On Translating Pushkin Pounding the Clavichord

Alexander Pushkin
Alexander Pushkin; drawing by David Levine

The author of a soon-to-be-published translation may find it awkward to criticize a just published translation of the same work, but in the present case I can, and should, master my embarrassment; for something must be done, some lone, hoarse voice must be raised, to defend both the helpless dead poet and the credulous college student from the kind of pitiless and irresponsible paraphrast whose product* I am about to discuss.

The task of twisting some five thousand Russian iambic tetrameters, with a rigid pattern of masculine and feminine rhymes, into an equal number of similarly rhymed English iambic tetrameters is a monstrous undertaking, and I, who have limited my efforts to a plain, prosy and rhymeless translation of Eugene Onegin, feel a certain morbid admiration for Mr. Arndt’s perseverance. A sympathetic reader, especially one who does not consult the original, may find in Mr. Arndt’s version more or less sustained stretches of lulling poetastry and specious sense; but anybody with less benevolence and more knowledge will see how patchy the passable really is.

Let me, first of all, present side by side a literal translation of two stanzas (Six: XXXVI-XXXVII) and Mr. Arndt’s version. It is a sample of one of those passages in his work that are free from howlers, and that the passive reader (the pet of progressive educators) might accept as a tolerable translation:

My friends, you’re sorry for the poet:

in the bloom of glad hopes,

not having yet fulfilled them for the world,

scarce out of infant clothes,

Withered! Where is the ardent stir,

the noble aspiration,

of young emotions and young thoughts,

exalted, tender, bold?

Where are love’s turbulent desires,

the thirst for knowledge and work,

the dread of vice and shame,

and you, fond musings,

you, token of unearthly life,

you, dreams of sacred poetry!

Perhaps, for the world’s good

or, at least, for glory he was born;

his silenced lyre might have aroused

a resonant, uninterrupted ringing

throughout the ages. There awaited

the poet, on the stairway of the world,

perhaps, a lofty stair.

His martyred shade has carried

away with him, perhaps,

a sacred mystery, and for us

dead is a life-creating voice,

and to his shade beyond the tomb’s confines

will not rush up the hymn of races,

the blessing of the ages.

XXXVI

My friends, you will lament the poet
Who, flowering with a happy gift,
Must wilt before he could bestow it
Upon the world, yet scarce adrift
From boyhood’s shore. Now he will never
Seethe with that generous endeavor,
Those storms of mind and heart again,
Audacious, tender or humane!
Stilled now are love’s unruly urges,
the thirst for knowledge and for deeds,
Contempt for vice and what it breeds,
And stilled you too, ethereal surges
Breath of a transcendental clime,
Dreams from…

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