Selected Criticism

Walt Whitman in Russian Translations: Whitman's "Footprint" in Russian Poetry

Elena Evich
Translated and annotated by Yelizaveta P. Renfro

There is a valid claim that vers libre most solidly entered Russian literature owing to translations of Walt Whitman's poetry. But in the history of Russian literature there were earlier treatments of free verse in poetry. For example, taktovik meter appears in Russian bylini,1  rhymed stressed verse in early asyllabic poetry, and free verse in Old Slavonic liturgical verse after it lost its antiphonal syllabic character.

M.A. Dmitriev's and A.N. Strugovschikov's translations from the German of "The Boundaries of Humanity," "The Divine," "Winter Journey over the Hartz Mountains," and other freie Rhythmen of Goethe date to the end of the 1820s through the 1830s. They represent in our literature the first conscious attempts to create an ametrical system in which, according to Strugovschikov, "every verse has its fold, sounds its size" and which "should reflect the harmony of nature itself."

Dmitriev and Strugovschikov, with their confidence in the aesthetic ideas of their era and its understanding of the nature of poetic language, could accomplish only half of this task. They saw only the negative side of it—the need for not observing meter. But since, for the translators, poetry without "trochees and iambs" did not exist at all, they immediately restored in their poetry that which they had refuted; the works arbitrarily combine pieces and lines of different meters with no correlation to the meaning of the texts: in their works, phrase and meter, the movement of the meaning and the rhythmic movement exist independently of one another.

Further developments in free verse are connected to the names A.A. Fet and M.L. Mikhailov. In Fet's Liricheskii Panteon [Lyrical Pantheon] (1840) there are some poems in which can be detected the influence of Goethe's "free rhythm." Another group of Fet's poems related to his desire to be "freed" from the strict metric form dates from 1842. These are three original poems ("Ya lyublyu mnogoe, blizkoe serdtsu . . ." ["I love much close to the heart . . ."], "Noch'yu kak-to vol'nee dyshat' mne . . ." ["At night I can breathe more freely . . ."], "Zdravstvuj! Tysyachu raz moj privet tebe, noch'. . ." ["Greetings! A thousand hellos to you, night . . ."]) and a translation of Heine's "Poseidon." The appearance of such works allows one to speak of the adoption of the principles of free verse in Russian poetry, though the forms retain some ambivalence in their poetic structure.

With regard to Mikhailov's translation of Heine's "North Sea," the translator's assertion that in his translation of the cycle he frees himself "from all metric laws" is refuted by the presence of a vacillating but not exclusive sign in the foundation of the poem. The interval beats in these verses is a variable number—in most cases, one to two syllables in all twenty-seven poems—though this sign is not exclusive.

The vers libre of A. Blok was the distinctive result in the history of the formation of ametrical verse. Poems such as "Kogda vy stoite na moem puti . . ." ["When you are standing in my way . . ." ], "Ona prishla s moroza raskrasnevshayasya . . ." ["She came in from the cold reddened . . ." ] remain the most significant achievement in Russian poetry in that system of versification. They overcome metric domination, and the structure is independent of foreign models. No influences are noticeable. The assertions of critics from that era about French modernists being the sources and models for their Russian contemporaries (V. Bryusov, A. Dobrolyubov, M. Kuzmin, M. Voloshin, and others) are superficial and without foundation because the basis for French vers libre was syllabic since in French versification the tonic rhythm had no tradition; it was necessary to come to it by loosening the syllabic system and cultivating nontraditional, odd meters that gave unusual combinations of supporting stresses. At the same time in Russian poetry the development of new forms was connected to the tonic system in opposition to the "pure" syllabo-tonic system.

Walt Whitman first came to Russia in reviews with few quotations. The first article about Whitman's poems appeared in the January edition of Otechestvennye zapiski [Notes of the Fatherland] of 1861, and its author was certain that the work was not poetry but a prose novel. In a review of foreign novels he writes: "English critics are strongly opposed to the American novel 'Leaves of Grass' by Walt Whitman, who in his time was recommended by Emerson."

