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Robert Burns – The Jolly Beggars. A Cantata (In Russian)

Several years ago I was presented with a CD containins all albums by the VIA Pesnyary. I shared their song Oh early on Ivan’s Day in my early blogging days. However, the tracks from Birch-tree Juice contained a true gem: the entire Jolly Beggars Cantata by Robert Burns translated into Russian by Samuil Marshak and set to music by Igor Polivoda. To mark Burns’s birthday this year, I uploaded the Cantata in full to Soundcloud. Don’t lose time to listen to this brilliant work!

RobertBurns.org tells us that

‘The Jolly Beggars’ presents difficulties in staging, because each of the characters has only one song to sing. Arrangements popular in their day were those of Sir Henry Bishop (1786 — 1855) and John More Smieton (1857 — 1904), but by far the most successful realisation is probably the stylised arrangement for four voices and chamber instrumental ensemble which Cedric Thorpe Davie made for the Scottish Festival at Braemar in 1953, and which was subsequently staged at the Edinburgh International Festival, televised, broadcast, recorded and performed in local halls throughout Scotland by the Saltire Singers and others.

I don’t know if the Russian version has ever been staged but the score ranges from a rock’n’roll tune to a ballade through some recitativos. A penultimate song is not, in fact, from the Cantata but a shortened version of Is There For Honest Poverty poem. The Cantata was originally called “Love and Liberty“, and although the mentioned website lists any number of possible inspiration sources, the lower social strata had increasingly begun to surface in the 18th c., with The Beggar’s Opera appearing in English as early as in 1728. I mentioned it before; it later became the basis for Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera. It seems quite likely that John Gay who wrote The Beggar’s Opera helped to popularise the use of the word “beggar” in the title: Merry Beggars and The Happy Beggars were also the source of inspiration for Robert Burns and no doubt influenced the choice of the name.

The tracks in the playlist follow one after another in the same order as in the English Cantata, the final track preceded by the extract from Is There For Honest Poverty.

Robert Burns – The Jolly Beggars autograph, page 1
(Courtesy of Burns Scotland)


Monday Verses: Translator’s Notes on Robert Burns’s Sonnet Upon Sonnets

R. Burns, A Sonnet upon Sonnets (courtesy of NBC).

Today is a wonderful day in my life, all about translations. I have received a permission to publish my translation of a 20th c. poet’s work from their descendant. On the way back home I did a strange thing of translating a Russian version of Omar Khayyam’s short poem into English. I’d need to check the translations of The Rubaiyat, to see if the poem is actually there.

And I have just finished working on translation of Robert Burns’s Sonnet upon Sonnets. Apparently, it was Burns’s first try at composing sonnets, so what seems to have happened – to judge by the last two lines – he burnt the midnight oil (“lucubrations“) to list the times the magic number “fourteen” lurks in our lives. And being Burns, he didn’t differentiate between the profane and high matters, starting with eggs and chickens, through “bright bumpers” (i.e. brimming glasses of drink), to the theme of Life and Death. Just as he ran out of his “lucubrations”, a sonnet was about to end.

It must be said that for the first attempt the sonnet came out very “good measured“, a Shakespearean sonnet (abab, cdcd, efef, gg). As the editors at the National Burns Collection note, “the meaning of this sonnet is focused on the form of sonnets, namely fourteen lines written in iambic pentameter coupled with a strong rhyme-scheme“. However, there is a subtler meaning here: a sonnet’s fourteen is such a powerful and omnipresent number, which means that Poetry is everywhere: you only have to look at “your hen” with “fourteen eggs beneath her wings“, and you can wrap it into a poetic form. A Sonnet upon Sonnets is a sublime manifestation of Burns’s genius.

I cannot say translating the poem was difficult, although certain lines did require a bit of thinking. It seems that the only reason Burns alludes to a jockey in the fifth line is because he’d made a connection between a jockey’s age and that of the horse in line 6, and he needed to introduce the jockey to the reader. So he found no better way of doing so than by using a jockey’s weight, in which 1 stone indeed contains 14 pounds. Without understanding this, one starts guessing all sorts of meanings behind “a jockey’s stone“.

