Goading the Pony

Notice and text of Mr. Nabokov’s article reached me only recently. The resulting stringencies, academic, editorial, and postal, allow me little more than a few verbal reflexes in answer to his more privileged assault. While taken by surprise, I am not surprised that Mr. Nabokov was able to “master his embarrassment.” All prior invaders of the precinct of Onegin translation have found him coiled at the exit (see his article in Partisan Review, Fall, 1955) and have been dosed, jointly and severally, alive or posthumously, with much the same mixture of arrogance, cuteness, and occasional distortion. The living among them may again relish with a certain fascination the fine sparkle of pure venom behind the sacerdotal (albeit genuine and admirable) solicitude for textual integrity.

I obviously differ from Mr. Nabokov on the manner, even the possibility, of conveying a poetic message across cultural and linguistic boundaries, and on where and how to make the inevitable sacrifices. It would require a separate essay to clarify these differences. But my statement of the translation’s purpose, which he finds so bizarre and which he paraphrases with the brand of fairness peculiar to him, makes it clear that I do not believe in seating the would-be reader of Pushkin on the kind of prose pony he provides (after all, there simply are no interlingually equivalent semantic units, regardless of the form of discourse), and then goading him, with “ardent stir” and “in the blossom of glad hopes,” up a pyramid of footnotes every bumpy line or two, throughout a multi-volume trek. The scholarly yield and value of his undertaking, I have no doubt, will be outstanding, and many besides myself have been eagerly looking forward to it for a decade. But what it will supply is copious and accurate information, and not an inkling of the poetic impact which a verse translation, diluted and flawed as it must often be, can at least intermittently convey.

I also differ from Mr. Nabokov—who I gather finds no merit in my Onegin stanzas or does not quote them where he does—in that I have found merit in some of his own: the trio I, 32-34 published in Russian Review IV, 2 (1945). Yet I wonder how they would fare if forced to meet their maker and undergo his own critical technique. All three achieve a great measure of success, but all three obviously contain just such enforced liberties and padding as those which their writer so abominates in others, as well as some obscurities and infelicities that to me seem gratuitous. Had I the space, I believe I would be forgiven the brief indelicacy of pointing some of these out, garnished with a suitably Nabokovian by-play of donnish cackles and sham obtuseness; such as, in 1,32, “dimple” for cheeks (“elephantine Germanic coyness”), rhyming with the otsebyatina “less simple”; “instep” for little foot (“ballerina in orthopedic footgear”). Or in I,33, “the storm-rack flying” (?) for before a storm, in I,34 “again to build mad builders start” for again imagination seethes (“who let these crazed blacklegs in?”); etc. This sort of thing is cheap, simple as a dimple, good clean undergraduate fun; but hardly criticism.

On the matter of scansion and syllabicity repeatedly brought up, I feel sure that Mr. Nabokov, while not perhaps trained in linguistics or phonometrics, is aware that the English complex nuclei or “double-glides” of the type of power, fire, unlike the rising diphthongs in /y/ or /w/, have durations between one-and-a-half and two syllables. Facetiously spelling them fi-ere and the like no more alters the matter than would the equally farcial spellings fah, pah for the now receding “haw-haw” pronunciation of our university days. These forms therefore lend themselves, prosodic ukases notwithstanding, equally to masculine and feminine rhyming. I am amused to notice that in Nabokov’s own three translated stanzas referred to above there successively appear in the feminine rhyme slots of lines 9 and 12 these couples: admire-fire; sensation-palpitation; lyre-inspire. The case is similar for egoism, which is notoriously and measurably four syllables. Surely Mr. Nabokov would not deny the syllabic sonants of English and claim that, e.g., bosom /buzm/ has one syllable, on the neologism isms is a single syllable with the delightful final cluster /zmz/?

Under several headings of his catalogue of horrors Mr. Nabokov supplies genuine and valuable lexical corrections and clarifications not furnished by the Russian scholars previously consulted, and for these I am thankful. I also wish that the verse translator could oftener indulge without stint such exacting claimants as the lingonberry and the racemose bird-cherry—except where semantic associations in English are missing, or where associative rather than, say, botanical accuracy seems to demand priority. But too often Mr. Nabokov’s confident imputations seem maliciously to ignore the obvious restraints imposed by the metric form, or affect a disingenuous literal-mindedness; at times even word order is misquoted. Take his objection to “his lyre, now forever muted, might have resounded down the age in ceaseless thunder, and have fated its bearer…”—can it be beyond his syntactic acuity to gather that the lyre-bearer is meant, and not the “thunder-bearer” he absurdly sets up for the reader to “stumble” over? Again, it may be that in the overly dead-pan description of the two blue-stockings of III,28 I lost a vital link by sacrificing Pushkin’s “bonneted”; I certainly lost Mr. N., who with a Gogolesque hoot and caper conjures up a bonze and a don and charges them to my account. Elsewhere he saddles me with a homegrown “American-bosom” image I can make nothing of, though it intrigues me. To the slip over St. Preux I must plead guilty—though not to the inference Mr. N. compliments me with. There is formal excuse, alas, for his lip-smacking fantasy on the Zaretsky stanza—though hardly for his scrambling its word order (misplacing “still”) to suit his purpose. In the course of two transatlantic copyings of the MS, “he’d gallop” somehow changed to “he galloped” and “he gallops,” undetected by later proofreading. This is on my list of errata, with a dozen other dislocations due to an English typist’s misplaced ingenuity. The therapeutic portions of Mr. N.’s fervid physic will also be gratefully embodied, with acknowledgement, in any second edition.

I have often been asked to allow the reprinting of my old verse translations (such as the three stanzas in the Russian Review. 1945, mentioned by Mr. Arndt) and have always refused since they are exactly what Mr. Arndt says—lame paraphrases of Pushkin’s text. They may be a little closer to it than Mr. Arndt’s effort but still have nothing in common with the literal translation I have prepared now.

—Vladimir Nabokov