After reading Anna Karenina last year, and a few Tolstoy short stories, and making another run at The Brothers Karamazov, it was time to admit I had a Russian fixation. These frissons usually don’t last long, but they leave marks. For example, there came the stinging awareness that all these Russian titans I idolize in turn idolized Pushkin, and I didn’t know a whit about him. I’m ignorant of an uncountable number of things in life, but sometimes I feel more swinish in my intellectual poverty than others. And so I set out to read Eugene Onegin, widely considered his best work.
Cherished ducklings, there are many places on the web for y’all to read about Vladimir Nabokov and his translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, so I’ll try to be brief. If this whets your appetite, maybe you’ll read more elsewhere, or (let’s hope!) go read the whole thing yourself.
For now, I’ll just say that it’s written in a complicated rhyming and metrical format: “iambic tetrameter”, AbAbCCddEffEgg, where the capital letters are feminine rhymes and the lowercase are masculine ones. We don’t have gendered rhymes in English, but Nabokov wrote a short poem to give us a feel for the rhythm:
What is translation? On a platter
A poet’s pale and glaring head,
A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter,
And profanation of the dead.
The parasites you were so hard on
Are pardoned if I have your pardon,
O Pushkin, for my stratagem.
I travelled down your secret stem,
And reached the root, and fed upon it;
Then, in a language newly learned,
I grew another stalk and turned
Your stanza, patterned on a sonnet,
Into my honest roadside prose–
All thorn, but cousin to your rose.
Reflected words can only shiver
Like elongated lights that twist
In the black mirror of a river
Between the city and the mist.
Elusive Pushkin! Persevering,
I still pick up your damsel’s earring,
Still travel with your sullen rake;
I find another man’s mistake;
I analyze alliterations
That grace your feasts and haunt the great
Fourth stanza of your Canto Eight.
This is my task: a poet’s patience
And scholiastic passion blent —
Done droppings on your monument.
Nabokov believed that it was a near-hopeless task to force a translation of something as sublime as Onegin to rhyme. It was hard enough to express the meaning in another language, and so he set himself the task of translating the poem into prose, hoping that future generations of translators might at least start from this solid foundation.
I’m not especially fond of rhyming poetry. It’s an impressive feat to concoct something that rhymes and is meaningful, but the sing-songery grates after a while. So maybe it’s not surprising that I loved Nabokov’s version of Onegin. By stripping away the fancy fretwork – and clearly stating up front that something inexpressible had been lost – he could focus entirely on capturing Pushkin’s tone without feeling guilty.
He takes a moment here and there to disparage the rotten translators who had come before him:
The four “English” “metrical” “translations” mentioned in my notes and unfortunately available to students are…Spalding, Deutsch, Elton and Radin/Patrick.
And was Nabokov successful? Did his translation improve upon those who came before, or enable better work from those who followed him? I’m unqualified to judge as a Russian speaker, but I know what I like, so I thought it would be a fun project to do a side-by-side comparison between Deutsch (1943), Nabokov (1964) and Johnston (1977). I’ll be looking at two passages that I adored when I first read them in Nabokov.
Chapter 2, stanza 38, lines 4-14:
Alas! by God’s strange will we must
Behold each generation flourish,
And watch life’s furrows briefly nourish
The perishable human crop,
Which ripens fairly, but to drop;
And where one falls, another surges…
The race of men recks nothing, save
Its reckless growth; into the grave
The grandfathers it promptly urges.
Our time will come when it is due,
Our grandchildren evict us, too.
Alas! Upon life’s furrows,
In a brief harvest, generations
By Providence’s secret will
Rise, ripen and must fall;
Others come in their wake…
Thus our frivolous race
Waxes, is in commotion, seethes,
And tombward crowds its ancestors.
Our time likewise will come, will come,
And one fine day our grandsons
Out of the world will crowd us too.
