E.J. Neather. Shakespeare's Sonnet 2: When Forty Winters... Some Thoughts on Four Russian Translations

How is one to evaluate poetry in translation? The question has often been posed and never receives a wholly satisfactory answer. In poetry, the welding of matter and form is so close that no dissociation is admissable. Should the translator aim to achieve that same unity? There are extremes of opinion. Nabokov declared on a number of occasions, with reference to English versions of Pushkin, that anything but the «clumsiest literalism» is a fraud. (See, for example, Nabokov 1964 and 1966). He defended the necessity for literal accuracy in translation. For him there is no latitude in freedom of expression in translating an original work, and an English reader of his translation of Evgenii Onegin would have no sense of the poetry of the work.

At the other end of the scale, the American poet Robert Lowell published a volume of Imitations, (1962) drawing inspiration from Pasternak, Rilke, Baudelaire and others to produce new poems. Pasternak himself was most emphatic in asserting that literary translation is an art. The translator, he claims, must be free from the demands of literal exactitude if he or she is to capture the force of the original work. «We have already said that translations are impossible because the principal charm of a work of art lies in its uniqueness. How then can a translation repeat this? Translations are conceivable, because they too should be works of art and, in sharing a common text, should stand on a level with the original, through their own uniqueness». [This first appeared in Знамя. 1944. Nos 1—2. P. 165—166. Translated and quoted by France, 1978].

George Steiner [1966, Introduction] comes down on the side of verse translation, claiming, «Though always imperfect, a verse translation... is more responsible to the movement of spirit in the original than a downward translation into prose can ever be».

An earlier critic, Postgate [1922. P. 77], made similar claims: «Verse in itself is a more powerful engine than prose; it has a further range and its impact is heavier. Hence the sacrifice entailed by rendering verse into prose is a very real one».

Perhaps the best one can hope to find in a translation is an equivalent effect, what Nida [1964. P. 166] calls «dynamic equivalence». Equivalence may occur at various levels, for example, Linguistic (= word for word), Paradigmatic (= elements of grammar), Stylistic (= expressive features, including imagery) and Textual (= form and shape).

Although such a structured analysis provides a useful approach, it cannot guarantee that the poem, or its translation will be viewed as a whole. That whole, that coming together of content and form is what Susan Langer [1970. P. 260—261] refers to when she writes: «Though the material of poetry is verbal, its import is not the literal assertion made by the words, but the way the assertion is made, and this involves the sound, the tempo, the aura of associations of the words, the long or short sequences of ideas, the wealth or poverty of transient imagery that contains them, the sudden arrest of fantasy by pure fact, or of familiar fact by sudden fantasy, the suspense of literal meaning by a sustained ambiguity resolved in a long-awaited key-word, and the unifying, all-embracing artifice of rhyme».

A similar point is made by Empson [1965. P. 6]: «For we may know what has been put into the pot and recognise the objects in the stew, but the juice in which they are sustained must be regarded with a peculiar respect, because they are all in there too, somehow, and one does not know how they are all combined or held in suspension».

In the end, the critic who wishes to apply consistent standards to judging translations finds that often the criteria applied can only be subjective, individual and instinctive. For example Mathews [1959. P. 68] states: «Just as every way of translating poetry is partial, every way of judging the results is partial. It is one of the most hazardous, and it nearly always appears to others as the most whimsical of all literary judgements. Yet the final test of a translated poem must be, does it speak, does it sing?».

Such a claim for individual response reminds us of Barthes» comment that the reader being a producer as well as a consumer of the text, may focus on various aspects of the text to find equivalence. But who is this reader? It is an inevitable paradox of making judgments on translations, that the only persons capable of such judgements and of appreciating levels of equivalence, are those who have no need of a translation, since they are able to read and analyse the original.

