Let’s look out at the world together,
My goldfinch, with our heads to one side:
Do you, like me, find winter weather
Prickly as a grain in the eye?
Boat-like tail-feathers black and yellow,
Around your beak a scarlet mask;
Can you tell, you cocksure fellow,
How much a goldfinch you really are?
What an air above his forehead:
Black and red, yellow and white;
Eyes open, he looks back and forward,
Now looks no longer – he’s taken flight!
Notes on this poem
This poem is taken from Osip Mandelstam’s so-called Voronezh Notebooks, written while in internal exile before his final arrest and death in 1938. The poem addresses a bird, a familiar of his exilic period, with which he identifies himself through the pun of shchegól (goldfinch) and shchógol’ (a dandy, such as Mandelstam had been as a young man). While the phonetic resemblance is untranslatable, English has a reserve of avian terms (e.g. coxcomb, cock of the walk) which make the semantic link.
Mandelstam’s translators have generally ducked the difficulties of rendering his formal verses, although the bar is currently being raised by Alistair Noon, too few of whose suggestions for these I was able to incorporate. Not knowing Russian, working instead by triangulating existing versions, I have felt myself at liberty to imagine what Mandelstam could sound like in English, aiming for fidelity to the originals’ rhyming, metrical quatrains as much as to their content.