Saturday, February 22, 2014

this lacked conscience, that lacked sense; on all of them were different fetters - translating Eugene Onegin

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.


  1. Stanley Mitchell's translation is said to be even better than Johnston's. Johnston also inspired Vikram Seth to write a novel in Onegin sonnets, The Golden Gate. Not as good as Pushkin, of course, but still enjoyable.

  2. Right, the recent one. I'll bet it is good, The important thing, I think, is to choose a post-Nabokov translation. Read someone who uses all of that amazing work.

    It is too bad that more books - poems, and why not novels - do not have equivalent works behind them, cutting through the knotty words, identifying allusions, perhaps not solving every problem but at least putting them all in one place.

  3. Six: XXXII is a great one for contrasting Johnston to Nabokov. I read that and thought, "that must be the one where I learned the expression 'God wot,'" and it does seem to be:

         now, as in a deserted house,
         all in it is both still and dark,
         it has become forever silent.
         The window boards are shut. The panes with chalk
         are whitened over. The chatelaine is gone.
         But where, God wot. All trace is lost. (end of Six:XXXII, Nabokov)

    Chatelaine! Wot! In Russian it really is an archaic verb in the expression for "God knows" here, but when I first read EO on the strength a few years of college Russian, I could understand the Russian better than Nabokov's English. And the word хозяйка is more ordinary than "lady of the house," let alone "chatelaine."

    Readers with what they claim are principled objections to reading poetry in translation are fools.


    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.

    I think these two points are not unrelated. Does anyone do readalongs of Pushkin's lyric poems in English?

  4. Johnston is so good with that stanza. I should have used "chatelaine" in the next post - perfect example. Some of Nabokov's obscurities have solid reasons behind them. Some are apparently a form of play.

    My impression, picked up from book blogs, is that most people who say they object to poetry in translation read little or no poetry of any sort. They are conveniently dismissing an entire category - no need to worry about that stuff!

    I do not believe I have ever seen a readalong of lyric poems. Paradise Lost, The Odyssey, EO - and Clarel, of course, the greatest poetry readalong in book blog history. But never lyric poems, even in forms that would be coherent, like Leaves of Grass or Shakespeare's sonnets or A Shropshire Lad.

    Maybe I should try that sometime.

    1. Poetry in translation is an awkward business, and I have long been planning a blog post on the topic. It *can* work - but only if the translation is a work of poetry in its own right. For if it doesn't read like a poem in the target language (and many I've encountered frankly don't) then it has failed at the first hurdle.But as i say, it *can* work - although I suspect some poets are less suitable for translation that others.

      Take, for instance, what i am assured is among the loveliest lines of lyric poetry - the first line of the first poem of Heine that Schumann set as "Dichterliebe":

      Im wunderschönen Monat Mai

      Beautiful though this may be in German, can it be rendered into English as anything more interesting than "In the beautiful month of May"?

  5. I'm sorry I haven't been around lately, as I would have loved to have joined in on the discussion. Quite apart from anything else, I don't think I know anyone who has read Nabokov's translation, and his copious notes. But if you don't object to belated comments (when your blog has obviously moved on to other matters), I'd like to add a few. But I am at work right now - just about to pack up for the day - and it'll get rather late once I get home tonight.

    Actually, I do know someone who has read both Nabokov's translation, and the notes: he is a good friend of mine, and has himself translated "Eugene Onegin" as a labour of love (see here: I am naturally biased, for obvious reasons, towards Tom Beck's translation. (I have also read the Johnston and Falen versions, and parts of the recent translation by Stanley Mitchell.)

    I don't have his translation with me right now, but when I am back home and have some time to spare (that's the tricky part), I'll put up Tom's take on the stanza you quote. Tom tells me that the bit he found the most difficult was the bit where Pushkin is describing the preparation of the guns for the duels: the descriptions, he told me, were very technical, and there weren't many synonyms in English.

