• Subhash Jaireth


Keywords: translation – Marina Tsvetaeva


Translating Marina Tsvetaeva’s Sad (Garden)

‘Languages are not strangers to one another,’ writes Walter Benjamin in The Task of the Translator, ‘but are, a priori and apart for all historical relationships, interrelated in what they want to express.’ (Benjamin 1992: 73) According to him, ‘… this kinship of languages is brought out by a translation far more profoundly and clearly than in the superficial and indefinable similarity of two works of literature.’ An urge to produce a likeness to the original isn’t what a good translation strives for, he continues, but aims instead on the transformation and renewal of the original. (73)

In his reading of Benjamin’s essay, Jacques Derrida in the Roundtable on Translation, published in The Ear of the Other (1985), also focuses on the idea of ‘the renewal of the original’, calling it the ‘living on’ of the original (Derrida 1985: 122). ‘It happens that Benjamin,’ notes Derrida, ‘says substantially that the structure of an original is survival, what he calls Überleben. At times he says Überleben and the other times Fortleben. These two words do not mean the same thing (Überleben means above life and therefore survival as something rising above life; Fortleben means survival in the sense of something prolonging life), even though they are translated in French by the one word survivre (to survive, to live on), which already poses a problem. Given the surviving structure of an original text – always a sacred text in its own ways insofar as it is a pure original – the task of the translator is precisely to respond to this demand for survival, which is the very structure of the original text. (Notice Benjamin does not say the task of translation but rather of the translator, that is, of a subject who finds him/herself immediately indebted by the existence of the original, who must submit to its law and who is duty-bound to do something for the original.) To do this, says Benjamin, the translator must neither reproduce, represent, nor copy the original, nor even essentially care about communicating the meaning of the original. Translation has nothing to do with reception or communication or information. As Christie McDonald has just pointed out, ‘the translator must assure survival, which is to say the growth, of the original.’ (122)

Four English translations of Marina Tsvetaeva’s Sad (Garden) presented in this article don’t aim to ‘reproduce, represent or copy the original.’ And neither do they strive to recreate ‘a likeness of the original,’ but represent an engagement with the original poem that might ensure the growth and survival of the original. These translations have resulted from one-to-one dialogue of the poet-translator with the original poem; a dialogue based on empathetic (Einfühlung or feeling-into) reading of the Russian poem.

These translations resulted form a workshop curated by IPSI. It was held during the Poetry on the Move 2016 festival. The workshop hoped to produce more than one translation of the poem by different poets writing in English but with no or very cursory knowledge of Russian language and poetry. During the workshop basic information about the poet and the poem was passed on to the poets. The information given to each poet included: Russian text of the poem; Russian text transcribed in English (so that the poets could read the poem in Russian); word-by-word and line-by-line English paraphrase of the Russian poem; and an audio-recording of the poem in Russian. I played the role of an intermediary. The first workshop also discussed historical, biographical and literary (poetical) contexts in which the poem was conceived and written. The poets worked on the poem individually but exchanged information about the poem through the intermediary. It was made clear to the participants that they were free to follow their poetic instinct and expertise and produce a translation that were happy with. They were free to improvise or stick to strict form and content of the original poem. The five translations were read at one of the sessions in the Poetry on the Mover Festival 2017 in September.


Marina Tsvetaeva’s Sad (Garden)

Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) finished the poem on Monday, 1 October 1934. The date is recorded in the manuscript as well as in the 1965 edition of her selected works. However, it is quite likely that this is the day on which Tsvetaeva made a clean, handwritten copy of the poem. This is because her papers in the Russian Archive of Literature and Art in Moscow reveal the presence of more than one draft of the poem. Therefore, it may be that she started working on the poem in September 1934.

