I have gone reading about musical settings to Russian poetry, and found myself toying with how I would translate these two poems by Nikolai Gumilev (founder of the Russian Guild of Poets and the Acmeist movement in poetry, and one-time husband of Anna Akhmatova and father of her son).

The first one was called by the critic where I sourced it "key to all of Gumilev's poetry", advice from an experienced poet to a young one in the performing arts. And it casts a chilling irony when one knows that Gumilev was himself shot by the secret police in 1921 for alleged involvement with a conspiracy after an informant named him.

(I am not completely pleased with my translation, as it has too many consonant clusters to be easily singable, although Gumilev did not write it as a song lyric. It proved surprisingly difficult for so many easy rhymes --- but the Acmeist motto was "All the right words in the right order" so I've got to try to keep the right words as much as possible.)

(Link has music by V. Dashkevich, called 'the Mozart of Soviet cinematography',
performed by Elena Kamburova)

My dear boy, you are so happy, ever merry, bright and smiling,
Do not ask for this sweet fortune that has poisoned worlds away.
You don't know, you don't know, you don't know what is this violin,
What dark horrors lie in store for one who dares begin to play!

If a player's hands commanding take the violin and bow,
Peaceful light is gone forever from the eyes that make that choice.
Rabid wolf packs wander, hungry, on the roads where fiddlers go.
Fiends and demons love to listen to the fiddle's regal voice.

Ever, ever must these strings go on and sing and cry and wail,
And the maddened bow must leap and dance all through the nights and days,
Under sun and under snow, under blizzard, under gale,
Even when the west is burning, even when the east's ablaze.

You will tire, you will slow, you will stop for just one note,
And the power will be gone from you to breathe or make a sound,
And the wolves in rabid bloodlust will at once lunge at your throat,
And their claws will crush your ribcage as their teeth will drag you down.

Then you'll know the cruel mockery of all that sang around,
And your eyes will see the over-late but overwhelming fear,
And the mournful cold will wind around your body like a shroud,
And your friends will bow their heads then, and your bride will burst in tears.

Go on, boy! You will not find either joy or treasure here!
But I see that you are laughing, there are sunbeams from your eyes.
Here, take the magic fiddle, face the monsters others fear,
And go die a death of glory, the dread death that fiddlers die!

Nikolai Gumilev (1886-1921), 1910

Gumilev was fascinated by Africa, and had visited it four times, but this poem, one of his most famous, is not about Africa, not really.

(Link has music written and performed by Elena Vaenga.)

Today I can tell that your gaze is especially sad
And your arms are especially thin as they clasp round your knee.
Listen, I'll tell you how far, far away, on the shores of Lake Chad,
An exquisite giraffe wanders free.

He has been created so languid and graceful and slim
With dapples in magical patterns adorning his hide,
So only the moon in her beauty compares with him
As she shimmers and breaks on the crystal lake's rippling tide.

He looks like the many-hued sails of a ship from afar.
He floats in his gallop as birds do in joy of their flight.
I know that the earth sees much wonder when at the first star
He hides in a cavern of marble to wait out the night.

I can tell of mysterious lands and of laughter and bliss,
Of the maid black but comely, of the passioned young chief on the plain...
But you, for too long you've inhaled the weight of the mist,
You do not believe there is anything other than rain.

And how can I tell you of the scent of the grasses that play
Beneath slender palms, and how tropical gardens there lie...
You're crying? Just listen... on the shores of Lake Chad, far away,
An exquisite giraffe wanders by.

Nikolai Gumilev, 1908
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