It is possible that no poems have been more often translated than Shakespeare's Sonnets. Many translators, including great poets from other languages have been drawn to these astonishing poems; Stefan George, Ungaretti, Pasternak among others. This paper concentrates on a single poem, Sonnet No 2. Faced with the range and depth contained within these 14 lines of verse, one can only marvel at the persistence of translators who confine themselves within limitations of length, rhythm and rhyme-scheme to arrive at their goal. As indicated above in referring to Popov's criteria for equivalence, this analysis could approach the translations of the poem from many angles. However, the present study focuses almost entirely on the images which lie at the heart of the poem. The following debate will consider the way in which the meaning and internal logic of the poem is contained within the sequence of metaphors. It will be suggested that fidelity to the poet's images should be a central concern of translation. Reference will also be made to the consistency and unity of images in the Sonnets. Shakespeare's return to certain repeated images within changing contexts is an important part of the thematic coherence of the cycle.

We shall begin by first analysing the poem in the original, so that we can then make comparative statements when considering the Russian versions.

    Sonnet 2
When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field,
Thy youth's proud livery, so gaz'd on now,
Will be a tatter'd weed, of small worth held:
Then being ask'd, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say within thine own deep-sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv'd thy beauty's use,
If thou could'st answer, «This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count and make my old excuse,»
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel'st it cold.

This sonnet forms part of the opening cycle of 17 sonnets, usually referred to as the «marriage sonnets». The group is summarized by Dover Wilson [1967. P. 89] as follows:

«The Poet implores a very handsome and evidently very distinguished young man to marry and beget heirs, that his beauty and grace be not lost to the world but carried on to succeeding generations». It's question, simply stated, is; What will happen when you grow old and have no child to perpetuate your grace and beauty?».

Over and above the theme of the «marriage» sonnets, Sonnet 2 has a central significance in the whole cycle. It focuses on the theme of beauty, (the word is repeated four times in this poem) and the transitoriness of beauty. The theme of the passage of time is underlined by the way the poem contrasts the present and the distant future. So the young man is confronted with the contrast between his present image and his likely future state.

The sonnet is direct and apostrophic in its address to the young man. The possessive pronoun thy/thine, and the pronoun thou are insistently repeated. Even when the first person possessives are used (my count... my old excuse), they refer to the loved thou.

The arguments used to persuade the young man are powerfully reinforced by the sequence of images. And the sequence of these images is essential to the inner logic of the poem's argument. Four images follow on through the poem, all concerned with beauty and the assaults of time upon the beauty of youth.

The first image draws from siege warfare. The young man's brow is seen as a defensive wall, a citadel besieged by Time which digs trenches in the surrounding field. (Cf., [Titus Andronicus, V 2], those trenches made by grief and care). This image is certainly not that of a ploughed agricultural landscape. These are military siege trenches, dug deep. They are not furrows and certainly not wrinkles, although wrinkles do appear in similar images, for example Sonnet 100, my love's sweet face survey, / if Time have any wrinkle graven there. The lines of age appear again in Sonnet 63, where injurious time has filled his brow 1 With lines and wrinkles. The siege metaphor applied to the ravages of Time reappears in Sonnet 65, the wrackful siege of battering days.

The image moves to the outward show of clothing. The magnificent apparel of youth, (cp. [Hamlet, IV 7], the light and careless livery that it (youth) wears), degenerates to miserable rags. Livery has the sense of a uniform worn in the service of a feudal lord. The lord is here the beauty of youth (thy youth's proud livery) and the young man is, so to speak, in service to that master.

The metaphors of value begin with the phrase of small worth to refer to the tattered garment of faded beauty (weed is now obsolete in the sense of garment), and continue with reference to the treasure of youth's lusty days. The treasure of passing beauty is a constant theme in the Sonnets. Thus:

... ... ...Where, alack,
Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?

      [Sonnet 65]

And in the final sonnet of the sequence addressed to the young man [126] we find the poet addressing Nature, sovereign mistress, who ultimately must also give way to Time: She may detain but not still keep her treasure.

