TRANSLATING PUSHKIN

translating pushkinPoints Illustrated

1. Some aspects of Russian verse.

2. Diction appropriate to class and period.

3. Checking metrical freedom.

Evgeny Onegin

Pushkin needs little introduction. "Aleksandr Pushkin is, by common agreement — at least among his own compatriots — the greatest of all Russian writers. The major part of his lyrical poetry was written between 1820 and 1830, but some of his poetical masterpieces were composed in the last seven years of his life, when he was turning his attention to prose. A development can be traced from the sparkling ebullience of his early verse — the crowning achievement of which is the first chapter of Evgeny Onegin, written in 1823 — to the concentrated expressiveness and restrained power of his later poetry. By effecting a new synthesis between the three main ingredients of the Russian literary idiom — the Church Slovanic, the Western European borrowings, and the spoken vernacular — Pushkin created the language of modern Russian poetry." {1} And "Pushkin's Evgenii Onegin (1833), a novel in verse, is considered the greatest masterpiece of Russian literature." {2}

Given the difficulties in reproducing the intricate rhyme scheme, many of the earlier translations were rather stiff, but Charles Johnson produced a sparkling version in 1977, and there have been several since. {3} {4} {5}.

Russian Verse

The Evgeny Onegin runs to some 400 sonnet-like stanzas. Each stanza is written in iambic tetrameters, the rhyming pattern being ABAB; CCDD; EFFEGG, though the last six lines can be EFF/EGG or EFFE/GG. Masculine and feminine line endings are a further complication: FMFM; FFMM; FMMFMM. {3}

We should also note that "As Pushkin says in his correspondence, Evgenii Onegin is more unalike Don Juan than alike, its universalizing irony a tantalizing "hovering" between the poetic and the prosaic, wonder and disappointment veers away from Byronic satire. Likewise, the Onegin stanza is much more flexible than ottava rima in English (it is in effect a quicksilver combination of Petrarchan and Elizabethan sonnet), has virtually none of the latter's "burlesque" effect (poetry, especially rhymes, making fun of their doggerel sounds), and can be genuinely lyrical or bel canto ." {6}

And "The . . . clarity and simplicity of Pushkin's language have made him peculiarly resistant to translation. The poetry of striking metaphors always translates easily; yet Pushkin often writes without imagery of any kind, relying on effortless, colloquial vigor and an extraordinary felicity of form which is hard to capture in English. The Russian language has a case structure which enables his meaning to remain clear whatever the order of his words, while English is uncomfortable with the least distortion of word order to achieve rhyme." {7}

Other Translations

We start by looking at other translations: just the first two stanzas of Chapter One.

Charles Johnson

I

``My uncle -- high ideals inspire him;
but when past joking he fell sick,
he really forced one to admire him --
and never played a shrewder trick.
Let others learn from his example!
But God, how deadly dull to sample
sickroom attendance night and day
and never stir a foot away!
And the sly baseness, fit to throttle,
of entertaining the half-dead:
one smoothes the pillows down in bed,
and glumly serves the medicine bottle,
and sighs, and asks oneself all through:
"When will the devil come for you?"''

II

Such were a young rake's meditations --
by will of Zeus, the high and just,
the legatee of his relations --
as horses whirled him through the dust.
Friends of my Ruslan and Lyudmila,
without preliminary feeler
let me acquaint you on the nail
with this the hero of my tale:
Onegin, my good friend, was littered
and bred upon the Neva's brink,
where you were born as well, I think, reader,
or where you've shone and glittered!
There once I too strolled back and forth:
but I'm allergic to the North... {8}

Dennis Litoshick

I

My uncle was a man of virture,
When he became quite old and sick,
He sought respect and tried to teach me,
His only heir, verte and weak.
He had the fun, I had the sore,
But grecious goodness! what a bore!
To sit by bedplace day and night,
Not doing even step aside,
And what a cheep and cunning thing
To entertain the sad,
To serve around, make his bed,
To fetch the pills, to mourn and grim,
To sigh outloud, think along:
`God damn old man, why ain't you gone?'

