When I was considering posting Akhmatova’s “Echo” earlier in the week – for a long time, one of my favourite poems, I had a quick look online for a digital version. I guess I was feeling lazy and didn’t feel like digging out the old handwritten version I had, as I couldn’t remember at the time where it came from.


Well, I was in for a shock! And I shouldn’t have been, really, bearing in mind the amount of grumbling and pondering I’ve done here about the issues of translation, particularly from the Russian! But the three versions I found online of “Echo” were so different from the one I knew and loved, that I feel it’s worthy of contemplation!

Just as a little reminder, here is the version I posted earlier this week:

The roads to the past have long been closed
and what is the past to me now?
What is there? Bloody slabs,
or a bricked up door,
or an echo that still could not
keep quiet, although I ask so…
The same thing happened with the echo
as with what I carry in my heart

(translated by Richard McKane)

Here is the first version I found online:

Long ago were paths to the past closed,
And what shall I do with past, at all?
What is there?  Just washed with blood flat stones,
Or the door, immured in a wall.
Or the echo, that all time me worries,
Tho’ I pray it to be silent, hard…
To this echo happened the same story,
That – to one, I bear in my heart.

And the second:

There’re no paths to where the former gone is.
I don’t crave for the passed by long ago.
And what is there? The lit with blood floor stones,
The immur’d and forgotten door,
Or echo which still doesn’t have any patience
To be quite mute, though I’ve prayed much for that…
This helpless echo fell in the same station,
In which is one in my heart set.

And finally the third:

All the ways to past are now closed,
What the past for me today, what for?
What do you see there? – The bloody stones,
Or the bricked up surely so heavy door?
Or the echo, which is still repeating
Words, and never could this action stop,
I am asking it to end, but really
It is carrying weight, as in my heart, for long.

Well! What a difference! At some points, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were reading a different poem (and some of the lines do seem rather clumsy and strange to the English-speaking ear)! And yet, if you look again, you really aren’t – the sense of the short verse, that of the echoing weight of the past in the poet’s heart, which she’ll never be rid of, is still there in all versions. But the elegance is not.

Translating poetry from any language must be unbelievably difficult, and from Russian particularly so. I remember that in the back of my battered old film tie-in paperback of “Doctor Zhivago” from the 1970s there were translations of Zhivago’s poems – two versions, a literal one and one that tried to catch the rhythms of the originals. I recall this being actually quite a useful aid to me as a reader as it helped me to appreciate both aspects.

At the end of the day, I suppose any translation of a poem is going to be a version of it; and I certainly love the version of “Echo” I’ve known for so long. I *did* track down its origin – I took it from an old book I’ve had since the 1970s, “Post War Russian Poetry” (a Penguin).  The only collection of Akhmatova’s work I have is the Selected Poems (again a Penguin), translated by D.M. Thomas. Alas it doesn’t contain “Echo” – but I would have been interested to see how Thomas rendered it!