After this mention it was only in 1882 in V. Korsh's Zagranichnii vestnik [Foreign Messenger] that there appeared a translation of a lecture by American journalist John Swinton about the literature of the United States of America that devotes to Whitman the following lines: "Walt Whitman is the cosmic bard of 'Leaves of Grass.' There are two completely contradictory opinions about him: some maintain that he is a charlatan and others that he is the most original genius. He belongs to the old type of American workers. For him life is an endless celebration, and he looks like a gigantic intoxicated Bacchus. For him all sights are picturesque, all sounds melodious, all people friends. In England among admirers of Whitman are the greatest contemporary minds. In Germany he is known among learned men of letters more than any other contemporary American poets."

In 1883 in the same Zagranichnii vestnik [Foreign Messenger] there appeared a more detailed article about Whitman, N. Popov's "Walt Guitman [sic]," with poorly translated quotations.

In 1872 I.S. Turgenev took such an interest in the poetry of W. Whitman that he attempted to translate into Russian several of his poems and sent some of them to E. Ragozin, the editor of Nedelya [Week]. Turgenev wrote about this to his friend P.V. Annenkov: "To Ragozin instead of an extract from 'Zapiski okhotnika' ['A Sportsman's Sketches'] I will send a few translated lyric poems of the remarkable American poet Walt Whitman (have you heard of him?) with a short foreword. It's impossible to imagine anything more striking" (letter of 12 November 1872).

However, these translations did not appear in Nedelya [Week]. But ninety-four years later, one manuscript of Turgenev's kept in the National Library was identified as a draft of a translation of a well-known poem of Whitman's written in 1861. Here is the first stanza of the original:

Beat! beat! drums!—Blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless force,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation;
Into the school where the scholar is studying;
Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happiness must he have now with his bride;
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, plowing his field or gathering his grain;
So fierce you whirr and pound, you drums—so shrill you bugles blow.

This discovery was made by I.S. Chistova, a researcher at the Pushkin House of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. She published Turgenev's translation in the journal Russkaya literatura [Russian Literature]. Turgenev translated this fragment thus:

Bejte, bejte, barabany!—Trubite, truby, trubite!
Skvoz' okna, skvoz' dveri—vryvajtes', podobno
     Nagloj sile bezzhalostnykh lyudej!
(bezzhalostno, podobno naglym i sil'nym lyudyam)
Vryvajtes' v torzhestvennyj khram i razvejte
     Sborische bogomol'tsev;
Vryvajtes' v shkolu, gde uchenik sidit nad knigoj;
Ne ostavlyajte v pokoe zhenikha—ne dolzhen on
     Vkushat' schast'e s svoej nevestoj,
I mirnyj zemledelets ne dolzhen vkushat' tishinu,
Radosti mira, ne dolzhen pakhat' svoe pole
     I sobirat' svoe zerno—
Tak sil'ny i naglo uzhasny vashi treskuchie raskaty,
     O barabany!—tak rezki vashi vozglasy, o truby!

The Turgenev text represents a rough draft or, more likely, a word-for-word translation. Therefore, we cannot hold it to high standards. There is reason to believe that in subsequent versions Turgenev attempted to come nearer to the rhythmic structure of the translated text.

Consider the first line: "Beat! beat! drums!—Blow! bugles! blow!" It has only seven syllables with seven stresses, and that is why it sounds energetic and nervous. In Turgenev's translation there are sixteen syllables. This is somewhat ductile and flabby, although it is worth noting the definite difficulty in reproducing the rhythmic abruptness in the translation from English to Russian due to the lack of correspondence between the average word length in the two languages: each Russian word is an average three times longer than the English. K. Chukovsky found a better way to minimize the number of unstressed syllables: "Bej! Bej! Baraban!—Trubi! Truba! Trubi!" Instead of sixteen syllables there are eleven, which within the context of Russian long-wordedness are perceived like the English seven.

As the draft shows, Turgenev's work on the translation was far from complete. One can only assume that translating the poem gave Turgenev great difficulty. This is explained by the unusual rhythmic form (for Russian poetry) of Whitman's poems; the translator perceived in the original the utilization of different classical poetic meters in very complicated combinations, and that is why the Russian text strives for a more regular rhythm.

