‘The Bells’

In 1849, the American poet Edgar Allan Poe died and his poem ‘The Bells’ was published.

Sometime around the turn of the 20th century, the Russian poet and translator Konstantin Balmont “very freely” translated it into Russian.

In 1913, the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote a setting for soprano, tenor and baritone soloists, choir and orchestra, originally titled (in Russian) Колокола, Kolokola (Russian WikipediaEnglish Wikipedia).

Some years ago (first guess 2001-2003) I bought a CD of this work. The booklet calls Balmont’s translation “more precisely, a re-interpretation” and includes his text transliterated into the Latin/‘English’ alphabet and translated into German, English and French. Whether the unnamed translator was equally free in translating Balmont’s Russian back into English or not, the result is very different from Poe’s original.

Poe’s original starts:

Hear the sledges with the bells –
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells –
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

The version in the CD booklet starts:

Hear,
hear the sleighs fly past in line,
fly in line.
The little bells ring out,
their light silvery sound
sweetly obsesses our hearing.
With their singing and their jingling
they tell of oblivion.
Oh, how clearly, clearly, clearly,
like the ringing laughter of a child,
in the clear night air
they tell the tale
of how days of delusion
will be followed by renewal;
of the enchanting delight,
the delight of tender sleep.
The sleighs fly past,
the sleighs fly past, fly past in line,
the little bells ring out;
the stars listen
as the sleighs fly into the distance
with their tale
and listening, they glow,
and dreaming, glimmering,
spread a scent in the heavens;
and with their flickering radiance
and their silent enchantment,
together with the ringing,
together with the singing,
they tell of oblivion.
(© Decca 1986)

There are exactly two kolokolchiki in the Russian and therefore two bells in the English. Also noticeable is the change from “a world of merriment” to “oblivion”. Merry chap, Balmont, obviously. He also puts in “days of delusion”. 

For the sake of experiment, I fed Balmont’s Russian into Google Translate. It translates the first two lines as:

Do you hear, the sleigh race in a row,
Race in a row!

Poe’s original translates into Russian as:

Слушайте сани с колокольчиками –
Серебряные колокола!

compared to Balmont’s:

Слышишь, сани мчатся в ряд,
Мчатся в ряд!

Google Translate translates its version of Poe’s first two lines back into English as:

Listen to the sleigh with bells –
Silver bells!

which is obviously much closer to the original than Balmont’s.

Poe’s:

bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells

becomes:

колокола, колокольчики, колокольчики, колокольчики,
Колокола, колокольчики, колокольчики

which is obviously going to be hard to set to music convincingly, and even harder to sing convincingly. (Digression: how did two (distantly) related languages end up with such different words for the same thing?)

Feeding Google’s Translate’s translation of Poe into Russian back into Google translate, it comes out back in English as:

LISTEN the sleigh with bells –
Silver bells!
What a world of fun their melody predicts!
How they ring, ringing, ringing,
In the icy air of the night!
While stars that overload
All the heavens seem to flicker
With crystal pleasure;
Saving time, time, time,
In a kind of runic rhyme,
To tintinnabulation, which is so musically well
From bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells –
From the ringing and ringing of bells.

(which is much shorter than the CD booklet’s translation of Balmont’s Russian).

Firstly, there’s something really strange going on. If I paste in the first two lines of Google Translate’s Russian, it gives me:

Listen to the sleigh with bells –
Silver bells!

which is grammatical, but if I paste in the whole verse, it gives me:

Listen the sleigh with bells –
Silver bells!

which isn’t.

Secondly, looking at Google Translate’s Russian, I can see

К tintinnabulation, что так музыкально колодца

In other words, it hasn’t translated, or even transliterated tintinnabulation. On the other hand, Runic becomes рунической, runicheskoy; that is, Russian grammatical morphology added to a transliteration of the English word.

Thirdly, it is apparent that Russian words are much longer than English ones. As well as колокола above, I can also see Сохранение времени, времени, времени, Sokhraneniye vremeni, vremeni, vremeni, Keeping time, time, time.

Fourthly, looking at Google Translate’s English back-translation, I can see that many longer English words have come back much shorter and/or less poetic:

What a world of merriment their melody foretells! > What a world of fun their melody predicts!
While the stars that oversprinkle All the heavens, seem to twinkle > While stars that overload All the heavens seem to flicker
Keeping time > Saving time
a sort of Runic rhyme > a kind of runic rhyme
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells > From the ringing and ringing of bells.

But note the original Hear and the back-translated Listen.

It obviously has difficult with English the, which I think Russian doesn’t have.

One other line comes back questionably grammatically:

How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle > How they ring, ringing, ringing

But the biggest difference is:

To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells > To tintinnabulation, which is so musically well

with that > which (which changes the grammar completely in this case) and so musically wells > is so musically well (adjective/adverb well is much more common than verb wells (or for that matter, noun wells)).

I spent most of the day thinking about this, for no particular reason, including listening to Rachmaninoff’s setting. By coincidence, when I got home, I discovered that one of the bloggers I read regularly, Niall O’Donnell, posted today about the potential and pitfalls of Google Translate, prompted by a slightly less poetic spam email. Trying setting:

Seal armpit delivers inconvenience, aches. to Carry visit doctor should not. Bulge under the muscle cavity may turn out to be cancer illness. 

to music, Sergei, even if it’s “very freely” translated into Russian.

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