“To Friends” (1828)

Pushkin wrote this after he had been returned from exile by Tsar Nicholas I and was accused by some of flattering the tsar. When I first read this poem I thought it was pure sarcasm, which I have come to realise is not the case.

The most noticeable word of the poem, льстец (lstyets, flatterer) presents an immediate difficulty for the translator, as it is one syllable in Russian, while in English the direct translation has three. However, I got some unexpected help from the Finnish translation by Ilpo Tiihonen (“Ei, en valehdele silloin…” – “No, I do not lie when…”). I joke that for a Finn, lying and flattery are the same. Whether that is true or not, lie gives the translator more room for manoeuvre.

My translation:

No, I’m not lying when I start

To praise the tsar so full and freely.

I put my feelings out there, really,

And speak the language of the heart.

I’ve simply come to love the tsar:

He rules us with such life and honour.

He’s lifted up the Russian star

Hopes, labours, war bring life upon her.

No no, though youth boils in his veins,

His kingly spirit is not callous:

The one he whips in front of palace

Still secretly his mercy gains.

I lived a life of exile then:

Without my friends the time dragged slowly.

But he took mercy on the lowly

And I am with you once again.

He gave me back my inspiration

And freed my thought from lets and stays

Shall I then, friends, in admiration,

Not be the one to sing his praise?

I lie? No, liars just deceive

And would wish ill upon the ruler

Of all his kingly rights, relieve

The tsar of mercy, make him crueller.

They’d tell the tsar to hate his folk

And turn away from nature’s calling

They’d say all learning at a stroke

Is mutiny of stench appalling!

Oh poor the land where slave and liar

Stand ‘fore the throne at equal distance

As poet stands with silent lyre

Stares at the ground without resistance.

***

Нет, я не льстец, когда царю
Хвалу свободную слагаю:
Я смело чувства выражаю,
Языком сердца говорю.

Его я просто полюбил:
Он бодро, честно правит нами;
Россию вдруг он оживил
Войной, надеждами, трудами.

О нет, хоть юность в нем кипит,
Но не жесток в нем дух державный:
Тому, кого карает явно,
Он втайне милости творит.

Текла в изгнаньe жизнь моя,
Влачил я с милыми разлуку,
Но он мне царственную руку
Простер — и с вами снова я.

Во мне почтил он вдохновенье,
Освободил он мысль мою,
И я ль, в сердечном умиленье,
Ему хвалы не воспою?

Я льстец! Нет, братья, льстец лукав:
Он горе на царя накличет,
Он из его державных прав
Одну лишь милость ограничит.

Он скажет: презирай народ,
Глуши природы голос нежный,
Он скажет: просвещенья плод —
Разврат и некий дух мятежный!

Беда стране, где раб и льстец
Одни приближены к престолу,
А небом избранный певец
Молчит, потупя очи долу

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