And here is a translation of the same extract executed by K. Bal'mont in 1911:

Gromche udar', baraban!—Truby, trubite, trubite!
V okna i v dveri vorvites'—s neumolimoyu siloj,
V khram vo vremya obedni—pust' vse ujdut iz tserkvi,
V shkolu, gde uchitsya yunosha, siloyu zvukov vorvites',
Zhenikhu ne davajte pokoya—ne vremya teper' byt' s nevestoj,
Vozmutite mirnogo pakharya, kotoryj pashet i zhnet,
Gremite sil'nej, barabany,—gromche, sil'nee udar'te,
Rezkie truby, trubite,—zvuchi nam, prizyvnyj rog!

The text is interesting in that at the time of its creation the specifics of free verse were not defined by theorists, so the translator had to decide on his own how to render it in Russian. Bal'mont chose for this an arrhythmic tonic line. Since in the original there is not a single rhythm-producing factor, more significance is gained by common free verse measures of repetition, such as isosyntaxism,2  alliteration, anaphora, sometimes metrics (in Whitman's original the fourth line is in dactyl and the sixth in trochee). The translator introduced a single degree of repetition and on that account somewhat shortened the rest.

In the second line Bal'mont uses alliteration on "v" (in Whitman "th"), but does not pass on the inner rhyme of "doors" and "force." The third and fourth lines of the original are built on anaphora, and additionally, the fourth is organized metrically, and in it is the consonance of "school" and "scholar." From all of this Bal'mont preserved only the same beginnings. In the sixth line the morpheme peace is repeated twice, which is not reflected in the translation; in the fifth line Whitman brings in the emphatic form of the imperative, and in the sixth an inversion, for which there is also no correspondence in the Russian text. In the seventh line the translator omits the repeated "so" and, additionally, in order to more fully pass on the meaning, sacrifices the effect of the lapidary style, translating Whitman's single line into two lines.

We will turn now to K. Chukovsky's translation:

Bej! bej! baraban—trubi! truba! trubi!
V dveri, v okna vorvites', kak likhaya vataga bojtsov,
V tserkov'—gonite molyaschikhsya!
V shkolu—doloj shkolyarov, nechego im korpet' nad uchebnikami,
     Zhenikha ot nevesty proch', chtob ne smel zhenikhat'sya,
I pust' pakhar' zabudet o mirnom trude, ne vremya pakhat' i
      sobirat' urozhaj,
Tak besheno b'et baraban, tak gromko krichit truba!

The translator strives to execute the translation as accurately as possible. He does not create such deviations from the original as "siloyu zvuka vorvites." Chukovsky attempted to be faithful to the rhythm of the original and did not introduce into the poem a different rhythmic foundation. Before us is free verse. But much is lost in the process of translating. The alliteration of the first line in the translation is distributed into two components: repetition of "v" and repetition of "tr." Further, Chukovsky does the same as Bal'mont: he gives the alliteration "v" and refuses to search for an equivalent internal rhyme. He preserves the anaphora of the third and fourth lines but he does not transmit the metric of the fourth line. In the fifth line of Whitman there is a repetition of the morpheme bride; Chukovsky decides to preserve the effect, but in so doing plays loose with the meaning, changing it not for the better, translating Whitman's "Leave not the bridegroom quiet–no happiness must he have now with his bride" this way: "Zhenikha ot nevesty proch', chtob ne smel zhenikhat'sya" ["The bridegroom is away from the bride so he couldn't be courting"].

The first translations of some poems, executed by K. Bal'mont, appeared in the journal Vesy in 1904. Two years later in the same journal K. Chukovsky wrote about this attempt: "Mr. Bal'mont does not have a feel for the language from which he is translating. In three lines of translation he made five egregious errors, and thanks to these errors, created a testimonial to Whitman greatly departing from the original."

Indeed, the translator made errors in working with the English-language text:

One's-self I sing—a simple, separate Person;
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-masse.

Of Physiology from top to toe I sing;
Not physiognomy alone, nor brain alone, is worthy for the muse—I say the Form complete is worthier far;
The Female equally with the male I sing.

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful—for freest action form'd, under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing.

