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On Translating Pushkin Pounding the Clavichord

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:

  1. My friends, you’re sorry for the poet:

  2. in the bloom of glad hopes,

  3. not having yet fulfilled them for the world,

  4. scarce out of infant clothes,

  5. Withered! Where is the ardent stir,

  6. the noble aspiration,

  7. of young emotions and young thoughts,

  8. exalted, tender, bold?

  9. Where are love’s turbulent desires,

  10. the thirst for knowledge and work,

  11. the dread of vice and shame,

  12. and you, fond musings,

  13. you, token of unearthly life,

  14. you, dreams of sacred poetry!

  15. Perhaps, for the world’s good

  16. or, at least, for glory he was born;

  17. his silenced lyre might have aroused

  18. a resonant, uninterrupted ringing

  19. throughout the ages. There awaited

  20. the poet, on the stairway of the world,

  21. perhaps, a lofty stair.

  22. His martyred shade has carried

  23. away with him, perhaps,

  24. a sacred mystery, and for us

  25. dead is a life-creating voice,

  26. and to his shade beyond the tomb’s confines

  27. will not rush up the hymn of races,

  28. 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 the sacred realm of rhyme.

XXXVII

Perchance the world would have saluted
In him a savior or a sage;
His ly-ere, now forever muted,
Might have resounded down the age
In ceaseless thunder, and have fated
Its bearer to be elevated
To high rank on the worldly grade;
Or haply with his martyred shade
Some holy insight will they bury,
A gem, perchance, of wisdom choice,
Now perished with his vital voice.
The hymn of ages will not carry
Deep into his sepulchral den
The benediction of all men.

I have italicized such verbal gobbets as are not found, or found in another form, in Pushkin’s text. Omissions, here and throughout the version, are too numerous and too ingrained to be profitably catalogued. Passive readers will derive, no doubt, a casual illusion of sense from Arndt’s—actually nonsensical—line 2 of XXXVI. They will hardly notice that the chancrous metaphor in lines 4-5 inflicted by a meretricious rhyme is not Pushkin’s fault, nor wonder at the naive temerity a paraphrast has of throwing in his own tropes when he should know that the figure of speech is the main, sacred quiddity and eyespot of a poet’s genius, and is the last thing that should be tampered with. In the second stanza presented here our passive readers may skim over some other added metaphors, such as the “buried insight,” the “gem of wisdom,” and the “sepulchral den” (which suggests a dead lion rather than a dead poet). They may also swallow the “high rank” (which implies the sort of favor a meek poet like Zhukovski received from the tsar, and not at all the “lofty stair” which Pushkin invokes); but perhaps the “thunder-bearer” of lines 5-6 shall briefly cause them to stumble.

These, I repeat, are types of the least offensive among Mr. Arndt’s stanzas. A closer examination of the actual technique of his various mistranslations brings out the following points.

  1. Natural objects changing their species or genus: “flea” turns into “roach,” “aspen” into “ash,” “birch,” and “lime” into “beech,” “pine” (many times) into “fir,” and “racemose birdcherry” (cheryomuha) into “alder” (the harmful drudges who compile Russian-English dictionaries have at least, under cheryomuha, “black alder” i.e. “alder buckthorn,” which is wrong, but not so wrong as Arndt’s tree).

  2. Transformation of names: “Prince N.” Tatiana’s husband, turns into “Prince M.”; Griboedov’s hero “Chatski” into “Chaatsky” (possibly through hybridization with Pushkin’s friend Chaadaev); Tatiana’s aunt “Pelageya Nikolaevna” into “Pelya,” an insufferable diminutive; another aunt, “Princess Aline,” into the ridiculous “Princess Nancy”; Onegin’s housekeeper, “Anisia,” into “Mistress Anna”; and “Vanya,” the husband of Tatiana’s nurse, into “Larry.”

  3. Anachronisms: Triquet’s “spectacles” are said to be “gold pince-nez”; the “jams in jars” taken by Mrs. Larin to Moscow become “cans of jelly,” and a traveler is introduced as “fresh from the station.”

  4. Comic scansion: “…where ou-er hero lately dwelled”; “…and ou-er luckless damzel tasted” (many more “ou-ers” throughout). The same with endings in “ire”: “fi-ere,” “squi-ere,” “desi-ere,” and so on. Business is scanned in a Germanic trisyllabic way (“No service, busi-ness or wife”), and, in another line, “egoism” is generously granted four syllables as it if were “egoisum.”

  5. Burlesque rhymes: feeler-Lyudmila, capital-ball, binoculars-stars, char-Africa, family-me, thrillers-pillows, invaders-days does; and rhymes based on dialect pronunciation: meadow-shadow, message-passage, tenor-manor, possession-fashion, bury-carry, and so on.

  6. Crippled clichés and mongrel idioms: “My flesh is parched with thirst,” “the mother streaming with tears,” “the tears from Tania’s lashes gush,” “what ardor at her breast is found.”

