Lost In Translation: Sergey Esenin

The Russian to English translator’s job is a tough one. They face a constant dilemma in transforming melodic Russian verse into rigid English. It’s unfortunate, but many times a bad translation will render the most evocative Russian sentence flat and dull.

In my research of Russian literature, I have been reading about Sergey Esenin — one of the country’s most loved lyrical poets. Born in the country, he moved to the city — Moscow, then Petrograd — and in 1918, formed the Imagist poetry group.The Revolution had an impact on Esenin, who found it hard to adjust to the new way of life, with alcohol and drugs only furthering his disillusionment. Over 30 years, Esenin wed four times (American dancer Isadora Duncan was his third wife), becoming a father through marriage, and a romantic liaison. All this made for moving and emotive verse that, while poignant, thrives on masterful composition.

So, what does this have to do with translation? While combing through copious amounts of information, I came across a number of English translations of Esenin’s final poem. Stumped, I searched for the original and found no translation to be a match. They were all either too wordy, exaggerated, and/or neglected to honour the poet’s words. I ended up translating the eight lines myself and believe me, it’s hard to balance the literal and the melodious, yet that shouldn’t compromise the poem’s integrity.


Apparently, this final untitled poem was written in blood. Esenin, who was staying at the Hotel Angleterre in Leningrad, could not find any ink and used his lifeblood to complete the piece. The poem became public around the same time he was found in his hotel room, hanging from a radiator pipe. Whether Esenin committed suicide or not is undetermined. He had been mentally unstable and suffered from a drug addiction, though some attribute his death to the hands of the secret police. Politically, Esenin was out of favour as his “village” poetry clashed with the industrial theories of the Revolution.

Esenin left his legacy in the most beautiful of poetic works that continue to be devoured. I checked Twitter and found that the Russians love nothing more than to share a cup of coffee with Esenin in the spring.

Here’s my translation of this final poem. The original is below if you want to have a go of translating it yourself, or to at least compare with Google translate. If you come across wildly varied versions in either case, don’t say I didn’t tell you so.

Goodbye, my friend, goodbye.

My dear, you are in my heart.

This predestined parting

Promises a meeting in time to come.


Goodbye, my friend, without a hand, without a word,

Don’t be sad and furrow your brow in sorrow, —

To die in this life is not new,

But to live, of course, is hardly newer.


До свиданья, друг мой, до свиданья.
Милый мой, ты у меня в груди.
Предназначенное расставанье
Обещает встречу впереди.

До свиданья, друг мой, без руки, без слова,
Не грусти и не печаль бровей, —
В этой жизни умирать не ново,
Но и жить, конечно, не новей.


Esenin and Duncan

Esenin and Duncan




9 thoughts on “Lost In Translation: Sergey Esenin

  1. I’ve always found the idea of translating poetry to be bizarre. You must surely read in the original langauge? How else can you truly understand what the poet was saying? A transalation of a poem creates a new poem based upon.. But, as I can’t read russian, I’m happy to enjoy your version of this poem Marina. Smashing piece. Another tragic tale. As you said in reply to my last comment. Literature, art in general and tragedy do seem to go hand in hand sometimes.

    • It’s such a grey area… Without translators we would be unaware of so many great works — Greek mythology etc — yet if you learned the language you may miss the nuances and historical implications that a native can only know. It’s all interesting though and the universality is there. Glad to share my version 🙂 Some translations out there should come with footnotes!! Thank you, Adrian!!

  2. I read your article “A speaker in the dacha” in The Writer and promptly sought your web site. Thanks for a terse and accurate description of the challenge.
    Русский язык падает на уши, как серебро, но переводы часто попадают, как свинец.


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