In response to:
The Strange Case of Pushkin and Nabokov from the July 15, 1965 issue
To the Editors:
The brilliance of Edmund Wilson in his comprehensive review of the four-volume translation and commentary of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin well matches that of its translator and editor, Vladimir Nabokov. With considerable erudition of his own in the field, Mr. Wilson misses few of Nabokov’s lapses in translation skill, language, scholarship, or literary criticism. Though this review may serve to redress somewhat Nabokov’s huge contempt for all translators and editors of Eugene Onegin who have preceded him, it does not appear to come fully to grips with the central problem of the work….
In terms of faithfulness to the meaning of the original, it may be said that Nabokov’s translation of Eugene Onegin is the most exact that has ever been made. Critics will naturally differ on whether his method of translation has enabled him to convey anything of Pushkin’s poetic spirit—a word that Nabokov would ridicule in this context. The present writer believes that large sections of the translation do reflect this spirit. It is a pity, however, that Nabokov did not forget his theory and accept the supreme challenge of a translation that would adhere to the difficult rhyme scheme of Eugene Onegin. The few rhymed stanzas he had published earlier suggest that he might have succeeded brilliantly. Perhaps he morbidly feared the invariable tendency of critics of translation—and he is an extreme example of the practise—who concentrate on a few small details of rhyme and meaning at the expense of total accomplishment. Mr. Wilson is no such critic, but his comment on Nabokov’s strictures on his own translation, which has been mentioned above, points up this unfortunate practise: “When I say, for example, that ‘the caravan of loud-tongued geese stretched toward the south’ it is almost as literally accurate as and a good deal more poetically vivid than Nabokov’s ‘the caravan of clamorous geese was tending southward.”‘…
At a time when various new factors are encouraging and supporting translation in the United States, I regard it as a welcome sign that our foremost literary critic has undertaken to review in such detail and with such authoritative and sympathetic understanding a translation of one of the world’s great literary masterpieces.
Ernest J. Simmons
Dublin, New Hampshire