II

So thought a playboy, young and funny,
While riding through the dust of road,
The only heir to the money,
That got his folks with help of Lord.
My reader! if introduce I may
Without comments, right away,
Onegin, my old friend
Was born , you know, in the Niva land.
And you may have been born in there,
The place of style, the vanity fair,
Where I had spent a lot of time,
But moved - the climate wasn't fine. {9}

 

G.R. Ledger

I

"My uncle, a most worthy gentleman,
When he fell seriously ill,
By snuffing it made us all respect him,
Couldn't have done better if he tried.
His behaviour was a lesson to us all.
But, God above, what crushing boredom
To sit with the malingerer night and day
Not moving even one footstep away.
What demeaning hypocrisy
To amuse the half-dead codger,
To fluff up his pillows, and then,
Mournfully to bring him his medicine;
To think to oneself, and to sigh:
When the devil will the old rascal die?"

II

So thought our young ne'er-do-well
Flying through the dust on a mail coach.
By the supreme will of Zeus
He was the inheritor of all his kin.
Good friends of Ludmilla and Ruslan!
With the hero of my romance
Allow me to make you acquainted
Without further prelude, this very instant.
Onegin, my good Sir or Madam,
Was born on the banks of the Neva,
Where perhaps you too were born,
Or made your name, my dearest reader.
There too I once enjoyed myself,
But North winds are damaging to my health. {10}

James H. Falen

I

My uncle, man of firm convictions . . .
By falling gravely ill, he's won
A due respect for his afflictions —
The only clever thing he's done.
May his example profit others;
But God, what deadly boredom, brothers,
To tend a sick man night and day,
Not daring once to steal away!
But, oh, how base to pamper grossly
And entertain the nearly dead,
To fluff the pillows for his head,
And pass him medecines morosely —
While thinking under every sigh:
The devil take you, Uncle. Die!

Just so a youthful rake reflected,
As through the dust by post he flew,
By mighty Zeus's will elected
Sole heir to all the kin he knew.
Ludmíla's and Ruslán's adherents!
Without a foreword's interference,
May I present, as we set sail,
The hero of my current tale:
Onégin, my good friend and brother,
Was born beside the Neva's span,
Where maybe, reader, you began,
Or sparkled in one way or other.
I too there used to saunter forth,
But found it noxious in the north. {11}

Getting the Sound

Now we take the original text from Dennis Litoshick's site {9} or the Pushkin Poem {10} site, and convert its Cyrillic into English sound equivalents. {12} We can also make a guess at the scansion {13} (though I don't doubt that a non-speaker like myself will get it wrong in places).

  Stanza One

Moj dyadya samih chestnih praveel F
Kogda ne v shootkoo zanemog M
On oovazhat sebee zastaveel. F
Ee loochshe vidoomat ne mog. M

Ego preemer droogeem naooka; F
No, bozhe moj, kakaya skooka F
S bolnim seedet ee deee ee noch M
NE othodya nee shagoo proch! M

Kakoe neezkoe kovarstvo F
Poloozheevogo zabavlyaat, M
Emoo podooshkee popravlyat, M
Pechalno podnoseet lekarstvo, F
Vzdoohat ee doomat pro sebya; M
Kogda zhe chyort vozmyot tebya! M

   Stanza Two

Tak doomal molodoj povesa, F
Letya v pilee na pochtovih M
Vsevishnej voleyou zevesa F
Nasledneek vseh svoeey rodnih M

Drooz'ya l'udmeeli ee ruslana! F
S geroem moevo romana F
'ez predeesloveej, sej zhe chas M
Pozvolte poznakomeet vas, M

Onegeen, dobrij moj preeyatel, F
Rodeelsya na bregah nevi M
Gde, mozhet bit, rodeelees vi; M
Ilee bleestalee, moj cheetatel; F
Tam nekogda goolyal ee ya: M
No vreden sever dlya menya. M

 

(To make the pronunciation clearer, I have used oo ( as in book) for the more usual u, ee (as in bee) for the usual y, and yo (as in yoghurt) for the Russian ë, and have shown the hard pronunciation sign (which signifies a very short pause) as '. {14} )

