Translating "Cold obsidian"

It all began with a discussion thread at page 506 where I explained why I haven't translated my novels into English yet. To make the long story short: it's because there are poems in them. These poems cannot be removed without breaking the plot and I don't know English well enough to translate them. Now, thanks to Judith Bradford who wrote about my problem in Stand Still Stay Silent comment section and Alan Jackson who offered to translate my poems asking nothing in return, a new chapter in my life has begun. I thought my books had no future and are doomed to be lost and forgotten and now they suddenly have it again! I'll be posting the translations here and on my website from now on. Fell free to join the discussion :)

--- Translating "Cold obsidian"

This is the first poem of “Omnis Trilogy”, a story about a mortal guy who becomes an apprentice of the creators of Omnis, the world where he lives. There are 22 poems in the Trilogy, if I remember right. One of them serves as a clue to solving the riddle of book 3, also, two important characters are poets here, so removing the poems without destroying the plot is impossible. That’s why the translation is such a problem.

The Cold obsidian (the one who speaks to us in the poem) is an ancient artefact left by a long dead civilization. It can predict future but is unable to influence it (the other obsidians - Hot and Smoky - can). Obsidians are semi-sentient entities. Each book begins with a poem where one of them speaks to readers and gives them some clues about the future story.

The guy with a pure heart this poem is about is Kangassk, one of the main characters.

The key things that should be preserved in translation here are:

- black and cold stone, the speaker here
- a human with a pure heart who has a passive ability of making the other people better, but is neither good at magic nor with a sword
- another human chosen by the stone triad
- the first guy’s gift being useless in the final fight with the chosen guy


Original Russian text:

“Холодный обсидиан”

Пленяет мудрой глубиной
Холодный черный цвет...
Ты взглядом встретился со мной,
Не-воин, не-поэт.


Трепещет сердце, бьется мысль –
Ты молод, смертный мой.
Зачем твою простую жизнь
Свела судьба со мной?


Я слишком многих повидал,
Кто Небом озарен,
Кто славой пламенной блистал
Тогда со мной вдвоем...


А ты так прост, открыт и мил.
Тебе не по плечу
Быть магом запредельных сил
Или служить мечу.


И ты сумел меня согреть:
Душа твоя тепла.
Не видно, сколько ни смотреть,
В ней никакого зла.


Твой гнев – и тот без тени тьмы.
Таких я не встречал.
Невольно ты ведешь умы
К началу всех начал.


Но если встанет на пути
Твоем большой герой,
Я чувствую, ты уж прости,
Он справится с тобой.


My rough translation:

“Cold obsidian”

My depths are wise but also dark.
You’re not the one I sought.
A warrior with a poet’s heart
Is something you are not.


Your heart is pure. You’ve got a spine.
You’re young, my mortal friend.
Your fragile life has clashed with mine.
I know how it will end.


I’ve seen too many blessed by Light,
Embraced by flames of luck,
I served them well, I let them fight
Until their hour had struck.


You’re not like them, you’re not a lord.
I’ll tell you what I think:
That, be it magic or a sword,
The war is not your thing.


Your soul is warm and far too kind.
No evil lives inside.
I like your quiet and simple mind,
The tears you never hide...


I haven’t met the ones like you.
You never preach or yell,
But everything you say or do
Make others shine as well.


And yet your gift won’t serve you right
Against the one I’ll choose
And when you’ll meet, and talk, and fight
I know that you will lose.


---- Two versions by Alan Jackson + his comments

Your comments on this poem were indeed very helpful. But a point I need to clarify is the metre.

I see your translation seems to use the same metre as the Russian: this is one of the reasons your translation doesn’t really work – you shouldn’t copy the metre from one language to another, you should translate the metre.

In English the metre you use is called ‘ballad metre’ – as you probably know – and produces fast, apparently simple – even naïve – verse. Using it for the dignified, ancient, expositive verse that you describe really isn’t possible. I n Russian I can well see things are different; the pattern of long and short words that you use in the originals is quite different from an English ballad, and looks both dignified and somehow archaic.

So I have chosen, first, the ‘iambic pentameter’ that Shakespeare used – but in quatrains; this form echoes the typical sonnet of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and works well if dignity is the primary quality needed. The third verse I feel might need a bit of tinkering; and rhyming ‘warms’ and ‘arms’ and ‘call’ and ‘soul’ are open to criticism.

Wisdom is in my depths, darkness within;
One have I sought, but found him not in you
No poet you, dressed in a warrior’s skin;
No warrior, hiding a heart of poetry true


Your heart is pure, and my heart beats in fear;
Your hold is strong, but my hold stronger yet;
Your youthful, simple life has brought death near;
Your conflict with my power one end has set.


