Translating Lermontov’s translation of Goethe

I entered my translation of this poem by the Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841) for the 2022 Stephen Spender prize. Like all entries for this prize, it includes my commentary on the translation.

From Goethe

The hilltops sleep
In the dark of night
And fresh mist lies deep
In the valleys so quiet.

From the leaves no rustle,
From the road no plume of dust …
Wait just a little,
Soon you too will rest.

Из Гёте

(Михаил Юрьевич Лермонтов)

Горные вершины
Спят во тьме ночной;
Тихие долины
Полны свежей мглой;

Не пылит дорога,
Не дрожат листы …
Подожди немного,
Отдохнёшь и ты


Lermontov’s poem is itself a translation. I translated it as an independent poem, without looking at the original, a famous poem by German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I entered my translation of the original for the 2015 Stephen Spender Prize

What struck me most about Lermontov’s poem was the economy of expression, fluency, rhythm, and clean rhymes, all placed on key words.  I kept as many of those features as I could.

I kept Lermontov’s rhyme scheme, but I couldn’t recreate an echo he produced between the stressed final syllables on lines 1 and 3 (-ny) and on lines 6 and 8 (-ty). This echo was more readily available in Russian because the stressed final syllables of lines 1, 3 and 6 are all inflections on nouns.

I found a satisfying rhyme for lines 1 and 3 (sleep / deep), but could find only weaker rhymes or near-rhymes for lines 2 and 4 (night / quiet), 5 and 7 (rustle /little) and 6 and 8 (dust / rest).  To make those rhymes possible:

  • I swapped the order of lines 3 and 4 and also of lines 5 and 6;
  • I used ‘rustle’ to translate дрожат (meaning ‘shiver’, ‘shake’)
  • I moved ‘rest’ to the end of the last line. Thus, both the final stress and the final rhyme fall there, instead of on ты (‘you’).

Lines 1 and 2 form a single rhythmic unit. Lines 3 and 4 then repeat that rhythm. The rhythm then speeds up in lines 5 and 6, which are each a single rhythmic unit and they have identical grammatical rhythmic structures. To keep those effects, I kept lines 5 and 6 short, with parallel structures. Line 6 would be a closer parallel to line 5 if it read ‘From the road no dust’, but I inserted ‘plume’ to make it comprehensible.

My earlier translations

I’ve entered this competition before, as well as the Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize. Here are my earlier entries:


Here is a link to this year’s winners:

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