"Ya govoryu, chto dlya Muzy telo mnogo dorozhe litsa i mozga" ["I say for the Muse the Form is far worthier than physiognomy and brain"], Whitman expressed his favorite idea. "Telo" [the body] here is "form," and in the next line Whitman clarifies: "Ya vospevayu muzhskoe naravne s zhenskim!" ["The female equally with the male I sing"]. But Bal'mont translated the word "form" with the word "forma," "worthy" with the word "dostoinii" and not "dorogoi," and he confused agreement, an object he took to be a subject, and he disregarded tense and person. The ametric rhythm of the original, only in the most passionate fourth line being drawn to iambic, he conveyed in multimetric amphibrachs. As a result, his turned out to be:

O tele zhivuschem poyu, s golovy i do nog.
Ne tol'ko litso i mozg
Dostojny, skazala mne Muza,
Ona mne skazala, chto mnogo dostojnee Forma v svoem zavershen'e.
I zhenschinu ya naravne vospevayu s muzhchinoj.

This poem was more successfully translated by Bal'mont's opponent:

Fiziologiyu s golovy i do pyat ya poyu,
Ne tol'ko litso chelovecheskoe i ne tol'ko rassudok dostojny
     Muzy, no vse Telo esche bolee dostojno ee,
Zhenskoe naravne s muzhskim ya poyu.

In 1908 Bal'mont slightly more adequately conveyed the rhythm of a different Walt Whitman poem. Capturing the irregular metric of some of the lines of the original, he used the alternation of three-accentual meter with dol'nik,3  but he did not sustain the method to the end of the text and went astray with four- and five-foot iambs:

Noch'yu odin na pribrezh'e,
Mezh tem kak staraya mat',
Raspevaya khripluyu pesnyu,
Bayukaet chado svoe,
Ya smotryu na blestyaschie yasnye zvezdy
I dumayu dumu,—gde klyuch
Vselennykh i buduschego.
/. . ./
Vse zhizni, smerti, vse, chto bylo v proshlom,
Chto v nastoyaschem, v buduschem idet,
Obshirnye podobiya skreplyayut,
Vsegda skreplyali vse, i budut vechno
Skreplyat', smykat', derzhat' vse plotno, tsel'no.

It is significant that the translator did not consider it necessary to preserve the length of the original lines, breaking them up according to the number of between-phrase pauses, transforming this unusual text in the formal sense into a conventional one, depriving it of a large share of its attraction. Here is how the line breaks should have been carried out:

Noch'yu odin na pribrezh'e,
Mezh tem kak staraya mat', raspevaya khripluyu pesnyu, bayukaet
      chado svoe,
Ya smotryu na blestyaschie yasnye zvezdy i dumayu dumu,—gde klyuch
      vselennykh i buduschego.
/. . ./
Vse zhizni, smerti, vse, chto bylo v proshlom, chto v nastoyaschem,
      v buduschem idet,
Obshirnye podobiya skreplyayut, vsegda skreplyali vse, i budut
Skreplyat', smykat', derzhat' vse plotno, tsel'no.

Indeed, in the history of Russian Symbolism the poetry of Walt Whitman has played a very minor role. He is not among such inspirations for Symbolist art in Russia as Mallarme, Poe, Ibsen, Baudelaire, Verhaeren, Bocklin, and many others. Neither in the art of Bal'mont nor in the works of other Symbolists are the style and themes of Leaves of Grass reflected. But the works of some Russian Futurists, especially in the early period of their creative activity, bear a clear mark of Whitman's poetics. At the beginning of his literary life Velimir Khlebnikov was strongly under Whitman's influence. According to his friend D. Kozlov, the poet very much enjoyed listening to Whtiman in English, though he did not fully understand the English language.

Khlebnikov's poem "Zverinets" ["Menagerie"], placed in the first version of Sadka Sudei [A Trap for Judges] (1910), seems a typical work from the book Leaves of Grass and is reminiscent of a passage from "Song of Myself."


Gde pantera snuet nad golovoyu po such'yam, gde okhotnika besheno bodaet olen',
Gde gremuchaya zmeya na skale nezhit pod solntsem svoe vyaloe dlinnoe telo, gde vydra glotaet rybu.
Gde alligator spit u reki, ves' v zatverdelykh pryschakh,
Gde ryschet chernyj medved' v poiskakh kornej ili meda, gde bobr b'et po bolotu vesloobraznym khvostom.