To waste such a treasure would be thriftless. This brings us to the last image, that of thrift, profit and loss. The young man should consider the use of his beauty, i.e. by investing it in a child. In that case the beauty of the child shall sum my count, i.e. will represent the whole treasure of beauty entrusted to him and wisely invested. The child will serve as an excuse for the loss of beauty in old age. The images of thrift and wastefulness are particular prevalent in the sequence of «marriage» sonnets. Sonnet 4 begins:

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty's legacy.

In Sonnet 6, the image of treasure is linked to that of some precious distillation to be preserved:

Make sweet some vial, treasure thou some place
With beauty's treasure, ere it be self-killed.

This sonnet also develops the themes of investment (use) and loan.

All these images point to the transitoriness of human beauty. Besieging time destroys beauty; beauty is worn out by time like a garment and beauty is a treasure which is easily lost, and of which the owner must later give account.

Helen Vendler [1997. P. 53] sees the sonnet as raising «the question of the locus of self-worth: Does it lie in the self or in the world's opinion of the self?» [P. 53]. She sketches out the structure of the sonnet, after the opening lines, as following from the question, (Then being asked...). At a mature age the young man may have two possible answers. One, (within thine own deep-sunken eyes) is dismissed by the world as gluttony and waste. The other (This fair child...) deserves more praise. The final couplet adds a persuasive judgment by the speaker. So [Vendler, op. cit. P. 55]: «The sonnet offers two motives for action. The first arises from a social morality dependent on others» response, in which one acts so as to avoid shame or receive praise or make excuse. The social morality... however, is displaced in the closing couplet by an appeal to individual pleasure: the reward for reproducing and the source of self-worth is now narcissistic (warm blood, new self) rather than social...».

The four Russian versions to be discussed are by S. Marshak, Ya. Kolker, S. Stepanov and A. Finkel. The focus of this analysis is upon the inner logic of the images discussed above. There is no attempt here to consider grammatical and lexical equivalence or to make phonological comparisons between English and Russian. These are all legitimate subjects for study, but the contention of the present author is that the core of meaning of the poem is bound up with its central, interlocking images and it is in their rendering of these images that the translations should be considered. As one commentator has remarked, «Syntax, lexis, sound, culture but not image, clash with each other» [Newmark, 1988. P. 165]. If one went as far as to say that the central truth of this poem lies in its images, one might also cite a Russian commentator who remarks: «Известно: переводятся не слова, а смыслы. Важно оценивать перевод не столько с позиции точности, сколько — верности» [Павел Грушко. Там же, 6 августа 2001].

The first quatrain

С. Маршак

Когда твое чело избороздят
Глубокими следами сорок зим,
Кто будет помнить царственный наряд,
Гнушаясь жалким рубищем твоим.

Marshak has discarded the opening image of siege and concentrates only on the tracks carved by forty winters, thus leaving the image incomplete. In introducing the second image, he has lost some of the sense of English livery which suggests a uniform. He has also brought in the idea of memory (Кто будет помнить) which is not present in the original. This is significant, because Shakespeare looks ahead to future judgments and questions but does not mention the idea of people at that future time thinking back.

Я. Колкер

Все говорят, что ты неотразим,
Но и тебя избороздят морщины,
Высокий лоб распашут сорок зим,
И станешь ты подобием мужчины.

The force of Shakespeare's opening has been quite lost here. Все говорят is a weak opening. Nor is there anything here of the siege. The image has become agricultural ploughing rather than military encirclement. Неотразим introduces a completely new idea into the poem, which makes no reference to proud livery and loses a second major image.

С. Степанов

Когда твое чело, как рвами поле,
Изроют сорок зим, увидишь ты
В прекрасном красоты своей камзоле
Линялые лохмотья нищеты.

Here again, the field is agriculturally ploughed rather than militarily trenched, so that the opening image of siege has gone. The image of proud livery becoming tattered weed has been fixed rather specifically to the idea of clothing only and not, as in the original, acting as a metaphor for the appearance of youth and age.

