The Poet’s Tongue: “White Nocturne,” by Stefan Tsanev

“White Nocturne” is a beautiful and somber winter/love poem, written in 1966 by Stefan Tsanev.  He is a Bulgarian poet, playwright and historical novelist. I met his poetry first at the age of 15, when in the morning break from school I strolled by a bookstand and saw the thin booklet entitled The Season of Illusions, Love Poetry. I opened randomly and read part of a long poem. I liked it. I bought the book. When I returned to class after the break, a friend of mine saw the book and exclaimed, “Oh, yes, that book. It’s very stupid. The poems are hardly readable.” I blushed and felt utterly embarrassed. “I will read them, anyway,” I decided. When I came back home, I opened the book again. I saw the poem I had read at the bookstand and liked it again. I opened on a different page and started reading another poem. It was different. One by one, I read all the poems and was disappointed. They were hard to read. They did not rhyme, nor did they follow a particular rhythmic pattern, or “step,” like those we had studied at school by then. I myself tried writing poetry and always took great efforts with rhyme and rhythm. The time to change that had come. Most of the poems in the booklet were free or blank verse and followed their own internal rhythm directed by ideas and images, by the reader’s emotions and perceptions. Needless to say that by the time I graduated with an M.A. in English Literature from University, that booklet had become one of my favorites,together with its author, who, by the way, is more popular for his plays, essays and historical novels. For me, Stefan Tsanev is a poet first.

I hope you will enjoy this “White Nocturne” of snow, silence and loneliness as I do. I must admit that I was not able to keep all the rhymes, nor was I able to keep the number of syllables per line as they are in the original. Bulgarian is a Slavonic language that has a syntax system and word-order rules different from English. Needless to say, intended puns are very hard to pull off.

By Stefan Tzanev, translated by Mariya Koleva

Snow, snow… Silence like aluminum foil.
The horizon is simply a round whitish moon.
The roads are white. The air is white.
Trees are hardly discernible
like the beards of saints on old frescoes,
splattered in whitewash by bearded barbarians.

I am silent. And there is so much to tell.
So much is eating us. We are silent.
Letters are obituaries of our feelings.
What is “I love you” in seven days?
Or “I am sad” in seven days?
Or “Goodnight” in seven days…

Do you know what loneliness is? –
It is sleeping on your own shoulder…

Of course, despair is always too soon.
And always too soon is the coming of death.
And always there’s something you didn’t quite say.
And always there’s something you didn’t quite do.
Lovely and white, and silent.
The roads are white. The air is white.
And always there’s something not quite…

Snow, snow… The aluminum silence
is crispy. A stanza of helmets
marches across the white sheet of winter. The band
              playing silence – the snow has stopped the ears
              of all the brass instruments.
The drummer sketches a profile on his drum,
                              the snow covers it, the drummer sketches
              again, the snow covers it again.
The white eyes of the rifles look up quietly,
              like blind beggars, oh!
The soldiers march, they march in silence and
                              slowly, they walk by, they march, walk away,
              the snow swallows them as if it’s a blotter.
The town’s asleep, the villages beyond the white field are asleep, the white bones of
                              the fathers are somewhere asleep, the mothers with white hairs are also asleep
                              and through the white walls of their rooms walk
                              the soldiers, marching in silence and slowly,
              walking away, the band playing silence…
Oh, loneliness in freedom’s name!

All night the door clattered
As if someone was coming home all night.
But they never did.

In the morning, the wind left on tiptoes.
I tiptoed out of my room.
I put a roof tile on my head, instead of a hat
and stood at the corner like a caryatid:
              I am my own house,
              I am my own inhabitant –
              No one leaves,
              No one comes home…

Good morning, citizens, having your breakfast
upright, like statues by Polykleitos!
Please, let me have breakfast with you. You know,
when one remains alone,
one gets very sociable.

I toss myself
in the abyss of gazes,
ready to grab at the life-saving ring
of any smile!… Come,
lay your head on my shoulder–
like an epaulette.
I need none other distinctions.

Snow, snow… Silence like aluminum foil.
The horizon is simply a round whitish moon.
The roads are white. The air is white.

The snow is covering my steps.
Did I, or didn’t I walk?

That happens to time, too. Events like birds of prey
rush on us:
the large ones pluck at our names,
the middle-sized – at our words,
the small ones pluck at the millet of full-stops.
Feelings turn white. Thoughts also turn white.
And we ask ourselves:
Have we lived? Or not quite?

© 2012 Mariya Koleva, translation from Bulgarian

Mariya Koleva is Bulgarian and writes poetry and fiction in English, though she is not a native speaker. She teaches EFL, English literature and translates for a living. Writing simply came along. She had some poetry and short stories published in Three-Line Poetry, Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure and the Mouse Tale Press. You may follow Mariya at her blog, on Twitter, or on her Facebook Author Page.

28 comments for “The Poet’s Tongue: “White Nocturne,” by Stefan Tsanev

  1. Kris Swanguarin
    January 9, 2013 at 2:13 am

    Wowsers. Beautiful job of translation. There are so many great lines here. I can appreciate the challenge of rendering Bulgarian to English. I’m struggling with translating a Ukrainian poem and even with the help of a Ukrainian speaker the rhymes and rhythms do not carry over into English well. Yet you have created a gem that captures the emotion and feeling well.
    I am happy you did this translation. I hope we will see more.
    My son and daughter were born in Bulgaria. They are in there teens now and they will appreciate, as I do, that you have made this translation.
    Довиждане за сега,

    • January 9, 2013 at 2:24 am

      Hey Kris,
      now that is so kind! Thanks a lot. Благодаря!
      Spoken by a colleague in translation, I really appreciate it.
      So, have you been in Bulgaria? – That is even more amazing, that the world is not so big, after all.
      Best, MK

  2. January 9, 2013 at 5:56 am

    What a extraordinary poem! I have read it several times now, and I’m just in awe of this man’s vision.

