Pierre Menard's Alexander Blok
Russell Scott Valentino
Having relocated from Nîmes to Bexley, a region of Greater London that would be officially designated a borough of the city in 1965, it is known that Pierre Menard, notorious for his hitherto unsurpassed, if fragmentary, translation of the Quixote, took up the perfection of his Russian, abandoned since approximately twelve years before. In one of his surviving notebooks from this period, he complains—among other things, including of the wretched quality of the water and the even more wretched quality of the weather—that it was slow going at first without his beloved dictionaries and a certain un-named grammar that he had apparently picked up second-hand at the central market in Arles in the summer of 1913. Nevertheless, gifted and diligent as he was, after several months of intensive work, he turned his attention to the translation of poetry.
Here below, several examples of his manner of work, characteristically—for those familiar with his previous output—a progression of sorts. These translations, if they can in fact be called that without too offensively stretching the term’s historical usage, have as their source, the well-known title-less lyric of Aleksandr Blok (1880-1921) that begins “Devushka pela v tserkovnom khore” (“A Girl Sang in a Church Choir”).
That he translated into English with some dexterity should not be surprising, given his background on his mother’s side and the fact of his relocation, albeit temporarily, to England. Of particular note is the palimpsest quality of the final version, which contains hints and scratches of Blok’s original, though with the subtle alterations familiar from his life-long, if largely hidden, work on the Quixote. I hope in the coming months to bring to light Menard’s equally instructive versions of Velimir Khlebnikov, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelshtam, and others.
Menard’s Blok: Version 1
A girl sang in a church choir
Of those grown tired in foreign lands,
Of ships sailed off to sea,
Of those who have forgotten joy.
So sang her voice, flying to the cupola,
And the light shone on her white shoulder,
And each looked and listened from the gloom,
As the white dress sang in the light.
To all it seemed there would be joy,
That all the ships in peaceful bays
And all the tired folk in foreign lands
Would find a bright and shining life.
And the voice was sweet, the light was thin,
And only high up in the heavenly gates,
Attached to mysteries, a small child wept
That no one would come back.
Menard’s Blok: Version 2
A young girl was singing in a choir
Of all the tired people in strange lands,
Of all the ships sailed out to sea,
Of all those who’ve forgotten their joy.
Her voice sang, flying up in the dome,
And the light flickered on the white shoulder,
And each looked and listened from the gloom,
The white dress singing in the light.
And to all it seemed that joy would arrive,
With all the ships in a peaceful bay,
And all the tired people in lands far away
would find themselves a shining life.
The voice was sweet and the light slender,
And only far up at the kingly doors,
Appended to secrets, a child was weeping
That no one would ever come more.
Menard’s Blok: Version 3
Devushka singing in a church chorus
Of tired strangers in a stranger land,
Of all the vessels in the sea’s forest,
Of souls forgetting all the joys of man.
So sang Devushka, the notes rising taut,
The lights shining through, shoulders gleaming white,
Everyone looking and listening fraught,
As the white dress held a note in the light.
And joyous appeared in everyone’s eyes
The vessels, the ships, safe in quiet bays,
And the people, too, under foreign skies,
Having found their bright, their bright shining way.
Devushka’s voice sweet, shining light slender,
And only high up at the kingly doors,
A little child wept, to secrets tendered,
That of them all none would come back anymore.
Menard’s Blok: Version 4
The voice was sládok, shining light tónok,
And tól’ko high up at the kingly vrat,
Prichástnyi to secrets, wept rebyónok,
Chto no one ne pridyót nazád.
Menard’s Blok: Version 5
Девушка пела в церковном хоре,
О всех усталых в чужом краю,
О всех кораблях, ушедших в море,
О всех, забывших радость свою.
Так пел её голос, летящий в купол,
И луч сиял на белом плече,
И каждый из мрака смотрел и слушал,
Как белое платье пела в луче.
И всем казалось, что радость будет,
Что в тихой заводи все корабли,
Что на чужбине усталые люди
Светлую жизнь себе обрели.
И голос был сладок, и луч был тонок,
И только высоко, у царских врат,
Причастный тайнам плакал ребёнок,
О том, что никто не придёт назад.
Russell Scott Valentino is Editor-in-chief of The Iowa Review, and founder and director of Autumn Hill Books. His translations include Fulvio Tomizza’s Materada, Predrag Matvejevic’s The Other Venice: Secrets of the City, and Carlo Michelstaedter’s Persuasion and Rhetoric. He is also the author of two scholarly monographs, numerous essays and articles, and various short fiction, non-fiction, and poetry translations from Italian, Croatian, and Russian. He teaches in the University of Iowa’s Translation Workshop.