Russian poems, does not rhyme, I found that it lent itself more easily to conversion into a natural poetic idiom in English than is usually the case. Yet due to the poem’s regular meter (iambic tetrameter with feminine line endings), a melodic structure emerges that creates the impression of rhyme; it was not until I began to analyze the poem closely in preparation for translating it that I realized that it was not, in fact, rhymed. Perhaps the absence of rhyme against the acoustic fabric of the poem’s undulating rhythms represents the impossibility of the two trees’ meeting despite their constant straining toward one another.

Freed from the necessity of rhyming, the greatest challenge for me in translating this poem was recreating the contours of its melody, which convey the unique signature of the poet’s thought patterns and intonations. I did this in three ways: staying faithful to the metrical structure of the original; replicating, as closely as possible, the relationship of phrasing to the poetic line, so that caesuras and enjambments are mostly preserved; and finally, maintaining the lexical echoes that resonate in the poem. Thus, ‘тянет’ / ‘вытянулось’ / ‘тянется’ becomes ‘outreaching’ / ‘overreaches’ / ‘reaching,’ and the desolate repetitions of the final stanza are left intact.

Alyssa Gillespie