Image credit: Asma Bezneiguia, "Vigael"
I love this poem’s balance of despondency and reassurance. The surface message, that nothing changes, is both reinforced and undermined by the structure, so all the initial elements – Ночь, улица, фонарь, аптека [Noch, ulitsa, fonar, apteka] / Night, street, lamp, chemist – are present at the end, but in a different order, and with the subdued dynamism of a new element, ледяная рябь канала [ledyanaya ryab kanala] – lit. the icy ripple of the canal. I decided to translate фонарь as both ‘lamp’ and ‘streetlamp’ for rhythmical reasons, but this minor variation seems to fit the spirit of the poem.
Russian, unlike English, lends itself to perfect rhyme, with a grammar that conveniently ends many words in ‘a.’ Rhyme, alliteration and meter are essential to keep the poem from being unremittingly melancholic, but to reproduce them exactly would require contortion, or a radical departure from the meaning. I have taken the odd semantic liberty (‘thirty years’ for ‘quarter century,’ ‘respite’ for ‘way out’), used a looser rhyme scheme (abcb defe rather than abab cdcd) and meter (but still four stresses per line), and tried to retain some of the original sounds – for instance, the sibilance of Бессмысленный и тусклый свет [Bessmyslennyi i tusklyi svet] in Meaningless, insipid light. (‘Insipid’ also fits the metrical scheme better than the more obvious ‘dull,’ and is justified by the faintly contemptuous tone.)
This poem is very nearly just an economical expression of the anomie produced by urban landscapes, but it subtly subverts itself through the aural beauty of the original, particularly where the harsh consonants give way to the ледяная рябь канала [ledyanaya ryab kanala]. It is impossible to convey the sound of this line in English, but I have tried to retain some alliteration. Рябь (ryab) means both ripple and dazzle – I have sacrificed the visual sparkle of ice for the sense of underlying movement: water (life) can be artificially channeled, even frozen, but never completely suppressed.