Sunday, March 05, 2006

Traduttore, traditore

It seems like Latin is back in vogue... But I've been busy with Russian. Actually translating Russian into English. Actually, just picking a short story I really like and seeing how much effort it would take for me to do it.

I am not a professional translator; I am a computer guy. As a matter of fact I'd never translated literature before. But I happen to be fluent in both languages and it so happened that this story does not seem readily available in English. I wanted to show it to some people, and didn't feel like forking more of my hard earned cash to

The experience was interesting... I decided that I would try to go through the story very quickly and refine things later. I am not sure if this is the most effective way of translating, in retrospect. I wound up making many, many passes "refining" and I wonder if I had gained anything timewise with this strategy.

The translation went surprisingly quickly. It is about twenty pages of text and it took me about 8 hours to get the whole text translated. The refining took a bit more time. I didn't have a dictionary, but for the most part, I don't think that hindered me. I did use BabelFish for some of the words, but it is a pretty lousy way to translate.

The problems of translation are well known but it was interesting experiencing them firsthand. The simplest category is words that just aren't directly parallel in languages. There is so much nuance in the usage of a word that sometimes it just cannot be translated while carrying over the same nuance, unless you want to provide a footnote. Then there are grammatical issues... Russian is a heavily inflected language, meaning that the endings of words specify their role in the sentence. Therefore, unlike English, it allows much greater freedom of moving words around for various effects. For example, you can build tension by having a sentence where a whole bunch of stuff happens but you don't know who did what to whom until the very end. Lastly there is just a myriad of little differences which tend to add up. For example, "being silent" is an active verb in Russian.

Anyway, the translation is finished (although I am sure that to truly do a good job, I'd need to spend quite a few more hours refining and correcting it). It is time to present it to the audience.

It is interesting that the things that made me love this story are very different than the things that my wife picked up on (which I would have never caught on in a million years.) So, my readers, if you want to spend an extra half hour reading, without further ado, here is the translation

The Old Woman Izergil

by Maxim Gorky

Translator’s note: I tried to preserve the speaking style of the main characters, which created a rather unconventional translation in terms of grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure. This translation is based on the text found on the Internet at


I heard these stories near Akkerman, in Bessarabia, on the seashore.
One evening, having finished the daily harvest of grapes, a party of Moldovans with whom I worked, left for the seashore, and I and the old woman Izergil remained under the deep shade of the grapevines, and lying on the ground, were silent, watching how the silhouettes of those people that went to the sea melted in the blue haze of the night.
They walked and sang and laughed; the men - bronzed, with puffy black mustaches and thick curls down to their shoulders, in short jackets and wide pants; women and girls - happy, lithe, with dark-blue eyes, also bronzed. Their hair, silky and black, was loose. The wind, easy and warm, playing with it, jingled the coins that were woven into it. The wind flowed in a wide, even wave, but sometimes it seemed as if jumped over something invisible, and creating a strong burst, blew the women's hair into fantastic manes, rising around their heads. This made the women strange and fairy-tale like. They were walking further and further away from us, and the night and imagination dressed them more and more beautifully.
Someone played a violin... a young woman sang in a soft contralto, laughter could be heard...
The air was saturated with the sharp smell of the sea and the greasy evaporations from the earth, abundantly soaked by rain not too long before evening. Here and there scraps of clouds wandered in the sky, puffy, strange outlines and pigments, here - soft like plumes of smoke, gray or ash-blue, there - harsh, like broken fragments of cliffs, matte black or brown. Between them dark blue clumps of sky glistened kindly, decorated with golden droplets of stars. All this - sounds and smells, clouds and people, was strangely beautiful and sad, it seemed a beginning of a wondrous fairy tale. And everything seemed as if it stopped growing, was dying; the sound of the voices muted in the distance, was transforming into sad sighs.
- Why didn't you go with them? - nodding her head, asked the old woman Izergil.
Time bent her in half, her once black eyes were dull and teary. Her dry voice sounded strangely; it crunched as if the old woman spoke with her bones.
- Don't want to, - I answered her.
- Ooh! Born old men are you Russians. All dark, like demons… Our young women are afraid of you… And you are young and strong...
The moon came up. Her disk was large, blood-red, she seemed to come out from the bowels of this steppe, which in its time devoured so much human flesh and drank so much blood, from which it must have become so fat and rich. The lacy shadows from the leaves fell on us, and the old woman and I were covered with them like nets. On the steppe, to the left of us, shadows of clouds began to drift; soaked with the light blue shine of the moon, they became more transparent and brighter.
- Look, there goes Larra!
I looked where the old woman was pointing with her trembling hand with crooked fingers and saw: shadows were floating there, there was a lot of them and one of them, darker and thicker than the others was floating faster and lower than her sisters - it fell from a clump of a cloud which floated closer to the ground that the others and faster than them.
- There's nothing there! - I said.
- You're blinder than I am, an old woman. Look - there, he's dark, runs through the steppe!
I looked again and once more saw nothing except the shadow.
- It's a shadow! Why do you call her Larra?
- Because it - is a he. By now he's become like a shadow - it's about time! He has lived thousands of years. The sun dried out his body, blood and bones, and the wind blew them away like dust. This is what God can do to a man because of pride!
- Tell me how it happened! - I asked the old woman, sensing ahead of me one of those wonderful fairy tales made up in the steppes. And she told me this story.

