Translating the "Dance of the burning souls"

And here we meet the legendary pirate himself, funny songs aside. Ziga’s immortal friend describes him as being “a pirate by day, a poet by night”. Ziga indeed enjoyed poetry and wrote it well. As to his personality, it was dual: he had a soft spot for his friends and family, but had no problem being cruel to anyone else. Being totally aware of the fact that what he did was evil, he didn’t want to change. Something snapped in him later in life, though, when he abandoned his fleet and riches and sailed into uncharted ocean never to be heard of again.

Things that should be preserved in translation:
- the story itself: the burning ship, some souls ascending the sky, some descending into the ocean
- the fact that he consciously decided not to change despite what he saw and stayed a pirate
- him writing poems at night

Original Russian text:

Хоровод пламенных душ

Вдали от песчаного брега,
Под желтой щербатой луной
Я видел летящие в небо
Души убитых мной.

Корабль стонал, сгорая,
Земле он сиял звездой.
И шли они в море без края
С большим маяком – луной.

Трудилась костлявая жница,
И души манил небосвод;
Мерцающей вереницей
Они покидали борт.

И взгляд опустил я в воду,
Почувствовав груз вины –
А там, обретя свободу,
Мерцают из глубины!..

Вкусил я вину и ужас,
Всю ночь я провел без сна,
Всю ночь мне сияли души
С небес и морского дна.

Потом кораблей я много
И грабил в ночи, и жег,
Но пламенных душ хоровода
Я видеть с тех пор не мог.

Прозревший, ослеп я снова
И путь не оставил свой.
Не гож я на роль святого –
Какой из меня святой?..

Но все же, тихи, как эхо,
Приходят стихи ко мне:
Куда б я ни плыл, ни ехал,
Я дань отдаю луне.

И складно ложатся строки,
А в пальцах перо дрожит...
Что ж, видимо, и жестокий
Живой не лишен души.

Не в силах, иль не желая
Смягчить мой суровый нрав,
Стихи лишь звучат и тают,
Я, как и всегда, - пират.

И что-то под сердцем ноет
Порой... а порою – нет.
Мне все умножают вдвое
И Тьма, и высокий Свет.


My rough translation:

Dance of the burning souls

Far away from the land,
Under a yellow pockmarked moon
I saw ascending to the sky
The souls of those I killed.

Their ship moaned, burning,
Shining like a fallen star,
And they departed into a boundless sea
Where the moon was a beacon.

Grim reaper toiled,
Sky lured the souls.
In a shining procession
They left the ship.

I lowered my eyes to the water,
My heart heavy with guilt,
And saw there, freed by death,
More souls gleaming from below.

Having tasted both guilt and horror,
I couldn’t sleep that night.
All night the souls were shining for me
From the sky and the sea depths.

I have burned and looted
Dozens of ships since,
But haven’t seen the souls
Shining and dancing anymore.

I saw the light and went blind again,
I didn’t leave my path.
I’m not fit to be a saint,
It’s not my role.

Only the poems keep coming,
As gentle as echo.
Whenever I go
I pay my tribute to the moon.

My heart speaks in words that rhyme,
The quill is shaking in my hand…
Looks like even a cruel monster
Can have a living soul.

The poems sing and fade,
Unable or unwilling
To make me a better person.
I’m still a pirate.

Yet something hurts under my heart
Sometimes… Sometimes not.
I get twice more of all things,
Light and Dark.


Translation by Alan Jackson + his comments:

[Notes: this is the hardest so far, and the one where I have deviated most from the Russian. I have used terza rima because the inherent unbalance of each verse seems to me appropriate for the tensions in the poem. The metre is flexible; decasyllabic but otherwise simply as varied as I could, though trying to favour trochaic and spondaic rhythm, except I have added an extra syllable on the final terzet – the rhyme in -alter – to stress those lines as both a contrast and a completion to the previous emotions. Indeed, the last verse is not truly a translation of the Russian at all – this is a massive liberty I’ve taken! I can see in broad terms what the original is trying to say, but between my uncertainty of detail and my failure to express it sufficiently succinctly in English, I have written an alternative which I hope preserves the emotion, while expressing it quite differently. If Olga disapproves – and she is likely to – I will have to revisit it.]

Dance Of The Burning Souls

I saw, flying upward, to the sky’s strand,
Under a marred moon, yellowed, lonely, maimed,
The souls I killed, slaughtered with my own hand

Their ship a fallen star, her timbers flamed,
They fled her moaning hulk to boundless sea
By Moon-lady guided, by her path aimed

At the high stead, as death’s scythe set them free
Shining in triumph, in joy ascending,
The ship set down, a witness against me

Testimony that weighed me, my gaze bending
Down to the water, sees, lighting its deep,
Souls there too, on their road without ending

Too heavy the weight; horror and guilt keep
My eyes staring nightlong, at souls that shone
Above, below, denying my heart sleep

Many ships burned, many crimes come and gone
But never, since that one, unblinded night
Have shene souls danced for me their malison

The blindfold I tied again, fearing light
Might tempt me from the broad way chosen long –
What saint am I by day! What saint by night!

But a still small voice murmurs right and wrong,
Hope and despair; poems come, unmarred, whole,
On the Moon-lady’s path; I pay in song.

The phrases fit, rhyme, metre play their role,
Amazement shakes the pen that sets them down –
But can a wretch like me still have a soul?

Yet I choose not the fading, laurel crown!
I can not, will not, may not, shall not alter!
A pirate always, till I hang or drown!

But still again, again, my heart will falter;
A marred moon gleams, a poem’s murmurs play:
Is my free choice merely a donkey’s halter?
Whose fool am I by night? Whose fool by day?

My comments again:

I totally approve of the changes you made, last verse included. It concludes the "by day - by night" theme beautifully and makes the ending stronger. It's different from the original, but in a way that doesn't break the story but rather contributes to it. It's like seeing the same thing from a different angle.

Adding the triumphant tone to the souls procession is also a great move, it shows why the event touched Ziga's pride so much and made him angry.

Jump to another poem:

About the project:
My scifi and fantasy novels have a lot of poems in them that can not be removed without destroying the plot. Alas, my English in not good enough for translating poetry. Alan Jackson helps me translate the poems. It makes the translation of my novels possible.