Black as a Toast

There’s one poem by Akhmatova that keeps getting translated into English over and over; it’s about drinking, of course. I’ve dug up a few links — English versions by Eric Gillan, William Minor, and Judith Hemschemeyer — the (sub)Standard Version (via Uncle Jazzbeau’s Gallimaufrey via cannylinguist).

To be honest, there’s not as much in that poem as I’d prefer — the Akhmatova I cherish is

mist in my eyes
things and faces all blending
all but a scarlet tulip — the
tulip in your buttonhole

— but the “drinking” poem I’m talking about, repulsive as I find its ending, is tempting because of its delusive simplicity. One problem with Russian poems is that the absence of articles allows for multiple readings at first, although as the poem progresses it often becomes clear which meaning has been assumed from the start. This must have led some translators to clarify the ambiguity by inserting pronouns and definite articles headlong, piercing the veils of suspense. But trying to avoid that engenders greater ambiguity!

In this particular piece, Akhmatova also complicates the translator’s task by calling her life zlaya, which isn’t really “evil” in this context. “Bitter” would do better but there is a lot more to say about zlaya zhizn’ and how it’s got to be related to “lot,” “misfortune,” “destiny,” “doom,” Povest’ o gore-zloschastii, etc. Also, the third line is tricky because it has a noun modified by an adverb, which I suppose is a case of ellipse, and of pain in the neck. On that line, “two are” should sound nearly monosyllabic, yet I couldn’t bring myself to write “two’re.”

The Last Toast

I’m drinking to a ravaged home,
To my gall-and-wormwood life,
To the loneliness when two are together,
And, yes, to you I drink:

To the fraud of the lips that have betrayed me,
To the dead chill of the eyes,
To the world’s being cruel and grim,
To God’s not having saved.


Hemschemeyer baitingly suggests it’s possible to rhyme “depraved” and “saved” in the ending but I’m not happy with either “depraved” or “grim.” “Cruel and crude” perhaps, but not really.

All the mock toastings and caustic thanks — where do they come from? What is the ultimate poetic source, Russian poetry seldom ignoring its roots? Here’s my straightforward take at a blasphemous poem by Mikhail Lermontov, the poet ranked second in the Russian literary tradition.


For all, for all I thank you:
For the secret pangs of passions,
For the bitterness of tears,
for the poison of the kiss,
For the revenge of enemies
and the calumny of friends;

For my soul’s ardor wasted in a desert,
For all the things that have deceived me here.
Just make it so that from now onward
Not for too long I’ll keep on thanking you.


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