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The Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize 2014
for the translation of Russian poetry into English
in association with The London Magazine


The Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize
Read the judges’ reports


A Pale Horse

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death.
Revelation 6:8

The street was like a raging whirlwind. Crowd after crowd
Passed as if pursued by some inexorable Fate,
Omnibuses, cabs and automobiles dashed around,
The furious flux of people was measureless, insatiate.
The spinning eyes of signboards blazed fiercely at this nether
City from the skies, from the frightening height of thirtieth floors;
The yells of restless newsboys and the cracks of whips, together
With the rumbling, leaping wheels, merged in a proud hymnal voice.
The moons, chained high above, poured down their sap, moons, full
Of cold merciless light, created by Nature's overlords.
Amid this light, amid this hum – the human souls were youthful,
The souls of the intoxicated, city-drinking hordes.

And suddenly – into this whirlwind, into this hellish murmur,
Into this frenzied nightmare which had assumed the forms of earth
There rushed, there plunged a starkly alien, dissenting tremor,
Muffling the rumble of carriages, the prattle, the verbal froth.
From around the corner a rider appeared, his face on fire,
The steed flew hurriedly, then stopped, one saw its eyes ignite.
In the air faint echoes of shouts still trembled, but rose no higher
Than this shuddering moment, when eyes looked aghast, overflown with cruel fright!
The rider held in his hands an unrolled scroll, stretched-out
In burning brilliant letters, which announced a name: Death...
As a tangle of scarlet threads from some loosened yarn, the stout
Firmament over the street went up swiftly in fiery breath.

Then, in great terror, shielding their faces, people
Now crying senselessly: 'O grief! God is with us!',
Now, falling on the pavement, throbbed in one huge heap, all
At once, while animals hid their muzzles between their paws.
Only a woman who had been always working here, for this is
The street where she sold her beauty, flung herself towards the horse,
Weeping loudly and covering its hooves with kisses,
Stretching her hands out, to the flaming day, her heart all rapturous.
And also a rumpled madman, a runaway from the clinic, not party
To the general daze, ran out, shrieking at the top of his vocal chords:
'People! Do you not see? This is the hand of the Almighty!
A quarter of you will perish – by pestilence, hunger, swords!'

Yet the rapture, the horror lasted but for a brief moment.
A short while later no one was motionless in a baffled throng:
From the adjacent streets a different, new movement
Ran in, and all was normal, the day's light spread along.
And no one could answer, in the whirlwind multi-clangoured,
Whether it had been a vision from above or an empty dream.
Only the woman from the brothel and the madman hungered
For the vanished rider, reaching out their hands to him.
But they, too, were soon swept away by crowd after crowd
Like some useless words from a long discarded slate.
Omnibuses, cabs and automobiles dashed around,
The furious flux of people was measureless, insatiate.

Translated from the Russian by Vlanes


Конь блед

И се конь блед и сидящий на нем, имя ему Смерть.
Откровение, VI, 8

Улица была — как буря. Толпы проходили,
Словно их преследовал неотвратимый Рок.
Мчались омнибусы, кебы и автомобили,
Был неисчерпаем яростный людской поток.
Вывески, вертясь, сверкали переменным оком,
С неба, с страшной высоты тридцатых этажей;
В гордый гимн сливались с рокотом колес и скоком
Выкрики газетчиков и щелканье бичей.
Лили свет безжалостный прикованные луны,
Луны, сотворенные владыками естеств.
В этом свете, в этом гуле — души были юны,
Души опьяневших, пьяных городом существ.

И внезапно — в эту бурю, в этот адский шепот,
В этот воплотившийся в земные формы бред,
Ворвался, вонзился чуждый, несозвучный топот,
Заглушая гулы, говор, грохоты карет.
Показался с поворота всадник огнеликий,
Конь летел стремительно и стал с огнем в глазах.
В воздухе еще дрожали — отголоски, крики,
Но мгновенье было — трепет, взоры были — страх!
Был у всадника в руках развитый длинный свиток,
Огненные буквы возвещали имя: Смерть...
Полосами яркими, как пряжей пышных ниток,
В высоте над улицей вдруг разгорелась твердь.

И в великом ужасе, скрывая лица, — люди
То бессмысленно взывали: «Горе! с нами бог!»,
То, упав на мостовую, бились в общей груде...
Звери морды прятали, в смятеньи, между ног.
Только женщина, пришедшая сюда для сбыта
Красоты своей, — в восторге бросилась к коню,
Плача целовала лошадиные копыта,
Руки простирала к огневеющему дню.
Да еще безумный, убежавший из больницы,
Выскочил, растерзанный, пронзительно крича:
«Люди! Вы ль не узнаете божией десницы!
Сгибнет четверть вас — от мора, глада и меча!»

Но восторг и ужас длились — краткое мгновенье.
Через миг в толпе смятенной не стоял никто:
Набежало с улиц смежных новое движенье,
Было все обычным светом ярко залито.
И никто не мог ответить, в буре многошумной,
Было ль то виденье свыше или сон пустой.
Только женщина из зал веселья да безумный
Всё стремили руки за исчезнувшей мечтой.
Но и их решительно людские волны смыли,
Как слова ненужные из позабытых строк.
Мчались омнибусы, кебы и автомобили,
Был неисчерпаем яростный людской поток.

Valery Bryusov

Translator’s commentary

I decided to translate the poem 'The Pale Horse' because, firstly, it is a famous classic and is worthy of any translator's efforts and, secondly, since my early years were spent in the gloomy, post-perestroika Russia, I felt a particular affinity with this text, its apocalyptic intensity and daring imagery. Translating a Russian poem into English is a difficult task, because the principles are so different. Russian poetry adheres to strict metre and rhymes. The interplay between metre and rhythm is much less prominent than in English poetry. The distinction between masculine and feminine rhymes is much more pronounced. Russian words are significantly longer than English ones, which forces the translator to deal with the lacunae which need to be filled by finding longer synonyms or by inserting the translator's own material. These difficulties abundantly manifest themselves in 'The Pale Horse' and are aggravated by an unusual, bouncing rhythm of the accented verse which reaches great variety within the seven-foot lines. I followed the original as closely as possible, preserving the original order of masculine and feminine rhymes, the number of lines and the division into stanzas. A particularly difficult task was to create an approximation of Bryusov's virtuosic metre. Seven-foot lines are long even for Russian poetry. To retain liveliness in such long lines as these, the English rhythm must be particularly varied. Thus, several compound rhymes were admitted, because they make the line more flexible. I tried not to bring in any imagery not found in the original. However, the decision to preserve the original rhymes made it necessary to deviate slightly from the original syntax. Keeping the balance between form and original meaning is, perhaps, the hardest yet most rewarding aspect of a poetry translation which strives for formal fidelity.