Eugene Onegin, young and bored, attempts to stem his ennui with a desperate measure – reading books:
he put a troop of books upon a shelf,
read, read – and all without avail:
here there was dullness; there, deceit and raving;
this lacked conscience, that lacked sense;
on all of them were different fetters;
and the old had become old-fashioned,
and the new raved about the old. (One: XLIV, tr. Nabokov)
I guess I first read Eugene Onegin twenty-five years ago, in Vladimir Nabokov’s 1964 translation, which is accompanied by about a thousand pages of commentary. I read that, too, all of it. Seven or eight years ago, sometime before the aborning of Wuthering Expectations, I read Charles Johnston’s 1977 version.
Recently I reread Nabokov’s version and immediately followed it with a return to Johnston’s, which I have not quite finished. Both translations are super. Each one presents about, let’s invent a figure, 30% of what is in Pushkin’s poem; read jointly, 40%; read with Nabokov’s commentary, 50%, along with some choice Nabokov. This is pretty good. Readers with what they claim are principled objections to reading poetry in translation are fools.
I fear that on occasion in comments I have steered people away from Nabokov’s translations, succumbing in retrospect to the notion that it is – well, I do not remember what. Dry, pedantic? It is unpoetic, certainly, but nevertheless artistically effective and emotionally moving to the extent the ironies of the poem allow much emotion. See, for example, Tatiana’s final speech (“Today it is my turn,” Eight: XLII) and thunderclap exit from the book. Eugene Onegin is, among other things, a fine narrative with complex characters and interesting movement of plot. An attentive prose translation has a lot to work with.
Several of the recent readalongers used James Falen’s 1990 translation, which I have only read in their excerpts. It sounds good, too. Both Johnston and Falen maintain Pushkin’s stanzaic form and rhyme scheme – it is a kind of modified sonnet, fourteen lines with a punchy closing couplet. They both end up sounding something like a watery, domestic Lord Byron, an appropriate tone given Eugene Onegin’s period and frequent references to Byron. Yet, to stick with the one I have read, Johnston, the fetters that squeeze arbitrary rhymes out of the substance of the story are balanced by a nimble sense of tone and sufficient cleverness. The key scenes, Tatiana’s surreal prophetic dream in Chapter 5 or the duel in Chapter 6, are terrific.
A duelist has died. The previous stanza ended with a list of trivial romantic clichés about young death (“the bloom has withered on the bough”). This one is rather different.
He lay quite still, and strange as dreaming
was that calm brow of one who swooned.
Shot through below the chest – and streaming
the blood came smoking from the wound.
A moment earlier, inspiration
had filled his heart, and detestation
and hope and passion; life had glowed
and blood had bubbled as it flowed;
but now the mansion is forsaken;
shutters are up, and all is pale
and still within, behind the veil
of chalk the window-panes have taken.
The lady of the house has fled.
Where to, God knows. The trail is dead. (Six: XXXII, Johnston)
Not unsurpassable. Pushkin presumably surpassed it.