"Many thousands of years have passed since the time when this happened. Far beyond the sea, where the sun rises, there is a country of the big river. In this country every tree leaf and blade of grass gives enough shade that is needed by a man to hide from the sun, so cruelly hot there.
How rich is the land in that country!
A mighty tribe of people lived there. They pastured herds and spent their strength and courage hunting. They feasted after the hunt, sang songs and played with the young women.
Once during a feast, one of the young women, dark haired and delicate like the night was taken by an eagle that descended from the sky. The arrows shot by the men fell pathetically back to the ground. Then they went to search for her but did not find her. And then they forgot about her, like everything is forgotten in this world."
The old woman sighed and became silent. Her squeaky voice sounded as if all the forgotten ages were complaining, made flesh in her breast by the shadows of memories. The sea was echoing the beginning of one of the ancient legends, which may have been created on its shores.
"But after twenty years she came back herself, emaciated, dried out, and with her was a youth, beautiful and strong, like she was twenty years ago. And when they asked her where she was, she told them that the eagle carried her away into the mountains and lived with her as with a wife. Here is his son; the father is no longer alive. When he started getting weak, he went up for the last time high into the sky and folding together his wings, dropped hard onto the sharp ledges of the mountain, crashing to his death…
Everyone stared in amazement at the son of the eagle and saw that he was not any better than them. Only his eyes were cold and proud, like those of the king of the birds. And they spoke to him, and he answered if he felt like it, or was silent. And when the elders of the tribe came, he spoke to them as if they were his equals. This insulted them, and they, calling him an unfeathered arrow with an unsharpened tip, told him that they are respected, that thousands like him and thousands twice as old as him obey them. And he, bravely looking at them, answered that there are no more like him, and if everyone honors them – he doesn’t want to do it. Oh! Then they really became angry with him. They became angry and said:
- He has no place among us! Let him go where he wants.
He laughed and went where he wanted, – to a beautiful young woman who was staring at him. He went to her and approaching her he embraced her. And she was the daughter of one of the elders who criticized him. And although he was handsome, she pushed him away because she was afraid of her father. She pushed him and walked away, and he hit her and when she fell, he stood with his foot on her chest so that from her lips blood spurted to the sky and the young woman, sighing, curled up like a snake and died.
All who saw this were gripped by fear, – this was the first time they saw a woman murdered so. And everyone was silent, looking at her, lying with her eyes open and her mouth bloody, and then at him, who was standing one against all, next to her and was proud, – not lowering his head, as if calling punishment upon it. Then, when they snapped out of it, they grabbed him, tied him up and left him, finding that to kill him then and there was too simple and would not satisfy them.”
The night was growing and getting stronger, filling with strange, quiet noises. In the steppe, the prairie dogs whistled sadly, in the grape leaves the glassy buzz of grasshoppers was vibrating, the leaves sighed and whispered, the full disk of the moon, blood-red earlier was now becoming paler, moving farther from the ground, becoming paler and pouring more and more blue haze onto the steppe.
“And so they all gathered to invent a punishment worthy of the crime… They wanted to tear him apart with horses – and this seemed not enough for them; they thought to each shoot an arrow at him, but rejected that as well; proposed to burn him, but the smoke of the bonfire would not let them see his suffering; much was proposed but they could not find anything good enough for everyone’s liking. And his mother stood in front of them on her knees and was silent, not finding tears, or words to beg for mercy. They talked for a long time, and then one sage said, after thinking for a long time:
- Let’s ask him, why he did this? They asked him about it. He said:
- Untie me! I will not speak tied up! And when they untied him he asked:
- What do you want? – He asked as if they were slaves…
- You heard… - said the sage.
- Why should I explain to you my behavior?
- So it would be understood by us. You, proud one, listen! You will die anyway… Let us understand what you did. We are remaining alive and it is useful for us to know more than we know…
- Fine, I will tell you, although, it may be that I don’t understand it myself, what happened. I killed her because, it seems to me, she pushed me away… And I needed her.
- But she is not yours! – They told him.
- Do you only use what is yours? I see that every man has only speech, hands and feet… but he is master over animals, women, land… and much else.
They answered him that for everything that man takes, he pays with himself: with his mind and strength, sometimes his life. And he answered that he wants to keep himself whole.
Long they talked with him and finally saw that he views himself first in the world and other than himself sees nothing. They all even became scared when they understood what kind of loneliness he doomed himself to. He had no tribe, no mother, no cattle, no wife and he didn’t want any of it.
When the people saw this they once again started deliberating on how to punish him. But now they didn’t talk long – that one, the wise one, the one who didn’t interfere in their deliberations spoke:
- Wait! There is a punishment. It is a terrible punishment; you wouldn’t think of it in a thousand years! His punishment is inside him. Let him go, let him be free. This is his punishment!
And then something big happened. Thunder sounded from the heavens though there were no clouds. It was the heavenly hosts confirming the speech of the wise one. All bowed and went their separate ways. And this youth, who now received the name Larra, which means: rejected, thrown out, – this youth laughed loudly in the direction of the people who abandoned him, laughed, remaining alone, free, like his father. But his father was not human… And this one – was a man. And so he lived, free, like a bird. He came into the tribe and stole cattle, young women, all that he wanted. He was shot at, but the arrows could not pierce his body, sheltered by the invisible cover of the highest punishment. He was agile, predatory, strong, cruel, and never encountered people face to face. They only saw him from afar. And for a long time he, solitary, was seen thus around people, a long time - many decades. But once he came up close to the people and when they rushed at him he did not move from his spot and in no way indicated that he would protect himself. Then one of the people figured it out and yelled loudly:
- Don’t touch him. He wants to die!
And everyone stopped, not wishing to ease the fate of the one who did them evil, not wishing to kill him. They stopped and laughed at him. And he trembled hearing this laughter, and kept looking for something on his chest, grabbing it with his hands. And then suddenly he threw himself at the people, picking up a rock. But they, avoiding his blows did not strike him even once and when he, exhausted, with a mournful cry fell on the ground, they stood aside and watched him. Then he got up and picking up a knife that was dropped by someone during the struggle, struck himself in the chest. But the knife broke as if it hit a rock. And so he fell on the ground once more and long hit his head against it. But the earth moved away from him, deepening from the blows of his head.
- He cannot die! - the people said joyfully. And went away, leaving him. He lay face up and saw – high in the sky mighty eagles floating like black dots. In his eyes was so much sorrow that you could poison all the people in the world with it. Thus, from that time he remained alone, free, awaiting death. And so he walks, walks everywhere… See, he became like a shadow already and will remain so forever! He doesn’t understand the speech of humans, nor their actions – nothing. Yet still he seeks, walking, walking… He has no life, and death doesn’t smile at him. And he has no place among people… This is how a man was struck for his pride!”
The old woman sighed, became silent, and her head, falling to her chest, strangely rocked several times.
I looked at her. The old woman was taken over by sleep, it seemed to me. And for some reason I pitied her terribly. The end of the story she told with a very lofty, threatening tone, yet nonetheless, in this tone, a fearful, slave-like note was heard.
On the shore they started singing – singing strangely. First came the contralto – it sang two-three notes and then another voice was heard, beginning the song anew, and the first kept singing in front of it – a third, fourth, fifth entered into the song in the same order. And then, this same song, once again from the beginning, was sung by a chorus of male voices.
Each voice of the women sounded completely separate, they all seemed like multi-colored streams, as if pouring from above down ledges, jumping and ringing, merging into a thick wave of male voices, smoothly flowing towards the top. They were drowning in it, tearing themselves away from it, drowning it out, and then one after the other shooting up, clear and strong, high above.
The sound of the waves could not heard above the voices.