Tsvetaeva and her family (which included her husband Sergei Efron, their daughter Alaya and son Gerogii) were living in an apartment on the second floor of a house with the street address of 33 rue Jean Baptiste Potin in Paris. This was their twelfth year of a long and torturous exile in France. Financial difficulties had forced the family to move houses, looking for places with cheaper rent. The apartment in the house on rue Jean Baptiste Potin was their fifth home in Paris. The rent was low and yet the family struggled to find enough money to afford it. Marina wasn’t happy in the apartment the family was renting before the move. ‘I am still trying,’ she writes to a friend, ‘to find some habitable place with a little garden.’ The house on rue J. B. Potin had a little garden in the backyard and in the first week of July 1934 the family moved into the apartment on the second-floor of this old stone house. ‘We live in a wonderful 200-year-old stone house,’ Tsvetaeva writes on 24 October 1934 to her friend Anna Teskova in Prague (note how often she uses the word ‘wonderful’). ‘The house lies almost in ruins, but I am hoping that it is sufficiently sturdy to survive the century. It is a wonderful house on a wonderful street with chestnuts; I have a large wonderful room of my own with two large windows, of which outside one I see a large chestnut, now yellow like an eternal sun. It is my only great joy.’

However, the delight in the above letter can’t hide the problems. In July, she writes to a friend, a Russian publisher in Paris, explaining her predicaments: ‘I have finally rediscovered the gift of the written word, and found my pen and inkpot. I write after the terrible move to a new place and still feel unsettled and disorganised. There is no gas in the house and no light; and I don’t know when we would have them because there is no money.’ In a letter written on 18 October 1934 to Salomea Andronikova, a friend and supporter, she thanks Salomea for paying the three-month advance on the rent and asks her to help her sell five tickets to a reading of her essay My Mother and Music which she was going to give in Paris.

Although she liked the apartment and the small backyard garden, she described it to her friends as a ‘hole’ or a ‘wreck’ in suburban Paris, far from anywhere. In a letter dated 8 October 1935, giving directions to a friend intending to visit her, she writes: ‘… you walk through a gloomy-looking entrance and climb up on the darkest of stairways to reach the second floor; there you’ll find a door on your right; knock and wait.’ That the house was indeed dark and gloomy is confirmed by Princess Zinaida Shakhovskaya, who had also paid her a visit. The house looks ‘impoverished’, she writes in her memoir, ‘and outside the window the view is painfully sad, typical of suburbia; it’s damp, grey and it’s raining.’

An essay by French poet and translator Veronique Lossky (2010) reproduces black and white photos of the house in the 1930s. The photos were probably taken in late autumn or early winter; the trees in the street are leafless; there is rubble on the side of the street; a horse cart loaded with wood stands in the street facing the camera and there is a horseless carriage stationed on the opposite side of the street. Tsvetaeva’s words, ‘hole’ and ‘wreck’ sound real.

The family lived in the house for four years. Their neighbours in the house were an old Russian woman and her grandson, who occupied the ground floor apartment. The gloominess of the house and the impoverished conditions in which Tsvetaeva lived didn’t stop her from writing. She wrote daily: new poems and prose pieces, revision of old works, neat copies of draft versions, translations and an endless number of letters and notes in her diary. The intensity with which she wrote reminds me of her words from a letter she wrote in May 1934 to Khodosevich, a Russian poet living in Paris: ‘after all: the less you write, the less you want to write; between you and your table emerges the space of impossibility (very much like the distance between you and the love that you have fallen out of).’

By the time Tsevetava left Moscow in May 1922 she had already been hailed as one of the most innovative voices of her generation. She had published nine books of poems of which the following five received significant acclaim: Vechernyi Al’bom (Evening Album, 1910), Volshebnyi Fonar’ (Magic Lantern, 1912), Iz Dvukh Knig (From Two Books, 1913), Versty (Miles, 1921) and Lebedyniyi Stan (The Encampment of Swan, 1921). She had also written at least seven plays and published a Russian translation of a popular French novel. As an established poet, writer and translator she must have hoped that through her writing, publishing and performing she would be able to support herself and her family. Sergei, her husband, had no professional qualifications and suffered from several ailments, which included tuberculosis.