National Burns Collection draws our attention to the fact that each line has a separate association. Thanks to the “jockey’s stone”, I’d suggest to think of the pairs of lines. 3rd and 4th lines are associated with hen, eggs, and chickens (= the origin of life); 5th and 6th – with the jockey, his horse, and their ages (= youth and senility); 7th and 8th – with the Poet’s impoverished life (= a nod to Burns himself); 9th and 10th – with the numbers 12, 13, and 14, the conflict between them and superiority of number 14 (= the theme of Power and power struggles); 11th and 12th – with Life received through a woman and Death that comes from men (= Life and Death).

Четырнадцать! Поэтом восхвалён,
Как много чудных тайн в тебе – не счесть!
Четырнадцать яиц у квочки под крылом, –
Четырнадцать цыплят взлетают на нашест.

Четырнадцать в жокейском стоуне мер;
Четырнадцать годин – уж старость для коняг;
Четырнадцать часов нередко Бард говел,
Не знает он восторг четырнадцати фляг!

Перед четырнадцатью дюжина не в счет;
Четырнадцати тринадцать не сильней;
В четырнадцать лет мать нас в мир ведет;
Уводят из него четырнадцать мужей.

Какой пример в ночи я б вспомнить мог?
Четырнадцать – в сонете стройных строк.

Translation © Julia Shuvalova, January 2012

Robert Burns – A Sonnet upon Sonnets (1788) 

Fourteen, a sonneteer thy praises sings;
What magic myst’ries in that number lie!
Your hen hath fourteen eggs beneath her wings
That fourteen chickens to the roost may fly.
Fourteen full pounds the jockey’s stone must be;
His age fourteen – a horse’s prime is past.
Fourteen long hours too oft the Bard must fast;
Fourteen bright bumpers – bliss he ne’er must see!
Before fourteen, a dozen yields the strife;
Before fourteen – e’en thirteen’s strength is vain.
Fourteen good years – a woman gives us life;
Fourteen good men – we lose that life again.
What lucubrations can be more upon it?
Fourteen good measur’d verses make a sonnet.

Пояснение на русском. 

Написанный в 1788 году, “Сонет о сонетах” считается первой попыткой Роберта Бёрнса использовать эту форму. Судя по употребленному в предпоследней строке слову “lucubrations” (“усердное размышление, протекающее ночью”), Бёрнс при свете ночной лампы перечислял все случаи, когда в нашей жизни встречается магическое число 14. В своих “штудиях” Бёрнс остается собой: он не делает разницы между “высокими” и “низкими” материями, идя от курицы с яйцами и цыплятами через “яркие фляги” до темы Жизни и Смерти. И ровно к моменту, как все “lucubrations” были исчерпаны, оказался закончен и сонет.

Надо сказать, что для первой попытки у Бёрнса получился очень “стройный” шекспировский сонет (abab, cdcd, efef, gg). Однако при кажущемся “маньеризме” в сонете заложена очень глубокая идея: как “сонетное” число 14 можно найти в самых разных жизненных сюжетах, так и Поэзия присутствует повсюду. Достаточно увидеть квочку, у которой под крылом четырнадцать яиц, – и вот готовый поэтический образ. В “Сонете о сонетах” тончайшим образом проявляется гений Бёрнса.

На перевод у меня ушел целиком весь вечер, хотя над парой строчек пришлось поработать. Особенно это касается “jockey’s stone”. Осмелюсь предположить, что Бёрнс вначале написал строчку про коня, после чего, естественно, потребовалось представить публике и жокея. И он не нашел ничего лучше, чем провести аналогию с весом жокея: действительно, по британской системе мер и весов в 1 стоуне – 14 фунтов. Не поняв это, конечно, начинаешь искать “скрытые смыслы” выражения “a jockey’s stone”.

Ну, и продолжая и улучшая мысль редакторов Национальной Коллекции Роберта Бёрнса, я думаю, что Бёрнс не просто выделял одну строчку для одной ассоциации. Речь скорее нужно вести о парах строк. Таким образом, не считая двух первых и двух последних строк, получаем следующее: 3 и 4 строки – курица, яйца и цыплята (= зарождение жизни); 5 и 6 – жокей, его лошадь и их возраст (= тема молодости и старости); 7 и 8 – бедное существование поэта (= сам Бёрнс); 9 и 10 – конфликт чисел 12, 13 и 14 и превосходство 14-ти (=  власть и борьба за нее); 11 и 12 – Жизнь, получаемая от женщины, и Смерть, приходящая от мужей (= тема Жизни и Смерти).

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