Literal Translation

Next we use a Russian-English dictionary to translate word for word: {15}

I

Moj dyadya samih chestnih praveel
My uncle most honest principled
Kogda ne v shootkoo zanemog
When not in joke has fallen ill
On oovazhat sebee zastaveel.
His esteemed self has forced
ee loochshe vidoomat ne mog.
and better contrive could not.
Ego preemer droogeem naooka;
it example another lesson
No, bozhe moj, kakaya skooka
But my God my what boredom
S bolnim seedet ee deee ee noch
with malingerer seated and night and day
ne othodya nee shagoo proch!
not departing not to step away
Kakoe neezkoe kovarstvo
what low cunning
Poloozheevogo zabavlyaat,
half-dead amusement
Emoo podooshkee popravlyat,
his pillows touch up
Pechalno podnoseet lekarstvo,
grieving carry medicine
Vzdoohat ee doomat pro sebya;
sigh and think about itself
Kogda zhe chyort vozmyot tebya!
when devil take you

II

Tak doomal molodoj povesa,
so thought young lothario
Letya v pilee na pochtovih
flying with dust in mail
Vsevishnej voleyou zevesa
supreme willing zeus
Nasledneek vseh svoeey rodnih
heir his best spring
Drooz'ya l'udmeeli ee ruslana!
friends ludmila and ruslan
S geroem moevo romana
with the hero mine the novel
'ez predeesloveej, sej zhe chas
without preamble this same hour
Pozvolte poznakomeet vas,
let me introduce you
Onegeen, dobrij moj preeyatel,
Onegin kind my friend
Rodeelsya na bregah nevi
born on brink Nevy
Gde, mozhet bit, rodeelees vi;
where perhaps born you
Ilee bleestalee, moj cheetatel;
or shone, my readers;
Tam nekogda goolyal ee ya:
there once walked and I
No vreden sever dlya menya.
but harmful the north for me.

 

Completing the Literal Translation

Correcting the grammar and rounding out the sense a little gives us a literal translation:

I

My uncle, honest and principled,
When not in drollery has fallen ill.
He who forced us to admire him
Could not have contrived a better
An example of a lesson.
But, my God, what a boredom.
Seated by the malingerer night and day
And not to step away.
What low cunning, it is
To make us amuse the half-dead.
To plump up pillows
Grieve and carry medicine
To sigh and really think
When will the devil come for you?

II

So thought our young Lothario
Flying through dust on the mailcoach,
By the supreme all-willing Zeus
Heir and his best continuer.
Friend of Ludmilla and Ruslan,
With the hero of my novel
Without preamble, at this very hour
Let me introduce you.
Onegin, my kind friend
Born on the banks of the Nevy
Where perhaps you too were born
Or shone, my readers,
Where once walked I
Though harmful is the north for me.

First Translation

Let's first aim at a workmanlike rendering that preserves the rhyme scheme and pattern of masculine and feminine line endings:

I

Save in some fit of jesting fancy,
My uncle was an honest man.
But now he's ill, from sycophancy
We've passed, and now admiring scan
The artful lesson he has taught us,
And curse, by God, the boredom brought us.
Seated with the malingerer, night and day
With not a moment to steal away
What shows more cunning, could be meaner
Than rope us in his dead charade?
Plump pillows, bring medicine, stand guard
About him with a grave demeanour,
While thinking, if the heart spoke true,
When will the devil come for you?

II

These thoughts his heir, the young gallant
In dust now hurled as mailcoach freight,
Brought winged as Zeus and with his talent
To make the springs rejuvenate.
My novel's hero, and familiar
Of ancient Ruslan and Ludmila:
Without preamble or ado
I hereby introduce to you.
Not one, Onegin, to mislead us
But born as one of Nevy's fame,
From whose cold banks you also came
Or shone the once, perhaps, dear readers?
Where also walking I would be
Though harmful is the north to me.