А. Финкель

Когда тебя осадят сорок зим
На лбу твоем траншей пророют ряд,
Истреплется, метелями гоним,
Твоей весны пленительный наряд.

Here the image of siege has been retained in the opening line. In fact, this first line is probably closest to the original of the four translations here, although the brow which forms the target of the siege does not appear here till line 2. Here too we have траншей rather than the less significant морщины of Kolker or the следами of Marshak. The rendering of thy youth's proud livery as Твоей весны пленительный наряд is impressive, but метелями гоним moves entirely away from the original.

The second quatrain

С. Маршак

И на вопрос «Где прячутся сейчас
Остатки красоты веселых лет?» —
Что скажешь ты? На дне угасших глаз?
Но злой насмешкой будет твой ответ.

Despite the force of Marshak's version here, and the vigour of his questions, one must point out that the images of treasure and thrift have been lost. Остатки красоты has to render all thy beauty and also all the treasure.

Я. Колкер

Цветком сухим, что без дождя зачах,
А на вопрос: «Где красота былая?»
Ответишь так: «В проваленных очах»,
Постыдную растрату подтверждая.

It is perhaps worth noting that this version disturbs the form of the original by running together lines 4 and 5, so that the first and second quatrains are not clearly delineated. Here again, Kolker introduces wholly new imagery into his version of line 5. However, he does include the image of waste in растрату even if not the idea of thrift.

С. Степанов

И если вопросят тебя с укором:
«Где ныне свежесть красоты твоей?»
Ответить будет для тебя позором —
Мол, канула на дно твоих очей.

Here, treasure has been replaced, not wholly satisfactorily, by свежесть. Shame is retained, but there is nothing relating to thriftless.

А. Финкель

И если спросят: «Где веселых дней
Сокровища и где твой юный цвет?»
Не говори: «В глуби моих очей» —
Постыден и хвастлив такой ответ.

Finkel has retained the image of treasure; indeed, Где веселых дней / Сокровища is remarkably close to where all the treasure of thy lusty days. The negative imperative Не говори departs from the original, but Постыден и хвастлив renders both shame and boasting, even if there is no place for the crucial word thriftless applied to praise.

The third quatrain

In the third quatrain the sonnet reaches a climax. Picking up on the use of praise in line 8, this quatrain launches into a comparison, How much more praise... and develops the essential theme that there is a way to hold onto beauty. Central to this quatrain must therefore be the image of saving, investment, giving an account of treasure well managed.

С. Маршак

Достойней прозвучали бы слова:
«Вы посмотрите на моих детей.
Моя былая свежесть в них жива.
В них оправданье старости моей».

Marshak had already moved quite away from any reference to treasure and here he again sidesteps the continuance of the investment metaphor. There is nothing here of thrift, use (= investment), count (= account). He has also (possibly for the sake of a rhyme), suggested children in the plural, which departs from the original idea of one child to act as the vessel of loveliness.

Я. Колкер

Другой ответ, — он лучше во сто крат,
Души твоей прекрасной отраженье:
«Мое дитя — вот цель моих затрат,
Моих достоинств бренных продолженье».

Kolker has introduced the idea of затрата, but has quite changed the sense of the original, by making the child the purpose of the young man's expenditure (цель моих затрат), rather than the result of careful thrift and investment. The final line of the quatrain does introduce the idea of transitory worth and Shakespeare's succession is contained in the notion of continuance (продолженье).

С. Степанов

Но более другой ответ подходит:
«Вот сын мой! Он меня красой лица
И прелестью натуры превосходит
Во искупленье старости отца».

Stepanov, like the other translators so far considered, has no mention of thrift or investment. In this case, the sex of the child is fixed by сын, and the use of искупление approximates to make my old excuse.

А. Финкель

Насколько больше выиграл бы ты,
Когда б ответил: «Вот ребёнок мой,
Наследник всей отцовской красоты,
Он счеты за меня сведет с судьбой».