Alas! The generations must,
as fate’s mysterious purpose burrows,
reap a brief harvest on their furrows;
they rise and ripen and fall dead:
others will follow where they tread…
and thus our race, so fluctuating,
grows, surges, boils, for lack of room
presses its forebears to the tomb.
We too shall find our hour is waiting;
it will be our descendants who
out of this world will crowd us too.
Chapter 8, st. 11, lines 1-8:
But oh, how deeply we must rue it,
That youth was given us in vain,
That we were hourly faithless to it,
And that it cheated us again;
That our bright pristine hopes grew battered,
Our freshest dreams grew sear, and scattered,
Like leaves that in wet autumn stray,
Wind-tossed, and all too soon decay.
But it is sad to think that to no purpose
youth was given us,
that we betrayed it every hour,
that it duped us;
that our best wishes,
that our fresh dreamings,
in quick succession have decayed
like leaves in putrid autumn.
Alas, our youth was what we made it,
something to fritter and to burn,
when hourly we ourselves betrayed it,
and it deceived us in return;
when our sublimest aspiration,
and all our fresh imagination,
swiftly decayed beyond recall
like foliage in the rotting fall.
Maybe you’ll agree with me that it’s a shame to lose “Thus our frivolous race / Waxes, is in commotion, seethes, / And tombward crowds its ancestors.” for the sake of rhyming. Line by line, the meaning is corrupted. Johnston says youth decieved us in return because it rhymes with burn, not because that’s what Pushkin intended; the “secret will” of Providence in Nabokov becomes a burrowing mysterious purpose of “fate”…because “furrow” had to have a rhyme somewhere.
I’m firmly on the side of Nabokov. I’m not smart enough to be sure that Johnston benefited from it, but at least his version seems less cliched than Deutsch’s.
I’ll stop harping on the translation issues – I’ve surely lost all my readers but Lolarusa at this point – but I wanted to also say what a pleasure it is to read Pushkin. Even though there are many places where I had to hop furiously back and forth from the text to Nabokov’s extended commentary to figure out what the heck was going on, there are also long passages that are perfectly clear and delightful. He has a breezy, familiar style, with plenty of lovable and self-conscious discursions. That said, the core story of Onegin – girl flirts with boy, boy rejects girl, girl marries fancy general, boy regrets and pursues girl, girl rejects boy – is as heart-rending as anything you’ll read. Plus, there’s the fascinating story of Onegin’s duel with his hapless friend Lenski, the aftermath of which includes this:
‘Mongst the hills disposed in a half circle,
let us go thither where a rill,
winding, by way of a green meadow, runs
through a lime bosquet to the river.
The nightingale, spring’s lover, there
sings all night; the cinnamon rose blooms,
and the gurgle of the fount is heard.
There a tombstone is seen
in the shade of two old-aged pines.
The scripture to the stranger says:
“Here lies Vladimir Lenski,
who early died the death of the courageous,
in such a year, at such an age.
Repose, boy poet!”
On the inclined bough of a pine,
time was, the early breeze
above that humble urn
swayed a mysterious wreath;
time was, during late leisures,
two girl companions hither used to come;
and, by the moon, upon the grave,
embraced, they wept;
but now…the drear memorial is
forgot. The wonted trail to it,
weed-choked. No wreath is on the bough.
Alone, beneath it, gray and debile,
the herdsman as before keeps singing
and plaiting his poor footgear.
My poor Lenski! Pining away,
she did not weep for long.
Alas! The young fiancee
is to her woe untrue.
Another fascinated her attention,
another her suffering managed
to lull with love’s flattery:
an uhlan knew how to captivate her,
an uhlan by her soul is loved;
and lo! With him already at the altar
she modestly beneath the bridal crown
stands with bent head,
fire in her lowered eyes,
a light smile on her lips.
I should say that many scholars were enraged by Nabokov’s pretensions, and thought he did far more harm than good by skipping the rhymes. There, I said it. Now screw’em.