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The Strange Case of Pushkin and Nabokov

Eugene Onegin Volume IV, v + 316

A Novel in Verse by Alexandr Pushkin, Translated from the Russian, with a commentary, by Vladimir Nabokov
Bollingen Foundation, Volume I, xxvi + 345, Volume II, xvi + 547, Volume III, xvi + 540, pp., $18.50

This production, though in certain ways valuable, is something of a disappointment; and the reviewer, though a personal friend of Mr. Nabokov—for whom he feels a warm affection sometimes chilled by exasperation—and an admirer of much of his work, does not propose to mask his disappointment. Since Mr. Nabokov is in the habit of introducing any job of this kind which he undertakes by an announcement that he is unique and incomparable and that everybody else who has attempted it is an oaf and an ignoramus, incompetent as a linguist and scholar, usually with the implication that he is also a low-class person and a ridiculous personality, Nabokov ought not to complain if the reviewer, though trying not to imitate his bad literary manners, does not hesitate to underline his weaknesses.

Mr. Nabokov, before the publication of his own translation of Evgeni Onegin, took up a good deal of space in these pages to denounce a previous translation by Professor Walter Arndt.* This article—which sounded like nothing so much as one of Marx’s niggling and nagging attacks on someone who had had the temerity to write about economics and to hold different views from Marx’s—dwelt especially on what he regarded as Professor Arndt’s Germanisms and other infelicities of phrasing, without, apparently, being aware of how vulnerable he himself was. Professor Arndt had attempted the tour de force of translating the whole of Onegin into the original iambic tetrameter and rather intricate stanza form. Mr. Nabokov decided that this could not be done with any real fidelity to the meaning and undertook to make a “literal” translation which maintains an iambic base but quite often simply jolts into prose. The results of this have been more disastrous than those of Arndt’s heroic effort. It has produced a bald and awkward language which has nothing in common with Pushkin or with the usual writing of Nabokov. One knows Mr. Nabokov’s virtuosity in juggling with the English language, the prettiness and wit of his verbal inventions. One knows also the perversity of his tricks to startle or stick pins in the reader; and one suspects that his perversity here has been exercised in curbing his brilliance; that—with his sado-masochistic Dostoevskian tendencies so acutely noted by Sartre—he seeks to torture both the reader and himself by flattening Pushkin out and denying to his own powers the scope for their full play.

Aside from this desire both to suffer and make suffer—so important an element in his fiction—the only characteristic Nabokov trait that one recognizes in this uneven and sometimes banal translation is the addiction to rare and unfamiliar words, which, in view of his declared intention to stick so close to the text that his version may be used as a trot, are entirely inappropriate here. It would be more to the point for the student to look up the Russian word than to have to have recourse to the OED for an English word he has never seen and which he will never have occasion to use. To inflict on the reader such words is not really to translate at all, for it is not to write idiomatic and recognizable English. Nabokov’s aberrations in this line are a good deal more objectionable than anything I have found in Arndt. He gives us, for example, rememorating, producement, curvate, habitude, rummers, familistic, gloam, dit, shippon and scrab. All these can be found in the OED, but they are all entirely dictionary words, usually labeled “dialect,” “archaic,” or “obsolete.” Why is “Достойна старых обезьян” rendered as “worthy of old sapajous”? Обезьяна is the ordinary word for monkey. In the case of the common word нега, Nabokov has surpassed himself in oddity. It is true that нега has two distinct nuances: voluptuous languor and simple enjoyment; but, instead of using any of the obvious equivalents, Mr. Nabokov has dug up from the dictionary the rare and obsolete mollitude, a word which his readers can never have encountered but which he uses for the first of these meanings; and for the second he has discovered dulcitude. One wonders how Nabokov would translate the last line of Pushkin’s famous lyric, published after his death, “Пора, мой, друг, пора”…”В обйтель дальную трудов и чистых нег.” “To a faraway haven of work and pure mollitudes”? “dulcitudes”? And what does he mean in the commentary when he speaks of Pushkin’s “addiction to stuss”? This is not an English word, and if he means the Hebrew word for nonsense which has been absorbed into German, it ought to be italicized and capitalized. But even on this assumption, it hardly makes sense. In what way is Pushkin addicted to Stuss? And what can one gather from his statement that someone “had resolved in his lunes to exterminate all the Bourbons”? I find that lunes is an archaic word which may mean “fits of frenzy or lunacy”; but this statement will convey nothing to anyone who has not consulted a fairly comprehensive dictionary.

There are also actual errors of English. I had never seen the word loaden before, and I have found, on looking it up, that it is “Obs. exc. dial,” and that it is not a past participle, as Nabokov makes it: the past participle, it seems, is loadened. The past of dwell is dwelt, not dwelled; dwelled has long been obsolete. “Remind one about me” is hardly English.