Discussion

I have deferred a discussion of earlier translations until we have some idea of the original. The first thing to note is how very compact and direct is the Russian, with wit (Zeus and Onegin's philandering ways) but little circumlocution. Versions one, three and four do well here, with Litoshik's departing a little further from the original sense.

Next comes diction or word choice, always a tricky matter. Pushkin is not writing one of his scabrous private letters, but a novel on and for polite society, depicting the manners of his day. His characters may be minor gentry, but they are not the proletariat. And however snobbish or unreal it may seem to their American cousins, Europeans like to keep up the vocabularies marking social distinctions: the ruling classes of Pushkin's day did not say `God damn old man, why ain't you gone?' or 'By snuffing it made us all respect him'. Version one avoids these horrors (as expected of Charles Johnson's diplomatic background), as does version four, though it's a bit racy for Pushkin's class and period.

Finally, there is the question of the stanza form, the rhyme scheme and pattern of masculine and feminine endings. I think we need them: half the pleasure of Pushkin is in the wizardry. Version three does not rhyme. And of the two which do, Johnson's to my ears seems the better, only perhaps excelled by the James E. Falen version. {3} {10a}

Now to our first draft. Clearly a great deal is wrong, particularly:

1. What do we call the protagonist? Johnson has rake, Litoshik playboy, and Ledger ne'er-do-well. We have gallant, which is stressed on the final syllable, of course, spoiling both rhyme and feminine ending. Rake seems harsh, and playboy is out of period. Possibilities are philanderer or (if moved from the line ending) gallant and ne'er-do-well.

2. We have lost Pushkin's amusing the half-dead, replacing it with Than rope us in his dead charade, which is also over-chummy.

3. To get the rhymes, we have Not one, Onegin, to mislead us / But born as one of Nevy's fame, which is rather adding to what Pushkin says.

4. Whereas (if I have the scansion anything like correct) Pushkin's verse has great verve and musicality, ours is mechanical and dull.

Second Rendering

We can make these corrections easily enough, but should first think about the metre. For a novel, at least in English, an unrelentingly regular iambic would be insufferable, and most verse writers would play with variations:

While wondering, if the heart spoke true,
When will the devil come for you?

While also asking, if the heart spoke true,
When is the devil due for you?

But knowing their inward sighs spoke true:
Will at last the devil come for you?

Or:

Friends of Ruslan and Ludmila
Now without a moment's filler
My novel's hero now to you
Bows and says, 'so how d'you do'.

But here the hero and familiar
In my novel of Ludmila
As of Ruslan. Let me, without ado,
Promptly introduce to you

But here the hero and familiar
In this my novel of Ludmila
As of Ruslan, now, without ado,
I must introduce to you

So how does the original go? For all its vigour, Pushkin's verse is remarkably regular:

I

- x - x - x - x - x - F
- x - - x - x - x M
- x - x - x - x - x - F
- x - x - x - x M
- x - x - x - x - F
- x - x - x - x - F
- x - x - x - x M
- x - x - - x - x M
- x - x - x - x - F
- x - x - - x - x M
- x - x - x - x M
- x - x - x - x - F
- x - - x - x - x M
- x - x - x - x M

II

- x - x - x - x - x - F
- x - x - x - x M
- x - x - x - x - x - F
- x - x - x - x M
- x - x - x - x - F
- x - x - - x - x - F
- x - x - x - x M
- x - x - x - x M
- x - x - x - x - F
- x - x - x - x M
- x - x - x - x M
- x - x - x - x - F
- x - - x - x - x M
- x - x - x - x M

Clearly, we had better write our translation with a strict beat, hoping that the individual properties of words will carry their own momentum:

I

My uncle who, except when jesting,
Maintained himself an honest man
In falling ill has stooped to testing
Our fond regards when this began.
And what a lesson he has taught us:
Lord, what boredom he has brought us!
From the malingerer night and day
Be not allowed one step away:
What shows more cunning and is meaner,
Than feigning to a man half dead,
Bring medicine, pillows, soothe the head
And, grieving, wear a glum demeanour
While sighing, if the heart spoke true,
When will the devil come for you?