[Where the panther walks to and fro on a limb overhead, where the buck turns furiously at the hunter,
Where the rattlesnake suns his flabby length on a rock, where the otter is feeding on fish,
Where the alligator in his tough pimples sleeps by the bayou,
Where the black bear is searching for roots or honey, where the beaver pats the mud with his paddle-shaped tail;]


Sad, Sad, gde vzglyad zverya bol'she znachit, chem grudy
         prochtennykh knig,
Gde orel zhaluetsya na chto-to, kak ustalyj zhalovat'sya rebenok . . .
Gde chernyj tyulen' skachet po polu, opirayas' na dlinnye lasty,
     s dvizhen'yami cheloveka, zavyazannogo v meshok, i podobnyj
     chugunnomu pamyatniku, vdrug nashedshemu v sebe pristupy
         neuderzhimogo vesel'ya.
Gde utki odnoj porody v sukhoj kletke podymayut
     edinodushnyj krik posle korotkogo dozhdya, tochno sluzha
       blagodarstvennyj—imeet li ono nogi i klyuv?—
         bozhestvu moleben . . .

The structure of the poetry as well as many ideas in "Zverinits" Khlebnikov borrowed from Whitman. For example, the idea that "the gaze of an animal means more than piles of read books" is repeated many times in the poems of Leaves of Grass. But the vivid imagery of "Zverinits" is pure Khlebnikov, going beyond the limits of Whitman's poetics. In addition, "Zverinits" contains humor, which is not present in the corresponding fragment from "Song of Myself."

And completely in Whitman's mode Khlebnikov writes of a mighty man, full of life strength, equal to animal nature, in the poem "Praotets" ["Forefather"]:

Meshok iz tyulenej moguchikh na tele okhotnika,
Shiroko l'yutsya ryb'ej kozhi izmyatye pokrovy.
V chuchele sukhogo osetra strely
S orlinymi peryshkami, droty pryamye i tonkie,
S kamnem, kremnem zubchatym na nosu vmesto klyuva i paroyu
         per'ev orlinykh na khvoste.
Surovye moguchie otkryty glaza, dlinnye zhestokie volosy u
I luk v ruke, s streloyu nagotove, ostorozhno vytyanut vpered,
Podobno oku boga v snovidenii, gotovyj rinut'sya pevuchej
         smert'yu: Dzzi!
Na grubykh kruglykh doskakh i remnyakh nogi.

A group of Cubo-Futurists were drawn to Whitman in common hatred of conventional aesthetics and the gravitation towards a "natural," "unpolished" poetic form.

In St. Petersburg's Ego-Futurism there was a definite cult of Walt Whitman. Ivan Oredezh diligently imitated the style of Leaves of Grass:

Ya sozdal vselennye, ya sozdam miriady vselennykh, ibo oni vo
Zheltye s sinimi zhilkami grudi starukhi prekrasny, kak sostsy
         yunoj devushki,
O, daj potselovat' mne temnye zrachki tvoi, ustalaya lomovaya
         loshad'. . .

Vladimir Mayakovsky at the beginning of his literary work creatively absorbed and reworked the poetry of Leaves of Grass. He was mainly interested in the role of Whitman as a destroyer of literary traditions and a creator of his own original principles of poetry. Lines of Whitman, which at one time Mayakovsky enjoyed quoting out loud from memory, contain images close to the Russian poet's own hyperbolic declaration:

Pod Niagaroj, chto, padaya, lezhit, kak vual', u menya na litse . . .

Ya ves' ne vmeschayus' mezhdu bashmakami i shlyapoj.

Mne ne nuzhno, chtoby zvezdy spustilis' nizhe,
Oni i tam khoroshi, gde sejchas . . .

Strashnoe, yarkoe solntse, kak bystro ty ubilo by menya,
Esli b vo mne samom ne vskhodilo takoe zhe solntse.