Finkel achieves the comparative, in the first line of the quatrain, present in the original, and important as a turning point in the poem: How much more praise... The notion of succession is conveyed by Наследник. Above all, the final line of this quatrain proves to be the only one of the four translations where the image of sum my count is rendered by the use of счет.

The final couplet

The couplet provides translators with particular problems, notably, the brevity and precision of the summary, with its key contrasts; new-made! old; see thy blood warm ! when thou knowst it cold. Finally, there is the need for a rhyming couplet.

С. Маршак

Пускай с годами стынущая кровь
В наследнике твоём пылает вновь!

Marshak triumphantly achieves the cold/warm contrast and a forceful final rhyming couplet. The new-made/old contrast is present, at least by implication, in the opposition с годами/наследник.

Я. Колкер

Ты сам поймешь, что кровь твоя не стынет,
Когда себя в своем узнаешь сыне.

Here the image of blood cooling is present, but not the contrast with warmth. Nor is there any idea of age or being new-made.

С. Степанов

Пусть в жилах кровь года твои остудят, —
В наследнике она горячей будет.

Stepanov has here the opposition of cold and hot blood. There is nothing of the sense of being new-made, or of being old, except as is conveyed by наследник.

А. Финкель

С ним в старости помолодеешь вновь,
Согреешь остывающую кровь.

Finkel's solution to the problems is effective and ingenious. The first line of the couplet juxtaposes notions of age and new youth; the second brings together the cooing and warming of the blood.

The analysis presented here is strictly limited in its concerns. My starting point is that the sonnets as a cycle and each sonnet taken individually show a complex, interlocking web of imagery. The images form the core of meaning of the poems and provide them with the internal logic of their progression. To what extent should a successful translation take such central images as a starting point? I am aware, of course, that there has been no consideration of choice of lexis, equivalence of rhymes, success in achieving rhythmic effects. Above all, no attempt has been made to assess the quality of the translations as poems in their own right. Such an appraisal is left to native speakers of Russian, and, ideally, native speakers with no knowledge of English, so that they may judge the translations as poems. Such readers can answer the question put by Mathews (supra. P. 2; «Does it speak? Does it sing?). The fact that the four translations concerned are so very different from each other shows the extent to which the authors have struggled with the problems and found differing solutions. Any reservations expressed in this paper cannot detract from admiration at the extent of their success.


Brower, Reuben. On Translation. — N.Y.: OUP, 1966.

Dover Wilson, J. (Ed.). The Sonnets. — Cambridge: CUP, 1967.

Empson, W. Seven Types of Ambiguity. — Harmondsworth; Penguin Books, 1965.

France, Anna Kaye. Boris Pasternak's Translations of Shakespeare. — Berkeley: Univers Press, 1978.

Langer, S. Philosphy in a New Key. — Cambridge; Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Lower, R. Imitations. — L.: Faber, 1962.

Mathews, J. «Third Thoughts on Translating Poetry» // On Translation / Ed. by R.A. Brower. — Cambridge; Mass.: Harvard U.P., 1959.

Nabokov, V. «On Translating Pushkin» // The New York Review of Books. — No 6. — April 30. — P. 14—16.

Nabokov, V. «The Servile Path» // On Translation / Ed. by R.A. Brower. — 1966.

Newmark, P. A Textbook of Translation. — Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall International, 1988.

Nida, E.A. Towards a Science of Translating. — Leiden, 1964.

Postgate J.P. Translation and Translations. — L., 1922.

Steiner, G. Poem into Poem. — L.: Pegnum Books, 1966.

Vender, H. The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. — Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Колкер Я.М. 64 Сонета Шекспира в новых переводах. — Рязань, 2000.

Шекспир. Сонеты / Перевод с английского С. Маршака. — М., 1994.

Шекспир. Сонеты / Перевод С. Степанова. — СПб., 1999.

Шекспир, Уильям. Сонеты. Наследники С. Маршака, А. Финкеля и другие. — СПб., 2000.

Предыдущая страница К оглавлению Следующая страница