The trying conditions in which the poem made its appearance can be imagined by reading Tsvetaeva’s letters to her friend I have cited earlier. The house was cold because there was no gas for heating. ‘I write with my hands trembling,’ she notes in one of the letters and this is ‘either because I am old or perhaps it is too cold in the house’.

Here are the first four lines of the poem:

Za etot ad [For this hell]
Za etot bred [For this delirium]
Poshli mne sad [Send me a garden]
Na staroch let [In my old-age years].

The hellish conditions of her existence are announced emphatically, but she wants to be compensated for the nightmare she has been forced to endure. She wants her God to send her a garden so that she can have some respite in her ‘old age’.

When I look in the two-volume edition of her works, I find that in September (the exact date is not mentioned) she also finished a short, eight-line poem without a title. The two final lines of this short poem indicate an emotional state, similar to that when Garden was written:

Vek moi – yad moi, vek moi – vred moi [My century – my poison, my century – my lesion]
Vek moi – vrag moi, vek moi – ad [My century – my enemy, my century – hell].

The final word ‘ad’ [hell] of this poem reappears in the first line of Garden and in Russian it perfectly rhymes with the word ‘sad’ [garden].

The poem Garden is made up of eight four-line stanzas and employs a flexible rhyme pattern (perfect single rhyme and at times weak unaccented rhyme). However, more interesting is the change in the iambic meter of the stanzas; the first six are structured as iambic dimeter whereas the final two are in the form of iambic tetrameter. The iambic dimeter is very commonly used in Russian folk songs, folk tales and proverbs. As I read the poem aloud I can feel how the rapid tempo of the poem is replaced by a more sedate pace in the final two stanzas. It seems as if the poet is about to give up; she can’t go on any longer with her pleading and arguing; she is depleted, deflated, and drained.

The emotional ambiance of the poem is a negative one, created by the use of words such as hell, delirium, grief, hunchbacked, burning, outcast, and torture. The word garden, which is the most frequent word in the poem, stands as a positive counterpoint. However, the negative tone is even more enhanced by the frequent use of two types of Russian negative words ne and ni (both meaning ‘no’). To convey the negative emotional mood, Tsvetaeva deploys an additional innovative device represented by the use of double negatives, such as bez ni-litsa [without no-face] and bez ni-dushi [without no-soul]. Roman Voitekhovich, a literary critic and an expert on Tsvetaeva’s poetry, explained to me recently that in Russian literary language the use of double negatives is more common than in English, and that their use doesn’t necessarily create a positive equivalent (two negatives don’t make one positive) but accentuates the negative.

I am inclined to read the poem-monologue as a prayer or appeal to God. In one of the drafts described and analysed astutely by Tatiyana Gevorkyan, I find the line, bog – sadovod [God – the gardener]. Tsvetaeva deleted the word God from the final version, which I think works well because it makes His/Her presence in the poem diffused and hence more compelling.

But the voice in which Tsvetaeva, the poet, prays and appeals isn’t that of a meek believer. The intonations of complaints and rebuke are too audible to ignore and this is what I find most endearing in the poem; Tsvetaeva, the fighter, won’t give in without an argument. She won’t hesitate for a second to speak her mind. This is what happens in the penultimate stanza of the poem. In the first line, skazhi: – dovolno muki, na – [tell me: the torment is over], she asks her God to confirm that the torment in her life is over. She can’t take it anymore because, as she suggests in the second line, sad odinokii, kak sama [the garden is lonely as me myself], she is alone, like her little garden in the backyard. But in the third line (enclosed in the parenthesis) she warns her God to stay away from her: no okolo i sam ne stan’! [but don’t you dare to come near me!]. The reason is simple and is given in the final line of the stanza: sad odinokii, kak ty sam [the garden is lonely like you yourself].

She wants her God to have mercy on her, but she doesn’t want Him to come near her because He, like the lonely garden, is lonely Himself and thereby would make her even more lonely and destitute. Be kind to me, she tells Him, but keep your distance. She has doubts that her God, who made her endure such suffering, the most horrible of which was the death of her three-year old daughter in the orphanage, would answer her prayers, pleadings and complaints, and send her tortured soul otpushenie [salvation].

