Pushkin: The Wagon of Life (From Russian)

The ability to employ both "high" and "low" registers of language to contrastive effect is a feature not only of Pushkin's art but also his way of thinking and, to judge from the accounts of those who knew him, his personality as well. 
A woman who knew him, Alexandra Smirnova, remarked that he was quite the "lover of the obscene" (любитель непристойного). The diplomat Nikolai Kiselev, another of his acquaintances, (to whom Smirnova had made this remark about Pushkin) said "Unfortunately, I know as much, and have never been able to find an explanation for his incongruous way of shifting between the obscene and the sublime." (к несчастью, я это знаю и никогда не  мог  себе  объяснить  эту антитезу перехода от непристойного к возвышенному.)  
As Alyssa Gillespie noted in her article "Bawdy and Soul: Pushkin's Poetics of Obscenity"  
Both obscenity and sublimity involve the transcendence of mundane verbal formulas and meaningless clichés and both, therefore, serve Pushkin's uplifting poetic purpose of liberating human thought and self-expression 
Moreover as Gillespie, whose above-quoted article may be found in the excellent collection Taboo Pushkin, is well aware, this aspect of Pushkin's poetics and thought-processes has been neglected much by the scholarly community both Russian and non-Russian, and is generally unappreciated and unacknowledged as much by the translator as by the Russophone casual reader. Few indeed are the Russians who, in praising their national poet, would care to mention or be informed of the fact that he was fond of making jokes in verse about the size of somebody's dick one day, and write of angels and demons the next.
The poem translated here is an awesome example of Pushkin's willingness to blend the sublime/lofty and the obscene/vulgar, foregrounding an oft-neglected (and oft-avoided) aspect of the great poet's aesthetic. The poem is almost always censored in Russian print editions (I include the Russian text unbowdlerized and in the form in which Pushkin circulated it in manuscript), and when translated into English, German and French has had the profanity and colloquialism airbrushed out of it by translators and/or editors who lacked Pushkin's appreciation for linguistic variation. 

The Wagon of Life
By A.S. Pushkin

Whatever heavy load it carries,
The wagon's light on steppe and street.
Grey Time, the coachman, never wearies
And never leaves the driver's seat.

At dawn we jump inside the wagon,
Quite happy for our necks to break.
Scorning all soft delight and languor,
We yell "Get going, for fuck's sake!"

By noon we've lost that daring folly,
Being jerked around. We're wagon-sick
Afraid of every hill and gully,
And yell "Slow down, you lunatic!"

But on we rush round every bend.
We're used to it, come evening's yawn.
Heading to night, to journey's end,
We doze. Time drives the horses on. 


L7 and 8- Line 7 in the original Russian reads i preziráia len' i négu "and, disdaining indolence and sensuousness." The term nega "sensuousness", suggestive of creature comforts, leisure and sexual allure all at once, is one of those words that is curiously hard to render from Russian into English (as "disillusionment" and "privacy" are difficult to render into Russian.) As Nabokov puts it in his Onegin commentary:
Nega, with its emphasis on otiose euphoria and associations with softness, luxuriousness, tenderness is not exactly synonymous with sladostrastie "sweet passion" or volupté "volupty" where the erotic element predominates. In using nega, Pushkin and his constellation were trying to render the French poetical formulas paresse voluptueuse, mollesse, molles délices, etc. which the English Arcadians had already turned into "soft delights."

Line 8 in the original Russian in Pushkin's manuscript reads kričim: valiái iebióna mat' ("we cry: 'move it, motherfucker!'") At some point valiái "move it" got mauled in publication to pošól "get going." Russian print editions of Pushkin's work censor this line further as kričím: pošól... ("We cry 'Get going...'") leaving the savvy reader to supply the iebióna mat' "motherfucker" on the basis of rhyme and metrical space. In fact, even when Pushkin's use of profanity is being discussed by scholars and the line's actual content needs to be specified, the most editors will allow is kričím: pošól, ie.... m... ("we cry: 'get going, m****rf***er.'") 

Lines 7 and 8 function juxtapositionally. The high-register néga and the adverbial participle preziráia "disdaining" are followed by the quite literally unprintable low-register iebióna mat' "motherfucker." The phrase preziráia len' "disdaining idleness" is a cliché-subversion of the idiom preziráia lest' "disdaining flattery" i.e. the attitude of one who does not deign to humor the ego of others.  The use of obscenity therefore carries a sense of defiance of normal social order. The switch in the following stanza to a non-obscene duraléi is likewise significant, as Pushkin did regard profanity as befitting juvenile circumstances, and was less foul-mouthed as he got older.

In an earlier draft of this translation I rendered stanza 2 as:

At dawn we jump inside the wagon.
Happy to break our necks like glass,
We scorn life's hedonistic languor,

And yell "Man, fuck it! Just haul ass!"

After this stanza was quoted here, I decided revision was in order. 

The Original:

Телега Жизни
А.С. Пушкин

Хоть тяжело подчас в ней бремя,
Телега на ходу легка;
Ямщик лихой, седое время,
Везет, не слезет с облучка.

С утра садимся мы в телегу;
Мы рады голову сломать
И, презирая лень и негу,
Кричим: валяй, ебёна мать!

Но в полдень нет уж той отваги;
Порастрясло нас; нам страшней
И косогоры и овраги;
Кричим: полегче, дуралей!

Катит по-прежнему телега;
Под вечер мы привыкли к ней
И, дремля, едем до ночлега —
А время гонит лошадей.


  1. Because I could not stop for Death—
    He kindly stopped for me—
    The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
    And Immortality.

    5 We slowly drove—He knew no haste
    And I had put away
    My labor and my leisure too,
    For His Civility—

    We passed the School, where Children strove
    10 At Recess—in the Ring
    We passed the Fields of Gayin Grain—
    We passed the Setting Sun—

    Or rather—He passed Us—
    The Dews drew quivering and chill—
    15 For only Gossamer, my Gown—
    My Tippet—only Tulle—

    We paused before a House that seemed
    A Swelling of the Ground—
    The Roof was scarcely visible—
    20 The Cornice—in the Ground—

    Since then—'tis Centuries—and yet
    Feels shorter than the Day
    I first surmised the Horses' Heads
    Were toward Eternity—

  2. Beautiful -- thanks as always. Your selection is priceless. Can I request more from Samih Al-Qasim ? I remember some time you posted "Prison Guard", and I am interested if you think his other work can match that.



  3. Vagone della vita

    Quale che porti carico pesante,
    il carro è leggero su steppe e strade.
    Tempogrigio, il cocchiere, non si stanca
    né lascia mai il posto a cassetta.

    All’alba noi il carro lo assaltiamo.
    Felici di romperci il collo, vetro,
    sprezziamo le mollezze della vita
    e urliamo: cazzo incula fottimadre!

    Per mezzodì s’è persa la pazzia
    strattonati in giro. Abbiamo nausea,
    terrorizzati da colline e fossi
    e urliamo: vai piano sei lunatico!

    Ma continua la corsa nella fretta,
    si fa il callo e lo sbadiglio a sera.
    Verso la notte la fine del viaggio
    si sonnecchia. Il tempo guida i cavalli.


  4. >Heading to night, to journey's end, / We doze. Time drives the horses on.

    ...and I wake, the next morning, still in the rumbling wagon bed, and peer over the sideboard, wondering... where am I now... ?