    Reading "Eugene Onegin", there seem so many ghosts of what is to come in Russian literature - so much that can be traced back directly. Take that passage where Lensky visits Olga the night before the duel he has so much that is heartfelt that he want to say to here, and, perhaps, she knows he does; but she does not encourage him, and they part after exchanging a few inconsequential words. Now look at that scene in the final act of Chekhov's "Three Sisters", where exactly the same occurs between Tusenbach and Irina.

    Or the passage that I take to be the climactic point of "Eugene Onegin" - where Onegin falls half asleep over a book, and, in his drowsy state, instead of the lines in the book he sees Tatyana's face. Now look at the passage in "War and Peace" in the medical tent at Borodino, where Andrey is brought in badly wounded, and, delirious with pain, his mind wanders ... until it finally fixes on his memory of Natasha's face.

    Wherever you look in Russian literature, there seem to be ghosts of Pushkin's poem!

    I'll have to catch the train back home now, but will try to get back to this shortly.

  6. Awkward in theory, perhaps, yet so many poets and translators have done it so well that I have come to dismiss the notion of awkwardness. It not only can work but in fact so often does that the anti- argument collapses. The translators generally know what they are doing. All too many poems written in English do not read like poems.

    And Nabokov's EO does not read a like a poem, yet is excellent in its own way.

    I had not heard of the Tom Beck translation. Dedalus books get to the U.S. so randomly. I would love to see a sample.

    You are right that Russian literature has pretty well ransacked EO, down to the light fixtures and molding. It all shows up somewhere else.

    I have been mouthing that Heine line. Look, there are lots of individual lines in lots of languages as beautiful as that one. There must be thousands. Heine must have written a couple dozen more as good. "Among the loveliest" - sure, but among a pretty big pool.

    1. I agree with all you say about Heine, but was merely commenting on the seeming impossibility of conveying its quality in English.

      Anyway - here's what Tom Beck makes of that stanza:

      Inert he lay, a strange and pallid
      serenity upon his brow,
      right through his chest the deadly bullet
      had passed; the steaming blood flowed now
      where moments earlier inspiration,
      aversion, love and expectation
      had throbbed, where blood had boiled and seethed,
      where life had shimmered, spirit breathed;
      but here, as in a house, unlighted
      and bare, where all is empty, chill,
      this heart remains forever still,
      the shutters closed, the windows whitened
      with chalk. The chatelaine has left,
      all traces gone, the place bereft.

    2. "Chatelaine," ha ha ha, he's runs with Nabokov's choice. Actually, I think a lot more of Nabokov's specific words make it into Beck's version than Johnston's. He has to rearrange them a bit more,

      I like left / bereft a lot. You can see how he has to set up his rhymes and then work backwards. "windows whitened with," "chalk - chatelaine" - Beck is a little fancier with assonance.

      Very nice. Readable. Not smooth. I am mystified that "smooth" is used so often in praise of translations. Since when was "smooth" some sort of literary ideal? My compliments to Tom Beck - if I ever come across his translation I will read the rest.

  7. A handful of examples of beauty untranslatable, disdainful of other languages.

    Por que chora, a tarde seu pranto entristece o caminho
    Por que chora, se tem a beleza do sol e da flor
    Por que chora, a tarde sabendo que existe outro dia
    E a alegria depois da tormenta, é dia de Sol.

    Nec non et vario noctem sermone trahebat
    infelix Dido, longumque bibebat amorem.

    Nocturnis ego somniis
    Iam captum teneo, iam volucrem sequor
    Te per gramina Martii
    Campi, te per aquas, dure, volubilis.

    Trois petits pâtés, un point et virgule;
    On dirait d'un cher glaïeul sur les eaux.
    Vivent le muguet et la campanule !
    Trois petits pâtés, un point et virgule ;
    Dodo, l'enfant do, chantez, doux fuseaux.
    La libellule erre emmi les roseaux.

  8. I do not know how to pronounce Latin, so I do not know what I am missing with the Virgil and Horace. Verlaine is certainly a tricky case. Just look at that fifth line!

    What is the Portuguese example?

  9. Wait, I found it, never mind - singer Antonio Marcos. I have to say, I loathe the recording I found. Is there a Tropicalia adaptation? Did Tom Ze do a version of it? That would help.