I find otpushenie [salvation], the last word of the poem, very fascinating. The manuscript of the poem in the archive shows that she laboured to find this particular word; in fact, she considered at least forty-nine different words before settling on this one. Some of the words she tried are appended with brief comments. For instance, the word omovenie [ablution] she finds good in terms of meaning, but inferior in terms of its sound.

I have already described the financial troubles Tsvetaeva and her family were facing at the time the poem Garden came into being. But there were two other family matters that could have weighed heavily on Tsvetaeva’s mind. The first, and in my opinion more critical, was the estrangement between her and Alya, the daughter she adored. In Tsvetaeva’s own words, Alya ‘… loved her utterly till she was fourteen. I was scared of her love because I could see that if I were to die, she would die too. She lived through me.’ Now Alya had grown into a twenty-two-year-old, sensitive but independent-minded girl. Very much like Tsvetaeva herself in her own youth, it is possible that Alya wanted to free herself from the influence of her domineering mother. Like all mothers of young daughters, Tsvetaeva complained about Alya calling her ‘lazy, rude, disorderly and inactive.’ But I think more troubling for Tsvetaeva was the realisation that her lovely Alya had become fonder of her father and preferred to spend more time with him. Her ‘father’, Tsvetaeva writes in a letter to her friend, ‘supports her [i.e. Alya] completely; in his eyes, she is always right and I am the one who is guilty of everything.’ The bitterness and disappointment felt by Tsvetaeva is hard to overlook. Alya wasn’t only a daughter she adored; she was the daughter whose life she had saved at the expense of her other, the three-year old Irina. One doesn’t need to be a psychoanalyst to suspect that the guilt of letting Irina die alone in the orphanage still troubled her.

Irina perished in a Moscow orphanage from hunger and malnutrition. Saakyants, Tsvetaeva’s biographer, notes that Tsvetaeva wrote a letter (dated 20 February 1920) to a friend four days after she got the news (her anguish is palpable; the sentences are short, often incomplete, incoherent):

I am heart broken with grief. On 16 February, my daughter Irina perished in an orphanage; just four days ago; and it is my fault. I was so preoccupied with Alya’s illness (malaria with recurring seizures) and feared leaving her alone to go to the orphanage (I feared the very thing that has happened now)… I was told that Irina didn’t die from any illness but just because she had become very weak; and I wasn’t even able to go to her funeral… The only thing I celebrate in my life is poetry but I didn’t forget Irina because I was busy writing; I didn’t write a word for two whole months.

That Tsvetaeva blamed herself for her daughter’s death is also hinted by Anastasia. In her memoir, written half a century later, Anastasia quotes her sister saying that she allegedly saved Alya at the expense of Irina; she wasn’t in a position to save them both because there wasn’t enough food and hence decided to save the one who was older and thereby stronger. Saakyants finds it difficult to accept Anastasia’s summation, but there is hardly any doubt that the tragedy would have left a deep scar on Tsvetaeva.

The second reason of her discontent was associated with her husband Sergei’s activities in Paris. Saakyants, her biographer, notes that Sergei had become an active member of a group called the Union of Returnees to the Homeland. The main objective of the union was to encourage members of the Russian émigré community to return to the Soviet Union. She cites a letter Sergei wrote to his sister in Moscow in August 1934. In this letter, Sergei complains that ‘almost all my friends have returned to Soviet Russia. I am happy for them and shudder thinking about my own future. The main obstacle is the family, in fact not the family as such but Tsvetaeva. It is very hard to talk to her. I really don’t know what to do.’  So it seems that Sergei and possibly Alya were trying to convince Tsvetaeva to return to Moscow with them. Once again, she had found herself at a tricky fork in the road; she was conflicted and knew that sooner or later she would have to make up her mind.

