Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Profanation of the dead & a virescent rainbow edged with mauve - a review of Vladimir Nabokov's Verses and Versions

I'll start this review on the right foot. The beginning of Vladimir Nabokov's 1954 poem "On Translating 'Eugene Onegin'":

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.

I'm afraid this applies more than a bit to Verses and Versions (2008), a recent, complete, collection of Nabokov's translations. The book is a malformed hybrid.

The problem is not with Nabokov's translations as such, many of which are marvels. It's the completeness of the book that works against it. Here's what I mean. Alexander Pushkin receives over 140 pages, about a third of the book, commensurate with his status, right? But it turns out that a substantial chunk of the Pushkin poems - maybe half - are actually culled from Nabokov's extensive notes to his translation of Eugene Onegin. Many of the poems are not complete, but simply a few lines, because they were translated only in order to elucidate a point about a line or two in a completely different poem. Editors Brian Boyd and Stanislav Shvabrin are actually re-publishing footnotes from another book, the poem in the body of the book, and the footnote itself in the footnotes of this book!

I was curious about the older Russian poets, whose works I didn't know, or thought I didn't know - Mihail Lomonosov, Nikolay Karamzin, and so on. It turns out I had read all of this before, yes, in the notes to Eugene Onegin. And then there are the program notes to an album of Russian songs recorded by Nabokov's son. All a little ridiculous, all for scholars. It deserves to have been collected and available, but in an overpriced scholarly edition perhaps titled Scraps and Scroungings.

Fortunately, Verses and Versions is salvageable for the ordinary, common, and amateur reader. For each poem, we have the Russian on the left, with the year of publication, and the English on the right, with its year of publication. What the reader can do is skip past anything dated 1951-57 - those are all from the notes to Eugene Onegin. The poems from 1941-43 are from Nabokov's Three Russian Poets, and those from 1944-47 are from an expanded edition. The three poets are Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, and Fyodor Tyutchev. I put up one of the Lermontov poems last Thanksgiving.

In general, if its from the 1940s, read it. If it's later, skip it. Then you'll also get a few really interesting Vladislav Hodasevich poems and three nice ones by Afanasiy Fet, and Pushkin's amazing "Mozart and Salieri," one of my favorites. I prefer Nabokov's version to Charles Johnston's. The popular audience edition really should have been a beefed up Three Russian Poets.

How about one of those Tyutchev poems:


The storm withdrew, but Thor had found his oak,
and there it lay magnificently slain,
and from its limbs a remnant of blue smoke
spread to bright trees repainted by the rain -

- while thrush and oriole made haste to mend
their broken melodies throughout the grove,
upon the crests of which was propped the end
of a virescent rainbow edged with mauve.

I don't know enough of Tyutchev to know if this sounds like him. It sure sounds like Nabokov.

The reason for the decadal split, by the way, is Nabokov's famous conversion to literal, rather than poetic, translation. Personally, I think we should have both, the literal translations for the scholars, and the poetic ones for me.


  1. Thanks for bringing "Mozart and Salieri" to my attention. Gotta watch Shaffer's Amadeus again one of these days.

  2. At some point I should also write something about Eduard Mörike's novella Mozart's Journey to Prague, another sparkling, but quite different, piece of Mozart fiction.