    • January 9, 2013 at 6:00 am

      Misky, I am really happy if I have managed to convey the depth and the richness of aspects and layers…

  3. January 9, 2013 at 9:26 am

    Mariya, thanks for bringing us this amazing poem in translation! There are so many beautiful lines. I can’t imagine tackling a translation. Amazing.

    • January 10, 2013 at 1:27 am

      Translating this particular poem has been in my mind since my first year at University. This book was with me there (another town, luggage, rented rooms) and every now and then I would open it on this poem and speculate on some of the hardest lines. The section with the “helmets marching” feels the most remote for me. I think there is work to be done there, still.

  4. January 9, 2013 at 9:59 am

    You did a beautiful job Mariya!! I hope to see more!

    • January 10, 2013 at 1:27 am

      Thanks, Dana! I hope to do some more, too.

  5. January 9, 2013 at 10:42 am

    Mariya, I love it. I am partial to free verse anyway and this is beautiful. It is filled with such great imagery and so many layers. It evokes wonderful emotions. Thank you so much for lending it to us. I, too, would love to see more of his work.

    I tried to pick favorite lines to quote, but there are just too many. Marvelous. I intend to print it out so that I can read it again and again.

    • January 10, 2013 at 1:32 am

      I used to practice typing (we studied that as compulsory subject at our school) using this poem for my “free” practices, where you don’t have a text from the textbook, but you just have to use something you like. That way, I learned it by heart 🙂 I would use different sections for the different sessions, they have different “step”.
      This poem and I have been in a peculiar relation for a long time… since 1988, to be precise 🙂

  6. January 9, 2013 at 11:20 am

    Beautiful translation, Mariya. So many wonderful lines, but I was really struck by the idea of loneliness being sleeping on your own shoulder. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    • January 10, 2013 at 1:34 am

      Michelle, that idea was what caught my attention at 15. Then I was curious to read more.

  7. Khara House
    January 9, 2013 at 2:19 pm

    This is a lovely poem! Thank you, Mariya, for the introduction to Stefan Tsanev; I’ll have too see if I can find any more of his poetry in translation!

    • January 10, 2013 at 1:36 am

      Khara, have I missed a member or close friend of our community called Ivan? Would you enlighten me?

  8. January 10, 2013 at 1:41 am

    So so happy, this is my wife !!!

    • January 10, 2013 at 2:00 am

      hello, baby. thanks for visiting our community 🙂

  9. Rick Fenwick
    January 10, 2013 at 9:43 am

    Breathtaking poem, beautiful translation. Mariya, your command of English (and all of its odd quirks) is wonderful. I am searching for this poem online in Bulgarian to “feel” it in the original. It’s obvious you’ve been working for a long time with this piece, perhaps years, to find just the right English phrases. I often run into problems translating Russian poetry to English, mainly because of rhyme sequences and exotic “sounds” provided by the alphabet (I wish we had a “zh” noise in English). Great job, my friend.


    • January 10, 2013 at 9:46 am

      Rick, I’m so happy you enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it online, but I will make sure to copy and send it to you. I am facing my exam session now, otherwise I would simply type it and post it on my blog. I’ll do that, of course, but can’t promise when 🙂
      And you are right – I have been musing this translation since my first year at university, but never tried it. Different versions and ideas were only in my head. Now, I finally committed with a deadline for the blog here, and that was how it happened 🙂

      Thank you, thank you very much again.

  10. Amy
    January 10, 2013 at 10:17 am

    This is truly amazing, Mariya! Thank you for sharing something that is so special to you.

    • January 11, 2013 at 1:56 am

      I am happy I made the “inauguration” of the Poetry Group 🙂

  11. Carol Early Cooney
    January 10, 2013 at 7:44 pm

    Thank you, thank you, Mariya! This is a wonderful start for the poets!

    • January 11, 2013 at 1:58 am

      I am really glad to see so many of appreciate this poem! That makes me proud, both of my profession, and of the poets we have in this country.

  12. Sabra Bowers
    January 10, 2013 at 8:14 pm

    Excellent post, Mariya. Thank you for translating and sharing with us. Awesome job.

    • January 11, 2013 at 1:59 am

      Dear Sabra, thank you for taking the time to read an exceptionally long post and translation. I am amazed at the number of people who took the effort to do it and comment, too. I hope it was worth the time.

  13. Maxie Steer
    January 16, 2013 at 3:26 pm

    This is a feat you should be very proud of, Mariya. The task of translating is an honorable yet dangerous assignment that you’ve accomplished beautifully.

    “I toss myself
    in the abyss of gazes,
    ready to grab at the life-saving ring
    of any smile!”

    I’ve lived that line before, or not quite? Great job.

    • January 17, 2013 at 2:02 am

      Maxie, thank you very much! This section was one of the things that amazed me when I read it first. And later on, I lived it, too. Then I recognized it fully.

  14. Anna Zaneva
    May 22, 2016 at 12:22 pm

    thank you for translating my dad’s work in English!

    • May 26, 2016 at 4:55 pm

      Anna, you are very kind. It’s been an honour to translate your dad’s work.

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