II

And this our ne'er-do-well was thinking,
Sped through dust as mailcoach freight,
A willing Zeus as well in linking
What springs and youth rejuvenate.
But now as hero and familiar
With tales of Ruslan and Ludmila
As in this novel: so, without ado,
Let me introduce to you
Onégin. Yes, as interceder,
I'll add the Nevy was his birth.
As you are from northern earth
Or have shone there — true, my reader?
As once there walking too I'd be,
Though harmful is the north to me.

Conclusions

I've undertaken this exercise to show how much can be achieved with commonsense, some practice in writing English verse, and intelligent use of the dictionary. That does not mean that a happy knack of versifying is all that's needed for translation, but only that decent verse skills give the translator latitude to decide what to concentrate on. I cannot say if the charm of the original is in any respects conveyed by our final version, but it is very close to the sense.

Translations by Charles Johnson and James Falen {16} are both good, and there are many others. {17} A rendering closer to the original could certainly be written, but the time might be better spent learning the Russian to read Pushkin in the original.

Notes and References

1. "The Heritage of Russian Verse," by Dimitri Obolensky quoted on A Collection of Poems by Aleksandr Pushkin http://www.poetryloverspage.com/poets/pushkin/pushkin_ind.html.
2. Aleksandr (Sergeyevich) Pushkin (1799-1837) 2003. http://kirjasto.sci.fi/puskin.htm. Usual helpful entry in the Books and Writers series.
3. What's Gained in Translation. Douglas Hofstadter. 1997. http://adaweb.com/influx/muntadas/nytbooks.html NNA. NYT book review comparing four translations (Elton/Briggs, Johnson, Falen, Arndt).
4. Eugene Onegin. http://www.socialsciencesweb.com/Eugene_Onegin_0691019053.html Review of Nabokov's 1964 translation.
5. Eugene Onegin. Search Amazon Books under Pushkin. http://www.amazon.com.
6. Reference Guide to Russian Literature Book, Nicole Christian and Neil Cornwell (Fitzroy Dearborn. 1998), 21. Q
7. The Poet's Fate, Elaine Feinstein: Russian Life, Vol. 42, June-July 1999 . Q
8. A.S. Pushkin. Eugeny Onegin. Trans. Charles Johnson. 1977, 1979. http://lib.ru/LITRA/PUSHKIN/ENGLISH/onegin_j.txt.
9.A.S. Pushkin. Eugeny Onegin. Trans. Dennis Litoshick. Aug. 2001. http://www.kulichki.com/moshkow/LITRA/PUSHKIN/ENGLISH/litoshik.txt.
10. A.S. Pushkin. Eugeny Onegin. Trans. G.R. Ledger. Feb. 2004. http://www.pushkins-poems.com/Yev001.htm
11. A.S. Pushkin. Eugeny Onegin. Trans. James H. Falen. (O.U.P. 1998).
12. An online Russian keyboard emulator is at http://www.yandex.ru/keyboard_qwerty.html.
13. Russian Versification. B. O. Unbegaun. 1968. http://seell.rutgers.edu/IntroRusLit%20folder/Versification.html NNA. Introduction and some examples. Also useful is the Appendix of Stanley Burnshaw (Ed.), The Poem Itself (Penguin Books. 1960).
14. Learning Russian: phonetic system. http://www.learningrussian.com/grammar/phonetic1.htm NNA. Excellent tables.
15. Most can be found with the free browser plug-in at http://translation1.paralink.com/ The remainder can be found with the free online dictonaries, e.g . at http://area51.berkeley.edu/%7Edima/stuff/rus/ NNA. Extensive resources are listed at http://www.yourdictionary.com/ and http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/PaulGor/index_en.htm NNA.
16. For readers tempted to buy James Falen's translation, I should say that I am now not so sure of its quality, at least to judge from excerpts in Orlando Figes' Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (Picador, 2002). The diction is more contemporary than Johnson's, and the prose sense may be closer, but the verse lacks Pushkin's quicksilver grace.
17. English Versions of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~pml1/onegin/welcome.htm 38 versions listed, with sample first verse in many instances. Peter Lee's excellent listing.

 

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