- Have you ever heard such singing anywhere else? - asked Izergil, lifting her head and smiling with her toothless mouth.
- No. Never…
- And you won’t. We love to sing. Only beautiful people can sing well, - beautiful people that love to live. We love to live. Tell me, aren’t those people singing over there tired after their day? They worked from sunrise to sunset, the moon came up, and already they’re singing! Those who don’t know how to live would have gone to sleep already. Those to whom life is precious, there – they sing.
- But one’s health… – I started to say.
- You’ll always have enough health for life. Health! Would you, having money, not spend it? Health is the same as gold. Do you know what I did when I was young? I wove carpets from sunrise to sunset, hardly ever getting up. I was as lively as a ray of sunshine, and yet had to sit still like a rock. And sat until, it used to be that all my bones would crackle. And when night would come, I ran to the one whom I loved, to make out with him. And this is how it was for three months while there was love; all the nights of that time I spent with him. And still lived to this age – had enough blood left! And how much did I love! How many kisses did I take and give!
I looked at her face. Her dark eyes were still dull; the memories did not enliven them. The moon shone on her dry, cracked lips, her sharp chin with grey hairs on it and her wrinkled nose, bent like the beak of an owl. Instead of cheeks there were black pits and in one of them lay a tress of ash-grey hair, who escaped from a red rag with which her head was wrapped. The skin on her face, neck and arms was all crisscrossed with wrinkles, and with every movement of the old Izergil you would expect that this dry skin will tear, fall apart into pieces and in front of me will stand a naked skeleton with dull black eyes.
She started speaking again with her crunchy voice:
- I lived with my mother near Falchi, on the very shore of Byrlad and I was fifteen when he showed up in our village. He was so tall, lithe, black-mustached, merry. He’d sit in a rowboat and yell ringingly into our windows:
“Hey, do you have any wine… and some food for me to eat?” I looked out the window through the ash branches and saw: the river is all blue from the moon, and he, in a white shirt and wide sash with the ends loose on his hip, standing with one leg in the boat, and the other on the shore. And swaying, and singing something. He saw me, says: “So this is the kind of beauty who lives here! And I did not know about this!” As if he knew all the beauties before me. I gave him some wine and boiled pork. And then four days later gave him all of myself as well. We kept going for rides in the boat at night. He would come and whistle quietly like a prairie dog, and I would jump out like a fish, through the window, into the river. And we would go… He was a fisherman from Prut, and later, when mother found out about everything and beat me, he tried talking me into running away with him to Dobruja, and further into the delta of the Danube. But I didn’t like him by then – he would only sing and kiss, nothing else! It was boring already. In those times Hutzul Ukrainians would go around in gangs in those parts, and they had some relatives here. Those guys knew how to have fun. A girl would wait, wait for her Carpathian lad, thinking he is in prison already or killed somewhere in a fight – suddenly he would drop in, alone or with two or three friends, as if from the sky. He’d bring expensive presents – everything came easily to them. And would party with her, and would praise her in front of his friends. And she’d like that. So I asked a girlfriend who had a Ukrainian boy to show them to me. What was her name? I forgot… I forget everything these days. It’s been a long time since those days, you can forget everything! She introduced me to a lad. He was nice. Red haired, all red – the mustache, the curls. A fiery head. And he was so sad, sometimes nice, sometimes would roar and fight like an animal. Once hit me in the face… And I, like a cat, jumped on his chest and sank my teeth into his cheek. Since that time he had a dimple on his cheek and used to love when I kissed it…
- So what happened to the fisherman? – I asked.
- The fisherman? Well he, here… He started hanging out with the Ukrainians. At first he kept trying to talk me into coming back and threatened to throw me in the water, and then – nothing, started hanging out with them and found another girl… They were both hung together – the fisherman and this Ukrainian. I went to see how they were hung. In Dobruja this was. The fisherman went to the execution pale and cried; the Ukrainian smoked a pipe. He was just walking along and smoking, hands in his pockets, one whisker hanging on his shoulder, the other hanging down his chest. He saw me, took out his pipe, and yells “So long!…”. I felt sorry about him for a whole year. Eh! It happened to them when they wanted to go back to the Carpathian Mountains. They went to farewell gathering at some Romanian’s and that’s where they caught them. Only those two, they killed several others, the rest escaped. They paid back the Romanian afterwards though. They burned down his house and mill and all the bread. He became a pauper.
- Was that you? - I asked guessing.
- The Ukrainians had lots of friends, not just me… The person who was their best friend was the one that set up their wake…
The song by the seashore had stopped by now and only the noise of the waves was echoing the old woman – a pensive, rebellious noise was a fine accompaniment to a story about a rebellious life. The night was getting softer and softer, and the blue shine of the moon was growing, while the indeterminate sounds of the busy life of her invisible tenants was getting quieter, drowned out by the growing rustle of the waves – because the wind was getting stronger.
-And then I also loved a Turk. Was in his harem in Skutari. Lived there a whole week – it wasn’t too bad… But then it got boring – only women, women. Eight he had. They eat all day, sleep, and talk about stupid things… Or else they fight, cluck like chickens… He wasn’t young anymore, this Turk. Almost gray, and so arrogant, rich. Spoke like a sovereign. His eyes were black… Direct eyes… Stare right into your soul. He very much loved to pray. I saw him in Bukureshti. He’s walking around the market like a king and looks around so haughtily, so haughtily. I smiled at him. That same night they grabbed me and brought to him. He sold sandalwood and palm, and came to Bukureshti to buy something. “Want to come with me?” – he asks. “Oh yes, I’ll come” – “Good!” And so I went. He was rich, this Turk. And he had a son with him – a dark boy, lithe. He was sixteen. With him I ran away from the Turk. Went to Bulgaria, to Lom-Palanka. There a Bulgarian woman stabbed me in the chest with a knife because of her groom or husband – I don’t remember anymore.
I was sick in some monastery a long time. A woman’s convent. Some young Polish woman took care of me. To her from another monastery, around Artzer-Palanka, I recall, her brother, also a monk would come. Very wormlike, kept weaving in front of me. When I got better, I went away with him… to his Poland.
- Wait! Where was the young Turk?