Like most writers in exile Tsvetava felt homeless in Paris. Her French was faultless, but the only place she truly felt at home was Russian language and poetry. She had the support of the Russian émigré community, but that support wasn’t enough to earn even a meagre livelihood through reading, writing and translating. As a Russian poet, her readers were in Russia but Soviet Russia was not the land she wanted to return to; it was alien as well as dangerous. In a letter written from Paris to her friend Teskova she describes the conundrum: ‘everyone is pushing me towards Russia, the place I can’t return to. Here I feel useless. And there I am impossible.’

The utter helplessness of her situation found a compelling expression in Garden. Although the same emotion permeates several other poems written in the house on rue J. B. Potin, in Garden she was able to achieve an almost perfect consonance between meaning, mood and sound.

All imaginative (I like this word more than the more commonly used creative) writing, fictional or non-fictional, to paraphrase Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian literary philosopher, is at its origin autobiographical. If this is true, poetry is even more autobiographical. Like an insect trapped in amber, a poem preserves the emotional substance of an autobiographical moment. This is what I read and hear in Garden.  However, what makes this poem remarkable is the way the autobiographical moment captured in it begins to trespass its boundaries and merges with the historical gist of the time in which Tsvetaeva and people like her lived.


Translation 1 (Subhash Jaireth)



After this hell
After this misery
Send me a garden
In my aging years. 

For my aging years
For my aging cares
For years of slog
For crooked years

For my aging years
A dog’s bone-stash
For scorching years —
A breezy patch…

For me the outcast!
Send down a garden:
That hasn’t a face
That hasn’t a soul!

Garden: no step-let
Garden: no eyelet!
Garden: no giggle!
Garden: no whistle!

Unwilling to hear
Send me a garden
That hasn’t a smell
That hasn’t a soul

Tell me: the torture is over — yes
The garden — lonely as myself.
(But don’t You dare come near me!)
— The garden is lonely as You Yourself.

Such a garden for my aging years…
— That garden? or perhaps — that world? —
For my aging years, bless me —
A garden and free my soul.


Translation 2 (Sandra Renew)

In the original Russian both the language and the structure of the poem on the page are simple, spare and unadorned. This sparseness evokes emotion that is understated but intense.

It is this searing clarity of emotion that I was attempting to reflect in my translation. I could have gone for more complex words, descriptors; sentences to more precisely match in English the meanings of individual words.

However, I think meaning in this poem is often drawn from the directness of what is said, exposing us to the poet’s resigned, desperate weariness at this point in a difficult life and her insistence on the idea of the garden as a possible panacea.



In place of this hell,
In place of this chaos
Make me a garden
For old-age years.

For old-age years,
For old-age anxiety,
Of drudge work – years,
Of crippled body – years …

For old-age years
doggedly hoarded,
passionless – years
A contentment garden …

For a refugee,
Make me a garden:
Where no-one knows me,
With no expectations!

This garden: no little thing!
No place to show off in,
No place for loud laughter
No place for exuberance

With nothing to listen for.
Bring me a garden:
With no-one to love!
With no expectations!

Tell me: no more torture – because
The garden is lonely, like me.
But you must not stand near by
The garden, also, is lonely, like you.

Such a garden for my old-age years …
–That garden? And perhaps – that world? –
For my old-age years, make it for me – Allow me to rest.


Translation 3 (Hazel Hall)

I tried to keep the repetition and metre of the original poem, including the turn in the last two stanzas. Marina's poetry is very lyrical and has been set to music, so I also wanted the translation to sound like a song. In doing so, I was aware that this is at odds with the text, since the poet is asking for absolute quiet in her garden. Nevertheless, while completing this translation I kept thinking of the second movement of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt's beautiful piece, Tabula Rasa. Interestingly, ‘tabula rasa’ is the term used to describe the philosopher John Locke's contention that the mind is a blank slate until it's filled with experience. Marina seems to be asking to return to that state, even if it means time out from God.



