Justin Smith

Eighty-two lines from the Kyys Däbiliïä, a Sakha [Yakut] oral epic in the Olonkho tradition

1. Beyond the distant days

2. Of dread and sorrow

3. In ancient times,

4. Beyond the

5. War and bloodshed

6. Of a bygone age,
7. Beyond the invisible boundary

8. Of the terrible grief

9. Of yesteryear, a

10. Sakha man’s mind

11. Sees not nor discovers how the

12. Secret unattainable

13. Sky, effulgent-white, like a

14. Suede deerhide coat,

15. Falling from above,

16. Expanding and spreading,

17. was, it transpires, created

18. — For the people of the three tribes

19.  Of good constitution,

20. Their thrice-radiant gaze

21. Turned upwards,

22. Attentively searching,

23. Are unable to make out

24. Its four walls, nor limn its edges — ;

25. How, it transpires, such a crisp bold white sky,

26. Like the skis of an Evenk man’s sled,

27. Bending downward,

28. Surging forth radiant, began.

29. Beneath this original

30. lucent and limpid sky,

31. Where the two-legged ones,

32. Familiars of war and strife,

33. With their mortal bodies

34. And hollow bones,

35. With their wounded brains

36. And trembling souls,

37. Must multiply and spread;

38. With the cool wind of the western sky,

39. With the soothing eastern sky,

40. With the greedy southern sky,

41. With the spinning vortex of the northern sky;

42. With the swelling surface of the sea,

43. With the heaving bottom of the sea,

44. With the surging depth of the sea,

45. With the swirling axis of the sea,

46. With the seething shores of the sea;

47. With the venerable aiyy protecting,

48. With the solar aiyy shepherding;

49. With abundant yellow nectar,

50. With abundant white nectar;

51. With the multitude of stars,

52. With the innumerable herd of stars,

53. With the signs of rare planets among the stars,

54. With the full moon escorting,

55. With the bright sun accompanying,

56. With the purifying roar of thunder,

57. With the cracking knout of lightning,

58. With the moistening cloud-bursts of rain,

59. With the vital heat of the breath,

60. With the drying out and again the replenishing of waters,

61. With the falling down and again the growing up of trees,

62. With inexhaustible generous gifts,

63. With the girding of the low-pitched mountains,

64. With the gardens of the earthen mountains,

65. With the hot beneficent summer,

66. With the spinning axis of the center,

67. With the four convergent sides:

68. With such a high firmament,

69. Where you tread will not give way;

70. With such unencompassable space,

71. What you rattle will not break;

72. With such unfathomable expanse,

73. What you press will not bend;

74. With eight chambers and eight sides,

75. With six circles,

76. With troubles and worry,

77. With luxurious ornament,

78. Serenely peaceful,

79. Always-existing Mother Earth

80. Came shining forth, it transpires,

81. Like a silver buckle

82. On a horned hat with a feather.




Olonŋχo (or Olonkho) is the oral epic tradition of the Sakha (or Yakut) people of the Sakha Republic of the Russian Federation. When we speak of “the Oloŋχo” we are not speaking of a particular well-bounded work akin to Hamlet or even to The Iliad. Rather, this is the name, most broadly, for an open-ended and expandable cluster of works, which are whatever is or ever has been recited by an Oloŋχosut or Sakha bard. Somewhat less broadly, the Oloŋχo is constituted by whatever small portion of the recitations of the Oloŋχosut’s has been transcribed up until the present moment. Here, too, the work is open-ended, as more transcriptions can only make it larger. In a still narrower sense, the Oloŋχo is the relatively small cluster of works that, since the end of the nineteenth century, have been most commonly edited, published, and translated (particularly into Russian). These include, most preeminently, Ñurgun Bootur the Swift, first transcribed by Platon Oyunskiï in the 1930s, and Kyys Däbäliïä, transcribed for the first time by S. K. D’yakonov in 1941.


What is presented here is a translation of the opening lines of Kyys Däbiliïä, an epic describing the life and deeds of a girl warrior, and also touching upon cosmology, nature, the underworld, and questions of the meaning of life and fate in general. I have tried to both remain fairly faithful to the literal sense of the Sakha text, and at the same time to convey at least some of the poetic elements. The aim is something far from Vladimir Nabokov’s much-discussed “translation” of Pushkin’s Evgeniï Onegin, which he rendered in a meticulously literal way, intentionally sapping his own work of poetic force as if to demonstrate that, necessarily, poetry cannot be translated.


The principal poetic elements of Sakha epic are not meter and rhyme, but rather alliteration, epithet, and repetition. These can be preserved in English translation with little deviation from the original, though often in order to preserve them one must displace them to different words, and sometimes to different lines, than those through which they are conveyed in the original. One must also rely on techniques such as enjambment, as in lines 10–14 of the sample, in which the individual lines are turned into “broken” semantic units, thereby enabling the alliteration of the beginnings of the lines to be preserved. The heavy reliance on repetition of the suffix -лаах (something that is x-лаах in Sakha is “x-having” or “characterized by x”) in lines 38–77 is conveyed by repetition of the English “with.” Even if some of the lines might be more literally translated by another formulation, I deem it more important here to preserve the repetitive force of the original, even by a somewhat artificial convention. And similarly for less visible repetitions: анараа (“on that side,” Rus. “по ту сторону”) is repeated twice in the first nine lines, leading us to echo the repetition with our own repetition of “beyond,” referring to an earlier temporal boundary, even though other subordinating conjunctions might have worked just as well, and indeed might have translated the Sakha more literally. 


In short, I have made creative choices in rendering the Sakha into English, which require departures from the literal meaning of the text, but which preserve at least some of the poetic elements. Different translators will have different intuitions and methods with respect to the balance between these two poles of poetic translation.