- The boy? He died, the boy. From homesickness, or from love… but he began to dry out, like a young tree that had gotten too much sun. That’s how he dried out. I recall, he’s lying there, all transparent and bluish, like a piece of ice, and yet love is still burning inside him. And he keeps begging for me to bend down and kiss him. I loved him, and I recall, kissed him a lot. Then he got really bad, almost didn’t move. He’s lying there, and like a pauper begging for charity, begs me to lie next to him and warm him. I used to lie down. You’d lie down and he would immediately light up. Once I woke up and he’s cold already… dead… I cried over him. Who knows? Maybe it was I who killed him. I was twice as old as him then. And was so strong, juicy… and he – what? A boy!
She sighed and – the first time I saw her do this – crossed herself three times, whispering something with her dry lips.
- So you went to Poland… - I cued her.
- Yes… with him, the little Pole. He was silly and mean. When he needed a woman, he would rub up to me like a cat, and hot honey dripped from his tongue, but when he didn’t want me, he would snap at me with words like a whip. Once we were walking along the riverbank and he said an arrogant, insulting word to me. Oh! Oh! I got mad. I began to boil like tar! I picked him up in my arms, and like a child – he was small – picked him up, and crushed his sides so that he turned blue. And then I wound up and threw him from the shore into the river. He was shouting. It was funny. I looked at him from above and he was splashing there, in the water. I left him then. And never got together with him again. And I was happy because of that: I never got back together with those whom I once loved. These are not good encounters, as if with dead people.
The old woman became silent, sighing. I imagined the people resurrected by her. Here is the fire-red, mustached Ukrainian going to die, calmly smoking a pipe. He probably had cold, blue eyes that looked at everything focused and hard. Next to him is the black whiskered fisherman from Prut; he’s crying, not wanting to die, and on his face, pale from pre-mortal sorrow, the happy eyes have lost their sparkle, and the whiskers wet with tears are hanging sadly around the corners of the crooked mouth. Here is the old, haughty Turk, most likely a fatalist and a despot, and next to him his son, a pale and fragile flower of the East, poisoned by kisses. Here is the vain Pole, gallant and cruel, eloquent and cold… And all of them – only pale shadows, and the one whom they kissed sits next to me alive, but dried out by time, without a body, without blood, with a heart without desires, with eyes without fire – also almost a shadow.
She continued.
- In Poland, it got hard for me. Cold and deceitful people live there and I didn’t know their snake tongue. They all hiss. What are they hissing? It was God who gave them such a snakelike tongue because they are deceitful. I was walking then, not knowing where and saw how they were planning to revolt with you, Russians. Reached the town of Bokhnia. A Jew bought me. Not for himself, but to sell me. I agreed to this. To live you need to know how to do something. I didn’t know how to do anything and for this I paid with myself. But I thought then, maybe if a get a little money to return back to Byrlad, I would break the chains no matter how strong they were. And I lived there. Rich gentlemen would come to me and party. It cost them dearly. They fought because of me, went bankrupt. One fought for me a long time and this is what he did once: he came to me and following him is a servant with a sack. So the gentleman took the sack and dumped it over my head. Gold coins hit me on the head, and I was so happy to hear them ring when they hit the floor. But nonetheless I chased away the gentleman. He had such a fat, raw face, and a stomach – like a big pillow. He looked at you like a sated pig. Yes, I threw him out, though he told me that he sold all his lands, and houses, and horses to shower me with gold. At the time I loved another deserving gentleman with a hacked up face. His whole face was hacked up crisscross with sabers by the Turks, against whom he fought recently with the Greeks. What a man! Why should he care about the Greeks, if he’s Polish? But he went, fought with them against their enemies. They hacked him up, one of his eyes oozed out from the blows, and two fingers on the left hand were chopped off. Why should he care about the Greeks, if he’s Polish? Here’s why: he loved exploits. And when a man loves exploits, he always knows how to do them and will find a place where it is possible. In life, don’t you know, there is always room for exploits. And those who don’t find them for themselves – they are simply lazy or cowards or don’t understand life, because, if people understood life each would want to leave after himself his shadow in it. And then life would not devour people without a trace… Oh, this one, all chopped up, was a good man. He was ready to go to the end of the world to do something. Probably your people killed him during the revolt. And why did you all go fight against the Magyars? Well – well, be quiet!
And ordering me to be quiet, old Izergil became quiet herself, lost in thought.
- I knew a Hungarian as well. One time he left me, it was winter – and only in the spring, when the snow melted they found him in the field with his head shot through. That’s how it is! You see, love destroys as many people as the plague, if you start counting – just as many… What was I saying? About Poland… Yes, there I played my last game. I met a young aristocrat. He was so handsome! Like the devil. I was old already, oh, so old! Was I forty? Maybe I was. And he was also proud, and spoiled by us, women. He cost me dearly… yes. He wanted to take me with him immediately, but I didn’t let him. I was never a slave, didn’t belong to anyone. And I finished up with the Jew, gave him a lot of money. Already in Krakow I lived. Then I had everything: horses and gold and servants… He came to me, this proud demon, and kept wanting that I would throw myself into his arms. We argued. I even, I recall, got ill from this. This went on a long time. I got the upper hand: he was begging me on his knees… But as soon as he took me, he abandoned me. Then I understood that I became old. Oh, it didn’t feel good to me! Not good at all! Because I loved him, this devil, and he meeting with me, laughed… He was mean. And he made of fun of me to others, and I knew it. I’ll say, it was very bitter for me. But he was here, close by, and in spite of it all, I fancied him. And when he went to fight you, Russians, I got nauseous. I tried to break out of it, but could not do it. And I decided to go after him. He was in a forest near Warsaw.
But when I arrived, I found out that you had already beaten them… And that he is a prisoner, nearby in the village.