Too many have I seen, blessed by the Light,
Whose fortune burned in everything they touched;
Desire for glory led them to me despite
The certainty it was one step too much


But not you, simple, open, humble, pure,
No blood-lust stains your soul, no subtle call
Of power warps your mind with twisted lure;
The battle-song makes no echo in your soul


In you no evil lives, your spirit warms
Each soul it touches, yet you never see
How free you are; how strong your open arms!
An innocence that touches even me.


Anger you know, and rightly, for your tears
Flow unhidden from undarkened eyes;
And eyes that see you turn away from fears
And shun the evil powers that hypnotise


So powerful your soul, but you will falter
The day you meet and face the one I choose.
No power of yours the fated doom can alter
That you will fight that day, and you will lose.


But it may be that you really wanted archaism first, and dignity resulting from the sense of great age. In English, of course, nothing quite says ‘archaic’ like a ‘thou’. So combining thous and thees with the ancient alliterative metre and a spatter of archaic words, we could have this – and yes, I have used southern second-person forms and northern third-person, which is naughty, but it cleans up the verse far better that way.
Your English is excellent, as I have said, but even you might find the odd word here a little unfamiliar. Meanings available on request.

Wise are my deeps, dark my coldness;
One I have sought, a warrior-poet –
Not thou, seeker! No swordwight thou,
No wise maker of the world’s song,


But a pure heart, a passion deep
That hardens youth; my heart trembles
Foreseeing thy death, thy doom self-made,
Thy gage thrown down, through to thine end,


Fate inexorable. What forced thee here?
Why did thy doom whelm thy simplehood
To this cold darkness? Too kenned it is,
Too many the fools, for fame hungry,


Their shining lust by light driven
To burn in glory in battle with me –
But thou – not thou! Thirsting for gold,
For glory’s wreath, for reckless fame –


Not thou! Not thou! Thy naked heart,
Simple and pure, no song of war
Pulls thee to dance; no dern maincraft,
No snake-whispers snare thine innocence;


In thee no ill, no thoughtless sin
Its woning finds; thy warmth of soul
Each touched spirit inspires with warmth
E’en on my stone bestowing heat


Unthought, unasked. Yet thou seest not
Thy clean freedom from cloy of sin,
From evil’s rack. Wrath, holy wrath,
That thou hast held, no hint of dark


Taints its justice; the tears flow down
From unmarred eyes; minds that watch them
See again clear the Source of sources,
The End of all ends. All that thou hast;


All for to wield; but wane it shall;
Thy steps falter, facing the one
Elect by me thy life to shend
On that day forelaid, thy loss, thy doom.


Final version


Cold Obsidian

Wise are my deeps, dark my coldness;
One I have sought, a warrior-poet –
Not thou, seeker! No swordwight thou,
No wise maker of the world’s song,
But a pure heart, a passion deep
That hardens youth;

my heart trembles
Foreseeing thy death, thy doom self-set,
Thy gage thrown down, through to thine end,
Fate inexorable. What forced thee here?
Why did thy doom whelm thy simplehood
In this cold darkness?

The common way,
Through the wide gate, I weep and despise –
For fame hungry, heart-slaved, mind-slaved,
Their shining lust by lich-light drawn
To the candle-flame of coveted pride,
To burn gloriously in battle with me –
But thou – not thou! Thirsting for gold,
For glory’s wreath, reckless for fame –
Not thou! Not thou!

Thy naked heart,
Simple and pure, no song of war
Lures thee to dance; no dern magecraft,
No snake-whispers snare thine innocence;
In thee no ill, no thoughtless sin
Its woning finds; thy warmth of soul
Each touched spirit inspires with warmth –
Even for me, past memory cold,
On my dark stone bestowing heat
Unthought, unasked.

Yet thou seest not
Thy clean freedom from cloy of sin,
From evil’s rack! Wrath, holy wrath,
That thou hast held, no hint of dark
Taints its justice; the tears flow down
From unmarred eyes; minds that watch them
See again clear the Source of sources,
The End of all ends.

All these, thy gifts,
All these thou hast; thy hand wields them
With waxing might; but wane they shall.
One day thy life shall wend hither;
One day thy cause shall call thee to me;
A foe to confront, to fight in battle,
With faltering steps, unsteady hand,
And failing gifts, facing the one
Chosen by me thy life to shend
On that day forelaid, thy loss, thy doom.

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