Sparrow Hills

View of Moscow from Sparrow Hills (A. Kuindzhi, 1882)

A breast kissed wet, as though under a shower!
But summer streams do not flow forever,
And we cannot stay on here night after night,
Raising dust to the accordion’s low drone.

I’ve heard about old age—a frightening prediction!
No crashing wave will lift its hands to the stars.
And imagine: they say there's no face in the fields,
no heart in the pond and, in the forest, no God.

Let your soul break free! The day bubbles like surf.
It's the noontime of the world. Where are your eyes?
Look: high in the treetops, thought is a simmering mix
Of woodpeckers, pine cones, heat, needles and clouds.

Here the track of the city trolley ends.
Machines are barred; pine trees will have to do.
From here on, it’s Sunday—a parting of branches,
A dash through the meadow and a slide on the grass.

Weaving our steps with sunlight and Whitsunday,
The woods insist the world is always like this.
The trees believe it; the meadow understands;
It pours down from the sky across our laps.

Воробьёвы горы from My Sister, Life, 1922
Boris Pasternak; translation by Frank Beck

Imagine trying to translate Dylan Thomas into Russian. Bringing a Pasternak poem into English isn't much easier, but I've tackled this one because I think the existing versions don't do justice to the poet's unique voice. In fact, many English-language translators seem put off by Pasternak's exuberance--those three exclamation marks in the first nine lines of "Sparrow Hills" are his, not some addition of mine.

The biggest problem for a translator of this particular poem is the crucial role that its rhymes play: they cannot be replicated in any language other than Russian. There's also the challenge of recreating Pasternak's mix of the lyrical and the mundane. For example, the poem's first line refers to a rukomoinik--the kind of wall-mounted water tank many Russians once used for bathing. This word has often been translated as "spigot" or "pitcher", but the connotations of the Russian word are at once more domestic and more erotic. "Shower" is a closer counterpart, I think.

Pasternak in 1916

While I could not reproduce Pasternak’s rhymes, I have preserved many of his cadences and mirrored the way he builds meaning, line-by-line. In place of his end-rhyme, I used assonance and alliteration to create a closely patterned sound structure like his. Throughout my translation, I've tried to convey the force of Pasternak’s charged language and the sheer delight of his imaginative leaps.

Pasternak's poems have been recorded by any number of Russian actors, and some of been set to music. I've included a link to readings of "Sparrow Hills" and the title poem from My Sister, Life, so you can hear two of them in Pasternak's own language. I've also provided a translation of the book's title poem by Phillip C. Flayderman.


  1. Dear Mr Beck

    I am searching for an English translation of “Music” by Boris Pasternak for use in a CD booklet (the recording features Chopin’s 2nd Piano Sonata and Pasternak revered Chopin) and the performance is by Olga Jegunova.

    We are happy to provide an appropriate credit in the CD booklet – and send copies of the CD.

    Can you help?

  2. Dear Mr Cronin,

    Sorry, but I'm just seeing this now. Here's a translation, but unfortunately the translator isn't credited. If you still need a translation, I can do one for you. But perhaps it's too late at this point.

    Frank Beck

  3. Such a truly superb translation, Frank! Congratulations!