  7. Vulgarism and stale slang: “the belles in decolleté creations,” “moms,” “twosomes,” “highbrow,” “his women,” “I sang of feet I knew before, dear lady feet,” “dear heart, dear all” (Lenski in his last elegy to Olga), “Simonpure,” “beau geste,” “hard to meet” (for “unsociable”), “my uncle, decorous old prune” (for “my uncle has most honest principles”), the nurse telling Tatiana, “Aye, don’t holler,” Olga “blended of peach and cream,” Tatiana writing to Onegin “my knees were folding” and “you justly dealt with my advances” (Tatiana, Pushkin’s Tatiana!). Here too belongs a special little curiosity. The minds of versionists seldom meet, but a singular convergence of that sort occurs in Eight: XXXVIII. Pushkin shows Onegin moodily sitting by the fire and dropping into it “now a slipper, now his magazine.” Elton, in 1937, vulgarly translated this as “…the News drops in the fire or else his shoes” and Mr. Arndt has the almost identical “…the News slipped in the fi-ere or his shoes.”

  8. Howlers and other glaring mistakes: The true howler is a joint product of ignorance and self-assurance. Here are a few of the many examples provided by Mr. Arndt. In Six: V Pushkin describes Zaretski (formerly a rake, now a placid landowner in the backwoods of northwest Russia). Zaretski several years earlier, during the Napoleonic wars, was taken prisoner by the French and had a pleasant time in Paris—so pleasant in fact that now, in 1820-21, he would not mind being captured again (if there were another war) “so as to drink on credit at Very’s [a café-restaurant in Paris, originally on the Terrasse des Feuillants in the Jardin des Tuilleries] two or three bottles every morning.” Mr. Arndt completely misses the point, assumes that Very is a Parisian restaurateur established in Russia (say in Pskov), not too far from Zaretski’s country seat, and boldly renders Pushkin’s lines as “…braving bondage [what bondage in 1821?], enraptured [with what?], he still gallops on his morning sprees to charge three bottles at Very’s.” Another howler occurs in his version of Two: XXXV where Pushkin has “the people yawning” on Trinity Day in church, but where Arndt has “…Trinity when the peasants tell their beads [which they do not commonly do in Russia] and nod at morning service” (which is not easy in the Greek-Orthodox standing position). In Three: III the meager fare Mrs. Larin offers to her guests (“jam in little dishes are brought; upon a small table, oil cloth’d [lexically, “waxed”] a jug of lingonberry water is set”) becomes a Gargarndtuan feast with utensils for giants: “…bowls of preserves, then the habitual bilberry water lumbers on [?] in a great wax-sealed [mix-up with the epithet used in the text for the small table] demi-john” (two or three gallons?). In Three: IX Pushkin alludes to St. Preux (“the lover of Julie Wolmar”) but Arndt, who apparently has not read Rousseau’s novel, confuses husband with lover: “Julie’s adoring swain, Wolmar.” In Three: XXVIII Pushkin’s two learned ladies, one in a yellow shawl, as pedantic as a seminarian, and the other, a bonneted one, as grave as an academician (meaning member of the Academy of Sciences) are replaced in Arndt’s version by a Buddhist priest (“the saffron-muffled clerk in orders”) and an English don (“a mortar-boarded sage”), which, as boners go, is a kind of multiple fracture. Pushkin’s hills, which in the beginning of Chapter Five are “softly overspread with Winter’s brilliant carpeting” become “mountain summits [in lowland Russia!] softly stretching ‘neath Winter’s scintillating shawl” (which produces an unexpected American-bosom image); the “sumptuous contact of yielding rugs” (One: XXXI) becomes the rather Freudian “voluptuous embrace of swelling carpets,” and the “surgings” of a poet’s “heart” (Four: XXXI) are gynandromorphosed into the “deep stirrings of [his] womb.” There is no space to list all the glaring mistakes of this sort, and I shall mention only two more. In Six:XIX Pushkin has listless Lenski, on the eve of his duel, “sit down at the clavichord and play but chords on it,” a melancholy image which Arndt horribly transforms into: “the clavichord he would be pounding, with random chord set it resounding.” And finally here is the bloomer in Arndt’s version of the end of Three:XL where Pushkin speaks of a hare trembling as it suddenly sees from afar “a shotman in the bushes crouch,” but where Arndt changes the weapon and has the hare listen “as from afar with sudden rush an arrow falls into the brush.” The source of this blunder will be explained in the next section.

  9. Inadequate knowledge of Russian: This is a professional ailment among non-Russian translators from Russian into English. Anything a little too far removed from the kak-vy-pozhivaete-ya-pozhivayu-khorosho group becomes a pitfall, into which, rather than around which, dictionaries guide the groper; and when they are not consulted, then other disasters happen. In the above-mentioned Three:XL passage, Mr. Arndt has evidently confused the word strelká, accusative of strelok (shooter, sportsman), with strélka (diminutive of strela, arrow). Sed’moy chas is not “past seven” (p. 149) but only past six. Podzhavshi ruki does not mean “arms akimbo” (p. 62) but “with snugly folded arms.” Vishen’e is simply “cherries” (with which the girls pelt the eaves-dropper in their song in Chapter Three) and not “cherry twigs” and “branches” with which Arndt makes them beat away the intruder. Pustynnyy sneg is “desolate snow,” not “desert snow” (p. 122). V puhu is “covered with fluff” and not “a little dim” (p. 127). Obnovit‘ is not to “renovate” or “mend” (p. 53) but to “inaugurate.” Vino in Two: XI is “liquor,” not “wine.” Svod in Four: XXI is not “freight,” but “code.” Hory (Seven:LI) means the upper gallery of a public ballroom, and not “the involved rotations of rounds”—whatever that is.