“This means – I thought – that I won’t see him again!” Yet I wanted to see him. So I tried… Got dressed like a beggar, lame, and went with my face veiled to the village where he was at. Cossacks and soldiers everywhere. It cost me a lot to be there. I found out where the Poles were kept and I see that it is hard to get in there. But I needed to. And so at night I crawled to this place. I am crawling through the garden between the rows and I see – a guard standing in my way. And I can already hear the Poles singing and speaking loudly. They’re singing this song… to the mother of God… And then I hear my Arkadek singing. I felt so bitter when I thought that once people were crawling to me and now the time has come that I began to crawl like a snake to a man, maybe crawling to my own death. And this guard is already listening, stretching out. We’ll what there for me to do. I stood up and started walking at him. Don’t have a knife, nothing but my hands and my tongue. I’m sorry that I didn’t take a knife. I whisper “Wait!” But he, this soldier, has already put a bayonet to my throat. I tell him in a whisper “Don’t stab me, wait, listen, if you have a soul! I can’t give you anything, I beg you…” He put the gun down and also says whispering: “Go away, woman! Get! What do you want?” I told him that my son is locked up here… “You understand soldier – my son! You are someone’s son, aren’t you. So look at me – I have one like you and he’s there! Let me look at him, maybe he’ll die soon… and maybe you’ll be killed tomorrow – will your mother weep over you? And it would be hard for you to die without seeing your mother. Well it is hard for my son too. Have mercy on yourself and him, and me – a mother!..”
Oh, how long I talked to him! It was raining and we were getting wet. The wind howled and roared and pushed me in the back, then in the chest. I stood and rocked before this stone soldier. And he kept saying “No!” And each time I heard his cold word, the hotter was my desire to see him, Arkadek… I spoke and measured the soldier with my eyes – he was small, dry, kept coughing. And so I fell to the ground in front of him and embracing his knees and all the while begging him with hot words, pulled him to the ground. He fell in the dirt. Then I quickly turned his face to the ground and pushed his head in the puddle so he wouldn’t yell. He didn’t yell, just kept splashing trying to throw me off his back. Meanwhile with both hands I pushed his head deeper into the mud. So he drowned. And I rushed to the barn where the Poles were singing. “Arkadek!..” I whispered into the cracks of the walls. They were sharp, these Poles, and hearing me did not stop singing. There – his eyes are opposite mine. “Can you come out from here?” - “Yes, through the floor!” he said. “Well, go on”. And so the four of them crawled out from under that barn: three and my Arkadek. “Where are the guards?” asked Arkadek. “Lying over there!..” And they went very quietly, bent to the ground. The rain was falling, the wind howling loudly. We left the village and walked silently through the woods a long time. Walked quickly. Arkadek help my hand and his hand was hot and trembling.
Oh, I felt so good with him while he was silent. These were my last minutes – the good minutes of my greedy life. But then we came out on a meadow and stopped. All four thanked me. Oh they were telling me something for such a long time. I kept listening and looking at my master. What will he do to me? And so he embraced me and said so haughtily… Don’t remember what he said but it was basically that as thanks for me helping him escape he would love me. And he dropped to his knees in front of me, smiling and said to me:”My queen!” What a lying dog this was. Well, then I kicked him in the face with my leg and he fell back and jumped up. Terrible and pale he stands in front of me… The other three are standing too, all gloomy. And all are silent. And I looked at them… And then, I recall, I felt very bored, and this laziness took over me… And I told them :”Go!” They, the dogs, asked me: ”Are you going back there, to show them which way we went?” How mean! Well, they finally went. Then I went as well. And the next day, I was captured by your people, but soon they released me. Then I saw that it was time for me to build a nest, enough living like a cuckoo. I’ve gotten too heavy, and the wings became weak, and the feathers lost their luster. It was time, it was time! So I went to Galicia, and from there to Dobruja. And so I’ve been living here around three decades. Used to have a husband, a Moldovan; he died about a year ago. And so I live like this! I live alone. No, not alone, with those over there.
The old woman waved her hand toward the sea. It was quiet there. Sometimes some kind of short, deceptive sound would come out and quickly die.
- They love me. I tell them many different things. They need this. They’re still young. And I have a good time with them. I look and think “Well, I was like that myself, once upon a time. Only then, in my time, man had more strength and fire and therefore living was happier and better… Yes!..”
She became silent. I was sad next to her. She drifted off to sleep, rocking her head, and was whispering something quietly, perhaps praying.
From the sea, a thundercloud was rising – black, heavy, of severe outlines, resembling the spine of a mountain. It crawled toward the steppe. From its top, clumps of clouds were breaking off, rushing in front of it and put out the stars one by one. The sea was making noise. Near us, in the grape vines, people were kissing, whispering, sighing. Deep in the steppe howled a dog. The air was irritating the nerves with a strange smell, tickling the nostrils. From the clouds, thick flocks of shadows fell on the ground and crawled over it, disappeared, appeared again. In place of the moon was left only a murky opal spot, sometime it was covered up altogether by a grey clump of a cloud. In the distance of the steppe, now black and terrifying, as if crouching, hiding something inside it, little blue fires would flare up. First there, then here they would appear for an instant and go out, as if several people, spread out in the steppe far away from each other were searching for something, lighting matches which the wind would immediately put out. These were very strange blue tongues of fire, hinting on something fairy-tale like.
- Do you see those sparks? - asked me Izergil.
- Those over there, the light blue ones? – pointing to the steppe, I said.
- Light blue? Yes, those are they. So they’re still flying! Well-Well… I can’t see them anymore. I can’t see a lot nowadays.
- Where are these sparks from? - I asked the old woman. I heard something before about the origin of those sparks, but I wanted to hear about what old Izergil would say about them.
- These are the sparks from the burning heart of Danko. There used to be a heart in this world that once ignited with a fire… And from that fire are these sparks. I will tell you about this… Also an old tale. Old, everything is old. You see how much there is in the past? And now there is nothing like this – no deeds, no people, no tales such as in the past. Why? Here, why don’t you tell me! You can’t… What do you know? What do all you young people know? Eh-he-he. If you’d looked into the past clearly – there you’d find all the answers… But you don’t look and because of it you don’t know how to live… Don’t I see life? Oh, I see everything, though my eyes are bad! And what I see is that people don’t live at all, they are just getting ready, getting ready, and they spend their whole life doing it. And when they rob themselves, using up their time, then they start crying about fate. What’s fate got to do with it? Each person is their own fate. I see all kinds of people these days, but no strong ones. Where are they? And there are less and less handsome ones too.
The old woman stopped to think about what happened to the strong and handsome people, and thinking, was looking over the dark steppe, as if search for an answer in it.
I waited for her story and was silent, fearing that if I ask her about anything, she would once again go off on a tangent.
And so she began her story.


