Literature

Poetry Monday!: "Lotova zhena" ("Lot's wife") by Anna Akhmatova

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

(For the rest of my playlist, click here. Past poems are "Ulysses" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson; "The Pulley" by George Herbert; "Harmonie du soir" by Charles Baudelaire; "Dirge Without Music" by Edna St. Vincent Millay; and "Clancy of the Overflow" by A.B. "Banjo" Paterson.)

My translation:

"Lot's Wife" (1924) by Anna Akhmatova (1898-1966)
translated by Alexander "Sasha" Volokh (1996)

"But his wife looked back from behind him,
and she became a pillar of salt." — Genesis 19:26

Behind the Lord's angel, enormous and shining,
The righteous man followed along the black hill.
But a voice told his wife, as if anxiously pining —
It's not yet too late, you can look again still

On Sodom, your home town, its towers and waters,
The yard where you spun, where you sang in the square,
The house where you bore your loved husband two daughters —
Your tall home whose windows stand empty and bare.

She glanced, and in agony deathly and arrant,
Her eyes couldn't look as she turned herself round;
Her body, transformed, was now salt and transparent;
Her legs, once so quick, now took root in the ground.

This woman — will any among us regret her?
Is she not the least of our losses, Lot's wife?
Yet my heart, I am certain, will never forget her
Who just for a glance had surrendered her life.

Also, click here for "Lot's Wife" by Iris DeMent.

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  1. Sasha,
    Being only barely acquainted with Russian, I can’t speak for how faithfully you’ve rendered Akhmatova’s verse. But as an English poem, your translation is brilliant, and moving. Thank you for renewing the old VC poetry tradition.

  2. Is the fate of Lot’s wife not a terrible injustice?

    Seems that way to me.

    1. It’s scary hearing Jews and Christians explain how God was correct in zapping her. One of many examples in the Old Testament of unjust punishment.

    2. Depends on the reading. On a literal interpretation, one might agree that it is unjust — but, remember, the law is the law, and respect for the law, even when wrong, is a cornerstone of judicial theory. However, I think the point is another one. It’s not about the law at all, it’s about a general principle in life, this one: live each day looking forward, don’t carry the past with you as a millstone around your neck. As a wise man once said — don’t look back, something may be gaining on you. Good advice, that, it seems to me.

    3. This question is a non-starter for true believers. A person who can rationalize the mass murder of innocent children in the final plague of Exodus, can rationalize anything.

      1. You don’t believe in collective guilt? That makes you a dead weight right winger and probably a racist as well. These days, class and/or group membership determine guilt in everything. This makes children guilty too And the Lord can be very vengeful when his people are wronged!

  3. I am always amazed how people can translate poetry from one language to another and still maintain a rhythm, rhyme and verse.

  4. As a child that could never keep his eyes closed for the entire prayer, I always empathized with Lot’s wife.

    1. Saying “don’t look over there” is like saying “don’t think about penguins”

  5. Read a few other translation’s of this, and yours was the most enjoyable, fresh and flowing without fustiness and more poignant for it. Do you write your own poetry (in several languages, no doubt)?

    The story of Sodom’s destruction reminds of Sitchin’s hypothesis that Sumer was intentionally nuked by warring ancient astronauts. It would be epic great fun to put that entire mythology/ history to verse.

  6. How about some Osip Mendelshtamm?

  7. Lot’s wife?

    Salt of the earth! Pillar of the community!

  8. Beautiful. And thanks for the link to Iris DeMent (she’s a favorite of mine and I hadn’t heard this one before).

  9. I loved this and, being somewhat conversant (and perhaps that is generous) I looked for other translations. None of them seemed as good as this one to me. I particularly struggled with “Не меньшей ли мнится она из утрат?”

  10. Well, indeed a beautiful poem, both in this simple Russian reading and in this translation, so thank you for that. But I wonder if the choice of this particular poem also expresses the feeling of an immigrant. I’m one, so I know what it means to look back — sometimes in sorrow, or anger, frustration, emptiness of heart, loss of friends and culture. It’s a sacrifice to emigrate, even though I feel very fortunate to live here in the US. All emigrants feel some of this burden, and for some it may even be paralyzing, turning them to salt. I feel like Uncle Sam is dragging me up the slope to that city on the hill, which is a good thing, and yet I can’t at times resist looking back. The past is often a burden that can’t be thrown off.

    1. If the country you left was the USSR, the poem could also be suggesting that communism is gay.

  11. I do not speak even close to enough Russian to enjoy this in the original, but I also enjoyed your translation.

    An important thing: I find it VERY DIFFICULT to hear you when you are doing your poetry readings. Don’t know if that’s because you have a soft voice or if you are too far away from whatever you are using as a mike. I hope you can remedy this.

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