  10. Wobbly English: The phrase “next door” is used to mean “next room” (pp. 122 and 133). A skeleton impossibly “pouts” on p. 122. Lenski in the duel “closing his left eye starts to level,” but Arndt (p. 132) makes him take aim with “his left eye blinking” like the corresponding tail light of a turning truck; soon after which (p. 157) “Dead lies our dim young bard and lover by friendly hand and weapon felled.” And the amazon of Six: XLI whom Pushkin pictures as halting her steed before Lenski’s grave is hilariously made to “rein in her charging horse.”

  11. Padding: Plug words and rhymes are bound to occur in rhymed versions, but I have seldom seen them used with such consistency and in such profusion as here. A typical example of routine padding (for the sake of a bad rhyme) is the puffing up of the literal “she says: farewell pacific dales, and you, familiar hill tops” (Seven: XXVIII) to become in Arndt’s version: “[she] whispers: Calm valleys where I sauntered, farewell; lone summits that I haunted.” When in the same chapter Tatiana is described by Pushkin as avidly reading Onegin’s books whereupon “a different world is revealed to her,” this becomes with Arndt: “an eager passage [!] door on door [!] to worlds she never knew before.” Here simple padding shades into the next category of mistranslation.

  12. Otsebyatino: This convenient cant word consists of the words ot, meaning “from,” and sebya, meaning “oneself,” with a pejorative suffix, yatina, tagged on (its ya takes improper advantage of the genitive ending of the pronoun, coinciding with it and producing a strongly stressed bya sound which to a Russian’s ear connotes juvenile disgust). Lexically translated, it can be rendered as “come-from-oneselfer” or “from-oneselfity.” It is employed to describe the personal contributions of self-sufficient or desperate translators (or actors who have forgotten their speeches). Here are two grotesque examples of otsebyatina in Arndt Pushkin is describing (Eight: XXIV) the guests at Princess N’s soirée: “Here were, in mobcaps and roses, elderly ladies, wicked looking; here were several maidens—unsmiling faces.” This is all there is about those ladies and maidens, but Arndt otsebyatinates thus: “…redecorated ladies with caps from France and scowls from Hades; among them here and there a girl without a smile from curl to curl” (a fiendish ungrin!). My other example refers to One: XXXIII where Pushkin has a famous description of “the waves, running in turbulent succession, with love to lie down at her feet”; this becomes “the waves…with uproar each the other goading, to curl in love about her feet.” One hardly knows what infects one’s fancy more painfully here—those waves prodding each other with tridents or that little drain-hole vortex in which their “uproar” ends.

Mr. Arndt’s notes to his translation are lean and derivative but even so he manages to make several mistakes. The statement (p. XI) that the third edition of Eugene Onegin “appeared on the day of Pushkin’s death” is wrong: it appeared not later than January 19, 1837 Old Style, that is, at least ten days before the poet’s death. He began writing Eugene Onegin not “on May 28, 1822,” as Arndt (led astray by another bungling commentator and adding his own mistake) notes, but on May 9, 1823. The statuette of Napoleon with folded arms in Chapter Seven is not a “bust” (as stated in a note on p. 191): normal busts do not have arms to fold. The remark on p. 223 that “…Prolasov has been proposed” to fill in a gap in the printed text (first line of Eight: XXVI) is nonsense since “Prolasov” never existed, being merely a comedy name (meaning “climber” or “vile sycophant”) preserved in Pushkin’s fair copy and applied by some editors to Andrey Saburov, director of the imperial theaters.

Mr. Arndt’s most bizarre observation, however, comes on page VI, towards the end of his Preface: “The present new translation…is not aimed primarily at the academic and literary expert, but at a public of English-speaking students and others interested in a central work of world literature in a compact and readable form”—which is tantamount to proclaiming: “I know this is an inferior product but it is gaily colored and nicely packaged, and is, anyway, just for students and such people.”

It is only fair to add that this “brilliant” (as said on the upperside of the volume) and “splendid” (as said on its underside) new translation has won one half of the third annual Bollingen prize for the best translation of poetry in English (as the Librarian James T. Babb of the Yale University Library announced on November 19, 1963, in New Haven Conn.). The committee making the awards included Professors Peyre, René Wellek, and John Hollander, of Yale; and Professor Reuben A. Brouwer of Harvard University (I rely on Steve Kezerian, Director of the Yale University News Bureau, for the spelling of these names). Representing the permanent committee of administration at Yale was Donald G. Wing, Associate Yale Librarian. One cannot help wondering if any of the professors really read this readable work—or the infinitely remote great poem of their laureate’s victim.

  1. *

    Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin. A new translation in the Onegin stanza with an introduction and notes by Walter Arndt A Dutton paperback.

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