Instead of this torment
Instead of this misery
Bless me with a garden
for my grizzled years

For my feeble years
For old aged loss and grief
For the grind of labour
For my misshapen years

For my end of life
throw me a bone
for my fevered years
a plot cool and calm

For a cast out like me
Grant a humble plot
With no other being
With no heart or soul

A garden: no footsteps
A garden: none peep
A garden: no laugher
A garden: no birds

Where nothing is heard
Grant me a garden
With no floral fragrance
With no entity

Tell me: the torture is enough
The garden's lonely, like yourself
But you're not welcome . . . don't come near
The garden is alone, like me

That garden's for my final years
that garden or . . . that world to come
Bless me in my final years
For the salvation of my soul


Translation 4 (Paul Magee)

Kant believed angels were incapable of appreciating poetry. Being rational, they partook of objective thought, just as we do. But they lacked the sensual and it is only at the meeting of the sensual and rational that one finds art. Animals are excluded at the opposite pole of that schematism.

Myself, I have never had much time for angels in poetry. Rilke’s ‘jeder Engel ist schrecklich’ struck me as the truth of the matter. Substituting ‘a lack of divine inspiration at this point in the poem’s production’ for each and every angel reference in contemporary poetry is a fun game to play.

On the other hand, Badiou seems to me most interesting at the point he tables his thesis as to the inexistence of angels. He sees their invocation as a denial of sexual difference and the trauma it imports the human subject.

There are no angels in Tsvetaeva’s garden. Nothing. Hers strikes me as one of the most godless poems ever written.

But a believer’s poem all the same.

Translating it was a process of shock.



To cope with this underworld
you’ve sent me, and madness
Make it a garden
for the years that age

For the years that age
For the griefs I’ve to live through
The years of work coming
and the groanings in my back

For the years that age
Bone for that dog
For the hell-burnt years
A garden in the breeze

for their refugee
Bless me with a garden
and nobody there
A soulless place

Garden no one steps
in. Garden no one looks in
A laughterless garden
a no whistling there

Bless me with a garden
Nothing has a scent there
not a soul

Speak: you’ve tortured enough
A garden on its own
But don’t come near me here or there
Yes, he says, it’s as alone as me

That’s your garden for me and the years
I age. That. Or your paradise?
Bless me in the years that age
Deliver me from here


Works cited: 


Benjamin, W 1992 ‘The Task of the Translator’, in Illuminations (trans. Harry Zohn), London: Fontana Press, 70-82.

Derrida, J 1988 The Ear of the Other: Otobiographies, Transference, Translation: Texts and Discussions with Jacques Derrida, (ed. C McDonald, trans. P Kamuf), Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press

Efron, A Marina Tsvetaeva: My Mother, Moscow: Algorithm (in Russian), Ebook at royallib.com/book/efron_aridana/mpya_mat_marin_tsvetaeva.html (accessed 20 November 2016)

Gevorkyan, T 2016 ‘Over the Draft Pages of Marina Tsvetaeva’, Yerevan State University (in Russian) at http://ysu.am/files/03T_Gevorgyan.pdf (accessed 20 November 2016)

Lossky, V and Tsvetaeva, M 2010 ‘La Maison’ (in French) at https://issuu.com/ville-de-vanves/docs/expo-marina-tsvetaeva (accessed 18 November 2016)

Saakyants, A and Tsvetaeva, M 1999 Life and Art, Moscow: Ellis Lak (in Russian)

Tsvetaeva, A 2005 Memoirs, Moscow: Isograf (in Russian)

Tsvetaeva, M Selected Works, Moscow: Sovetskii Pisatel’, 1965 (in Russian)

Tsvetaeva, M 1988 Works, Volume 1: Poems and Plays, Moscow: Khudozhestvennaya Literatura (in Russian)

Tsvetaeva, M 1988 Works, Volume 2: Prose and Letters, Moscow: Khudozhestvennaya Literatura (in Russian)

Heritage of Marina Tsvetaeva, Nasledie Mariny Tsvetavy website at http://www.tsvetayeva.com/ (accessed 18 November 2016)