“A long time ago, there lived a people. Impassable forests surrounded their herds from three sides, and on the fourth side was the steppe. These were happy, strong and brave people. And so once there came a hard time. Other tribes showed up from somewhere and chased the previous ones into the depth of the forest. There, there were swamps and darkness, because the forest was old, and its branches tangled so thickly that through them you could not see the sky and the rays of the sun could barely break through to the swamps through the thick leaves. And when its rays fell onto the water of the swamps, the stench would rise and from it people would die one after the other. Then the wives and children began to cry, and the fathers became pensive and fell into a depression. You needed to leave the forest and for that there were two paths: one – back – where there were powerful and evil enemies, another – forward – where there stood giant trees, tightly embracing one another with mighty branches, lowering their knotted roots deep into the clinging mire of the swamp. These stonelike trees stood silently and motionless during the day, in the grey twilight and would come together even tighter around the people in the evenings when the bonfires were lit. And always, day and night, around those people was a ring of strong darkness. It seemed like it was going to crush them, and they were used to the spaciousness of the steppe. And it was even more frightening when the wind would hit against the tops of the trees and the whole forest would make a dull hum, as if it were threatening them, and sang a funeral dirge for those people. And nonetheless these were strong people and they could have gone into a mortal battle with those that once defeated them, but they could not die in battles because they had certain precepts, and if they’d died then their precepts would dissapear with them. And so they sat and thought through the long nights, in the dull noise of the forest, in the poisonous stench of the swamp. They sat, and the shadows from the bonfires danced around them in a silent dance, and it seemed to everyone that it was not the shadows that were dancing, but triumphant evil spirits of the forest and swamp. The people just sat and thought. But nothing, not labor, not women, so wear out the bodies and souls of people as do depressing thoughts. And the people became weak from thoughts… Fear was born among them, bound their powerful arms. The women created terror with their weeping over the bodies of those dead from the stench and over the fate of the living, paralyzed by fear. And fearful words were heard in the forest, first unsure and quiet and then louder and louder… Already they wanted to go to the enemy and give them a gift of their freedom, and no one, frightened by death, was afraid of a slave’s life. But here appeared Danko and alone saved everyone.”
The old woman clearly often told the story of the burning heart of Danko. She spoke melodiously, and her voice, squeaky and dull, vividly drew in front of me the noise of the forest, inside which were dying from the poisonous breath of the swamp the unlucky, run-down people…
“Danko – is one of those people, a young, handsome man. The handsome ones are always brave. And so he tells them, his friends:
- You cannot move a rock from your path by thinking. One who does nothing, nothing will happen to him. Why do we waste our strength thinking and being depressed. Arise, lets go into the forest, and walk through it. It must have an end – everything in the world has an end! Let’s go! Well! Hey!…
They looked at him and saw that he is the best among them, because in his eyes glowed lots of strength and living fire.
- You lead us! - they said.
Then he led…”
The old woman stayed silent for a while and looked at the steppe where the darkness was stil getting thicker. The little sparks of Danko’s burning heart flared up somewhere far away and seemed like blue airborne flowers, blossoming just for an instant.
“Danko led them. Everyone went cheerfully – they believed in him. It was a hard path! It was dark and at every step the swamp opened its greedy rotting maw, swallowing people, and the trees blocked the way with a mighty wall. All their branches intertwined; like serpents the roots stretched everywhere, and each step cost a lot of sweat and blood to those people. They walked a long time… The forest got thicker and thicker. Their strength was waning! And so they started to complain about Danko, saying that it was in vain that he, young and inexperienced led them somewhere. But he walked ahead of them and was fresh and clear.
But once, a storm struck over the forest. The trees began to whisper quietly, ominously. And then it became so dark in the forest as if inside it gathered all the nights that have existed in the world since it was born. The little people walked among the big trees and in the terrible noise of the lightning, they walked, and swaying, the giant trees creaked and hummed angry songs, and the lightning bolts, flying over the tops of the forest, lit it for a minute with a blue, cold fire and disappeared as quickly as they appeared, frightening people. And the trees, lit up by the cold fire of the lightning, seemed alive, stretching among the people escaping from the captivity of the darkness. Crooked, long arms, weaving into a thick net, trying to stop the people. And from the darkness of the branches something frightening, dark and cold was staring at those walking. It was a difficult path, and the people exhausted by it lost their spirit. But they were embarrassed to admit their powerlessness and so in their anger and hatred they fell upon Danko, the man who walked in front of them. And they began to accuse him of his incompetence in leading them – that’s how it was!