If it is a question of picking on Germanisms in Arndt, it is not difficult to find Russianisms in Nabokov. You cannot “listen the sound of the sea” in English; this is a Russianism: in English you have to listen to something.

Buyanov, my mettlesome cousin,
toward our hero leads Tatiana
with Olga…

The natural English here would be and not with. If Tatyana had been telling about doing something with Olga, she would have said “Мы с Ольгой,” meaning “Olga and I,” and I suppose that we have here the same idiom, which Nabokov has translated literally. In the commentary, you find “a not-too-trust-worthy account that a later friend of Pushkin’s…left us,” where the English requires “has left”; but there is only one past tense in Russian where we have three, and Russians often make these mistakes. The handling of French is peculiar. The heroine of La Nouvelle Héloïse is given on one page as Julie and on the next as Julia; and he always speaks of “the monde,” instead of either “the world” or “le monde.” And why “his sauvage nature” when no French word exists in the Russian? As for the classics: his Eol and Zoilus ought to be Aeolus and Zoïlus; and his “automatons and homunculi” ought to be “automata,” etc. And although he quotes Virgil in Latin, his speaking of the eclogues of “the overrated Virgil” as “stale imitations of the idyls of Theocritus” would seem to demonstrate that he cannot have had any very close acquaintance with this poet in the original, since Virgil, unlike Theocritus, is particularly accomplished in those qualities—tight verbal pattern and subtle effects of sound—which Nabokov particularly admires.

And then, there is the unnecessarily clumsy style, which seems deliberately to avoid point and elegance. “The ache of loss chases Tatiana” (as he chooses to spell her)—why not “pursues,” which would at least give a metrical line? “Well, this now makes sense. Do not be cross with me, my soul”—“makes sense” and “my soul” do not go together.

You will agree, my reader,
That very nicely did our pal
act toward melancholy Tatiana…

This is vulgarly phrased: “very nicely,” “our pal,” “act”—and so is “two-three pages.” And surely, from the point of view of style, it was unnecessary for anyone with so fine an ear for words to write:

Although we know that Eugene
had long ceased to like reading,
still, several works
he had exempted from disgrace…

Farewell, pacific sites!
Farewell, secluded refuge!
Shall I see you?

Nabokov translates literally “Увижу ль вас” where the English would be, “Shall I ever see you again?” Such passages sound like the products of those computers which are supposed to translate Russian into English.

Since Mr. Nabokov is the least modest of men, I do not hesitate to urge my own rival claims against him. I once, for the purpose of an essay on Pushkin, made a version of three stanzas of Evgeni Onegin, which Mr. Nabokov is kind enough to include in his notes and to compliment as “well translated.” He italicized, however, words and phrases of which he does not approve. Now, these versions of mine were done, as is sometimes Nabokov’s version, in rhythmic prose with a strong iambic base. I thus aimed to avoid padding, which is the almost inevitable penalty of trying to put Pushkin into English verse and which inevitably adulterates his quality, and which I believe I avoided completely when I later translated the whole of The Bronze Horseman. But in these stanzas from Evgeni Onegin, I have put in a few unimportant words in order to sustain the rhythm—such as “farm girl” for “girl,” “little boys” for “boys”—and Nabokov has pounced upon these. But, aside from them, my departures from the “literal” which have been obelized by Mr. Nabokov (I hope he has to look up that word) were dictated by the desire to do justice to Pushkin in preserving some poetic tone. When I say, for example, that “the caravan of loud-tongued (крикливых) geese stretched (тянулся) 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.” Again, with the description of the horse becoming aware of the wolf—“Его почуя, конь дорожный / Храпит”—I translated it “Sniffing him, the roadhorse snorts.” Now, the primary meaning of почуять is given by the small Müller-Boyanus dictionary and two others that I have consulted as to scent, to smell. Segal’s larger dictionary gives to scent, smell, hear; to get, have in the wind; Daum and Schenk’s Die Russischen Verben gives simply wittern. The great Russian dictionary of V. I. Dahl gives one of its meanings as нюхать, with an example, which is precisely to the point, “Почуя серого (волк), псы эалились!” “Smelling the gray one, the dogs began to bark.” The Soviet Pushkin Dictionary defines the word as “to feel, to perceive by the senses, principally by the sense of smell.” This word is used three times in Onegin in connection with the behavior of horses. Besides its occurrence in the passage above, we have it when the horses shy at Lensky’s corpse and in the passage describing winter. Nabokov always translates it “sensing.” Now, it is true that почуять, may mean to become aware of something by other ways than by smelling, but it is quite obvious in these passages that smelling is meant, and the three translators quoted by Nabokov for the passage describing winter who deal directly with the word at all make it either sniff or scent. Sniff goes a little further than scent, but it does not violate the sense. What we get here, however, from Nabokov is an egregious example of his style at its most perversepedantic impossible:

  1. *

    A Dutton paperback published in 1963.

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