The first nightingale – a poem by Ivan Bunin


It’s a little while since I did any translation and I was recently prompted to have a go at translating this poem from Russian as a little challenge posed here by the Russian & Czech Department at the University of Bristol.

Bunin uses deceptively simple language, but like all apparently simple things, they are really difficult to pull off. For me it also raises the old dilemma of the right way to translate something. Do you translate it as literally as possible, in which case it can sound dull and flat? Or do you attempt to to translate into a more poetic English idiom, in which case is it even the same poem?

Nabokov had a lifelong dream of writing a poem in Russian and translating it into English in such a way that it matched in both sounds and shades of meaning. It was a dream that he found impossible to achieve. So we should not be hard on ourselves if one of the greatest modern masters of English had to admit defeat. But Nabokov went further in the face of this failure: he completely retreated from the idea of a poetic translation. His translation of Eugene Onegin accompanying his massive commentary ( a true homage, full of fascinating background detail about the poem-in-verse) is an almighty clunker. It is a literal translation of the text with no attempt to convey spring and fizz of the original Russian. It’s truly awful.

Here’s my shot at the Bunin poem, falling somewhere between faithfully accurate and poetic:

The first nightingale
The liquid moon glows through the clouds.
An apple treeĀ in curly white blossom.

A ripple of clouds, filmy and soft,
Blue against the moon.

In the chill of the bare, clear alleys of the garden
A nightingale starts up, attempting its song.

In the house, now dark, by an open window,
A young girl plaits her hair in the moonlight.

Sweet and fresh to her is the tale of spring,
Recounted to the world a thousand times.