They stopped and over the triumphant noise of the forest, among the trembling darkness, tired and angry, they began to judge Danko.
You – they said – are a worthless and harmful man for us! You led us and tired us out, and for this you will perish!
You said: “Lead!” and so I led – shouted Danko, squaring himself against them. - I have the courage to lead, that is why I led you! And you? What have you done to help yourself? You only walked and could not save your strength for a longer way! You only walked, walked like a herd of sheep!
But these words only angered them more.
- You will die! You will die! - they roared. And the forest hummed and hummed, echoing their cries and the lightning bolts ripped the darkness into shreds. Danko looked at those for whose sake he took on this burden and saw that they were like animals. Many people stood around him, but in their faces there was no nobility, and he could not expect mercy from them. Then in his heart boiled indignation, but because of pity toward the people it died out. He loved the people and thought that, maybe, without him they would perish. And so his heart flared up with the fire of the desire to save them, lead them to an easy path, and then in his eyes sparkled the rays of that mighty fire… And they, seeing this, thought that he was filled with ferocity, why else would his eyes burn so brightly, and they became cautious like wolves, expecting that he would struggle with them and they began to surround him more tightly so that it would be easier for them to grab and kill Danko. And he understood their thoughts already, and it made his heart burn even brighter, since this thought made him sad.
And the forest kept singing its dark song, and the thunder rolled, and the rain poured…
-What will I do for the people?! – louder than thunder shouted Danko.
And suddenly he ripped apart his chest with his hands and ripped out from it his own heart and raised it high over his head.
It burned as bright as the sun, and brighter than the sun, and the entire forest became silent, lit up by this torch of the great love towards the people, and the darkness flew away from its light and there, deep in the forest, trembling, fell into the rotting maw of the swamp. The people, amazed, stood like stones.
- Let’s go! – shouted Danko and rushed ahead to his place, holding the burning heart high and lighting the way with it for the people.
They rushed after him, mesmerized. Then the forest began to make noise again, amazed, rocking the tops of the trees, but its noise was drowned out by the footsteps of the running people. They ran quickly and bravely, pulled by the amazing sight of the burning heart.
And though they were still dying, they were dying without complaints and tears. And Danko was still in front, and his heart was still burning, burning!
And so suddenly the forest came apart in front of them, came apart and remained behind, dense and mute, and Danko and all these people immediately dove into a sea of sunlight and clean air, washed by the rain. The storm was there, behind them, over the forest, but here the sun was shining, the steppe was breathing, the grass sparkled with the diamonds of the rain and the river shone like gold. It was evening and from the rays of the sunset it seemed red, like the blood that spurted in a hot stream from the torn chest of Danko.
The proud and brave Danko took a look in front of him along the width of the steppe – took a happy look at the free land and proudly laughed. And then fell – and died.
But the people, happy and full of hope did not notice his death and did not see that next to Danko’s body his brave heart was still burning. Only one cautious person noticed this and afraid of something, stepped on the proud heart with his foot. And falling apart into sparks it went out….”
This is where they come from, the blue sparks of the steppe that appear before a storm!
Now, when the old woman finished her beautiful fairy tale, the steppe became awfully quiet as if it was struck by the strength of the brave Danko, who burned up his own heart for the sake of his people and died, not asking from them anything as a reward. The old woman was napping. I looked at her and thought: ”How many more tales and remembrances are left in her memory?” And I thought about the great burning heart of Danko and about human imagination, which created so many beautiful and powerful legends.
The wind blew and uncovered from under the rags the dried up breast of the old woman Izergil, falling deeper and deeper asleep. I covered her old body and lay down myself next to her. The steppe was quiet and dark. Clouds were crawling through the sky, slowly, boringly. The sea made a dull and sad noise.


Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

Now I have to find the original and read it. No way am I reading the translation, before I'm reading the Russian!. *Sigh*. So many things to read, so little time. I can't wait to compare the versions!

March 05, 2006 9:01 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

The original is the link in the translator's note. Let me know if you have trouble finding it. Also, feel free to suggest any places in the text where you feel things can be improved.

March 05, 2006 9:13 PM  
Blogger Ger Tzadik said...

An interesting anecdote I read about Russian translation: Back in the 50's and early 60's, when computers were just beginning to realize their potential, one of the obvious benefits that was thought up was translating forign documents. The first choice was Russian, of course. They used some of the best language folks available to help create a dictionary of a few hundred thousand words. (huge, for the time. Remember computers in that era were lucky to have 4k of RAM)

They ran the computer through it's paces repeatedly, and it did a fair to fantastic job. Once they started using it for intercepted documents and transcripts though, a problem cropped up. One document in particular caused all sorts of problems. The most vexing was where it kept mentioning a mysterious "water goat".

They called in the language experts to review the document and found out what the problem was: They were feeding it engineering and technical documents. These language experts all came from a literary background of course, so they used the classics of Russian literature to help build the dictionary and test it's translating abilities. It worked great for those kinds of documents...but once you started handing it techical writing, it fell apart.

So based on that knowledge, they quickly realized that the "water goat" was how the computer was translating "hydraulic ram".

March 06, 2006 8:41 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Actually, "water goats" were just one weapon is Stalin's secret arsenal :)

March 06, 2006 11:50 AM  
Blogger dbs said...

(I hope that means 'fantastic').
You are quite an overachiever. This is a very difficult style to translate. I don't know how it reads in Russian, but it has quite a lot of ambiguous imagery. Thanks for sharing it.

I’m a little bit embarrassed to say that I don’t think that I got the meaning. ‘Selfishness is the path to eternal misery, beauty can mask evil, selflessness will shine forever’? What is your take?

March 06, 2006 5:34 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...


There are many reasons why I like this story.

First, the woman is not Russian. She is from Bessarabia which is in the South. And so the way she speaks is very different - it is very colorful, more primitive, folksy. I think this is true of many of the warm climate cultures. And so the tales she tells, even without deep literary analysis speak to me with the richness of their imagery and the simplicity of the plot. It had a Thousand and One Night feel to it.

The second thing that really appeals to me is the middle part of the story, where she narrates her very eventful life. When I was growing up, those parts of Europe were behind the Iron Curtain. This area, which is so ethnically diverse, was presented as a homogeonized union, all parts subordinate to the ideals of Marxism/Socialism. The description of all these different people interacting together, her ethnic prejudices, both positive, and negative, and just the general feeling of what a melting pot that area was in the 19th century is very interesting to me. And the philosophy of living life to the fullest, of experiencing everything without being afraid of taking a risk, appeals to me because it completely the opposite of my personality.

Lastly, Gorky was a writer for the common people, who was very much an advocate for social change and progressive ideas. So in the tales he tells through the mouth of the old woman he is illustrating the two extremes that an individual can relate to the group. In the second tale, he shows, in a benign agitprop sort of way, an ideal of a leader who gives his life to liberate his people in spite of themselves.

In many ways, it is a fairly straightforward and simplistic reading of the short story. Now, my wife read the translation and the first thing she said was that the old woman is just like Larra who took from everyone without giving back and dried out, became an invisible shadow. She lived her life, forming all these meaningless relationships without attachment, using these people, and in the end wound up with nothing. So, I am sure there is a lot more symbolism and literary analysis that I am missing.

March 06, 2006 7:42 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

dbs, feel free to point out anything that feels ambiguous. Probably means I didn't do a very good job.

March 06, 2006 8:21 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

That’s not what I meant, you have a real mastery of language. Some of the words which you chose are incredible

“…a pensive, rebellious noise…”

What I mean is that it seems that Gorky develops these descriptive tapestries which weave lots of different feels into one scene:

“Here and there scraps of clouds wandered in the sky, puffy, strange outlines and pigments, here - soft like plumes of smoke, gray or ash-blue, there - harsh, like broken fragments of cliffs, matte black or brown.”

One phrase which seemed out of place was: “And when night would come, I ran to the one whom I loved, to make out with him.” This term is appropriately common, but I think of it as being used more by younger people.

I think that your wife has a good point. It's possible that there is a slightly different nuance, the woman is cruel and selfish, but she lacks the pride and accepts that she will be used by others (and will use them). She also has that great line about love killing as many as the plague.

March 07, 2006 8:11 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

" make out with him."

Yeah, that was a hard one. The Russian word was kiss, but I think it implies more than that. Unfortunately all I could think of was make out, or neck. Both have sort of the wrong tone, so I am not happy with it, but I couldn't come up with a better replacement.

March 07, 2006 10:05 AM  

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