With regard to Mayakovsky, we cannot speak of direct borrowings from and stylistic influences of Whitman's poetry; he was never an imitator of Whitman's, since by the age of twenty-two he had developed into an original poet with his own themes, his own style. But perhaps Walt Whitman's style was one of the components that contributed during Mayakovsky's search for his own versatile poetic style with fully realized metaphors, hyperbole, and eccentricity.

We will examine a few of the most striking examples. Whitman in "Song of Myself" from the first lines makes note of his age:

Ya teper', tridtsati semi let, v polnom zdorov'e, nachinayu etu pesnyu . . .

[I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin . . .]

Mayakovsky in "Oblako v shtanakh" ["A Cloud in Trousers"] says:

Idu krasivyj, dvadtsatidvukhletnij.

Whitman titled one of his works with his name: "Poem of Walt Whitman, American"; Mayakovsky does likewise, naming his tragedy "Vladimir Mayakovsky." The motifs of Whitman's poetry suggest themselves in the poem "Chelovek" ["Man"], which Mayakovksii wrote, creating a new Gospel with a new Christ, just as the American poet created a new Bible:

Svyaschennosluzhitelya mira, otpustitelya vsekh grekhov,—solntsa ladon' na golove moej.
Blagochestivejshij iz monashestvuyuschikh—nochi oblachenie na plechakh moikh.
Dnej lyubvi moej tysyachelistoe Evangelie tseluyu.

We'll examine one more example, valuable not so much due to the similarity between individual poems, which often is completely by chance, but for the boldness of the innovative style:

Para prekrasnykh ruk!
sprava nalevo dvigat' mogu
i sleva napravo.
sheyu vybrat' mogu
i obov'yus' vokrug . . .
U menya
pod sherst'yu moego zhileta
b'etsya neobychajnejshij komok . . .

In the twentieth century a whole line of poets and translators turn to the legacy of Walt Whitman and attempt to convey the original style of his writing. K. Bal'mont, I. Kashkin "polish" and formalize the original, often transforming the image system; worrying about the adequacy of the rhythmic and phonetic aspects, they sometimes sacrifice meaning:

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench-the hatter singing as he stands . . .
The day what belongs to the day—At night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.
Sapozhnik poet, sidya na kozhanom taburete, shlyapnik—stoya pered
      shlyapnoj bolvankoj . . .

Dnem—dnevnye pesni zvuchat, a vecherom golosa molodykh,
      krepkikh parnej,
Raspevayuschikh khorom svoi zvonkie, bodrye pesni . . .
(I. Kashkin's translation)

D. Maizel's went to the other extreme, producing a word-for-word translation, apparently not considering the original rhythm:

Sapozhnik poet, sidya na svoej taburetke,
Shlyapochnik stoya poet . . .
Den'—chto dnyu prinadlezhit, a noch'yu vataga parnej, sil'nykh, druzhnykh,
Raspevaet s otkrytymi rtami molodye, zvonkie pesni!

M. Zenkevich, generally an outstanding translator, often improvised and simplified the system of images in pursuit of conveying alliteration and other phonetic effects:

Bej, bej, baraban! Trubi, gorn, trubi!
V okna, v dveri, povsyudu nasil'no vryvajtes',
V khramakh narush'te bogosluzhen'e,
V shkolakh uchen'e prervite,
Nesite vest' zhenikhu, chto ne vremya dlya schast'ya s nevestoj,
I fermeru dajte znat', chtob ostavil on mirnyj trud,—
Tak gromko grokhochete vy, barabany, tak zvonko rokochete, gorny!

More felicitous translations of W. Whitman's poems, taking into account both the form and the meaning of the original texts, in our view belong to K. Chukovsky, V. Levik, N. Bannikov, and A. Starostin.


1.  Taktovik refers to a type of accentual verse. Bylini are Russian folk epics or narrative songs with heroic themes.   (Back)

2.  Isosyntaxism refers to non-syllabic rhythm in which the same syntactic construction, usually a phrase or clause, is repeated in parallel sequences.   (Back)

3.  Dol'nik verse, which allows for one or two unstressed syllables after each ictus, became popular around the turn of the century and was employed by Mayakovksii and Blok, among others.   (Back)

Publication Information
This essay originally appeared in Russian on the website The original may be viewed at Reprinted with permission from the author.

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