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a populist russky poem

April 1, 2012

Written 1876 by Nikolai Nekrasov (his last name means “not pretty”). Translated last week by me. I have no idea what to do with the problematic phonetic resemblance between sower and sewer (and suddenly, listening to Lou Reed’s Coney Island Baby and having just typed “sewer,” it occurs to me that it looks an awful lot like “sewer”), or if it’s even problematic at all. My favorite thing about the poem that came through in translation is the weird repetition of “shy.” My favorite thing about the poem that may not have come through in translation, despite the help of irregular English past participles, is how many different forms of the word “sow” there are (in Russian it looks like seed, sperm, family, and the number seven). Original under the cut.

Sower of knowledge in the people’s field!
Do you find the soil fruitless, or is it that
Your seeds are lean?
Are you shy of heart? Are you weak in spirit?
Your work is rewarded with stunted shoots,
Your grains of little good!
Wherever are you, able ones, with your spry faces,
Wherever are you, with your baskets full of wheat?
The work has been sown shyly, seed by seed—
Strike forward!
Sow the reasonable, the good, the eternal,
Sow! You will be thanked from the heart
Of the Russian people…

Сеятель знанья на ниву народную!
Почву ты, что ли, находишь бесплодную,
Худы ль твои семена?
Робок ли сердцем ты? слаб ли ты силами?
Труд награждается всходами хилыми,
Доброго мало зерна!
Где же вы, умелые, с бодрыми лицами,
Где же вы, с полными жита кошницами?
Труд засевающих робко, крупицами,
Двиньте вперед!
Сейте разумное, доброе, вечное,
Сейте! Спасибо вам скажет сердечное
Русский народ…

6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 1, 2012 5:40 am

    Possibly relevant:

    ἐνίοις δ’ οὐκ ἔστιν ὄνομα κείμενον τῶν ἀνάλογον, ἀλλ’ οὐδὲν ἧττον ὁμοίως λεχθήσεται· οἷον τὸ τὸν καρπὸν μὲν ἀφιέναι σπείρειν, τὸ δὲ τὴν φλόγα ἀπὸ τοῦ ἡλίου ἀνώνυμον· ἀλλ’ ὁμοίως ἔχει τοῦτο πρὸς τὸν ἥλιον καὶ τὸ σπείρειν πρὸς τὸν καρπόν, διὸ εἴρηται “σπείρων θεοκτίσταν φλόγα.” – Aristotle Poetics 1457b

    “Where has it ever been seen that there is the same relation between the sun and its rays as between sowing and seeds? . . . If the sun can ‘sow,’ its name is inscribed in a system of relations that constitutes it. This name is no longer the proper name of a unique thing which metaphor would overtake; it has already begun to say the multiple, divided origin of all seed, of the eye, of invisibility, death, the father, the ‘proper name,’ etc.” – Derrida

    • linebrick permalink*
      April 1, 2012 4:53 pm

      okay, certainly, brilliantly relevant, because in my list of things “sow” looks like in russian, i left out the deictic, which i didn’t realize until reading this– invisibility, death, the father, the ‘proper name.’ “sow” looks just like “this”!

      on another note: i’ve read them both each through several times and i still can’t figure out if that derrida could arguably constitute a translation of that aristotle or not. i’ve decided it could. but is the riffaterrean matrix here that the greeks just didn’t have a word for “shine”?

      • April 1, 2012 9:18 pm

        For what it’s worth, the dictionary says that λάμπω means “to shine.” But more generally, it may interest you, Caroline, that in German, the verb “scheinen” means both “to shine” and “to seem.” “Die Sonne scheint”: the sun is shining. “Es scheint so”: so it seems. “Warscheinlich”: probably [true-seemingly; cf. vraisemblablement]. The ambiguity always reminds of the different meanings of δοκέω and of φαίνομαι.

      • April 1, 2012 11:35 pm

        But could we say, “The sun shines its rays”? That might actually be easier to get away with in Greek, given the prevalence of internal accusatives. λάμπω, like shine, when used transitively means “cause to shine, illumine” (So quoth the LSJ). I suppose there’s OED 9a — but it’s rare, and Aristotle might insist that it’s not a “proper” usage — i.e., that it itself results form some kind of transference.

      • April 2, 2012 9:26 am

        Also, I just read three essays on Aristotle’s discussion of Metaphor, all of which dutifully footnote (but do not discuss) the Derrida essay in question — and all of which manage to entirely avoid any discussion of this example. One of the essays discussed the very phenomenon Aristotle was attempting to describe, but chooses to concentrate on the parallel passage from the rhetoric. Michael Silk goes so far as to cite the surrounding passage with this example carefully excised; he finally explains, in a footnote carefully appended to a different passage, “As elsewhere, I have excerpted the Greek to avoid irrelevant complications associated with awkward examples.”

        So yes, in addition to whatever other reasons there might be that the Derridian text might constitute a translation of the Aristotelian, there is at least this one: this example, for better or for worse, can no longer “mean” anything other than Derrida’s interpretation of it, because no one dares to offer any other interpretation of it.

  2. linebrick permalink*
    April 1, 2012 9:28 pm

    i think i knew this already, élan… hence nietzsche’s apollo, right? the shining god of truth is also the god of illusion?

    the question is, what light does all this sow on nekrasov’s poem?

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