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The Strange Case of Pushkin and Nabokov

Winter! the peasant celebrating
in a flat sledge inaugurates the track;
his naggy, having sensed the snow,
shambles at something like a trot.

Why “having sensed”? That would be почуяв not почуя. Where is our scrupulous literalness? The trouble is that since the horse, once outside the stables, would not merely have sensed the snow, but have become directly aware of it, the translator is forced to violate his principles by putting the gerund in the past. For the rest, “inaugurates” is improperly used, and “naggy” (лошадка) is another of those dictionary words which can only appear grotesque. Borrowing from the versions that Nabokov scorns, I should prefer to translate the passage as follows:

Winter! the peasant, rejoicing,
Breaks a new track with his sledge;
His poor horse, sniffing the snow,
Attempting a trot, plods through it.

I am sorry to say that, though Arndt is no great poet and that his effort to stick to the rhyme scheme sometimes leads him to a certain farfetchedness, his version is, in general, much closer to Onegin than any of the others I have sampled and is likely to give the reader a better idea of what the poem sounds like in Russian than Nabokov’s so tortured version. Here is Arndt’s translation of the quatrain above:

Winter…the peasant, feeling festive,
Breaks a fresh fairway with his sleigh,
Snow underfoot, his nag is restive
And, barely trotting, plods his way.

There is nothing in the Russian about the nag being restive, but I believe that “feeling festive” is the best thing that anyone has hit upon to render “торжествуя.” (Another new translation by Eugene M. Kayden, published by the Antioch Press, is by no means so good as Arndt’s. He has only a sprinkling of rhymes, and he perpetrates one terrible one: feet-weep. Here is his version of the peasant and his horse:

Winter!…the peasant-man, re- joicing.
Breaks fresh the highway with his sleigh;
His pony, sniffing the new snow,
Trots easily along the way.

The peasant-man” is awful, and “trots easily” is definitely wrong: the horse is having trouble.) It must be said that Nabokov’s style and rhythm somewhat improve beginning with Tatyana’s dream. The translator gets into a kind of stride and does not so often stumble over his self-implanted impediments.

The most curious feature of Nabokov’s Onegin is the tricks which the commentator plays in dealing with his own native language. Why should he call the word нету “an old-fashioned and dialect form” of нет? It is in constant colloquial use, and what I find one usually gets for an answer when one asks for some book in the Soviet bookstore in New York. He twice asserts that the adjective злой is the only one-syllable adjective in Russian (in the feminine and neuter, it may be noted that it has two syllables). But how about the one-syllable predicative adjectives: рад, горд, пьян, добр, мëртв, etc? In his guide to the Russian alphabet, he tries to explain the character ë, called and pronounced yo—but more like yaw than, as he says, like the yo in yonder—which has caused so much trouble in transliteration. Except in dictionaries, grammars, and schoolbooks, the ë is rarely given its dots but is simply written like e, because the Russians know where it occurs and do not feel they need go to the trouble of making their language easier for foreigners. Ordinarily, it is never written except when there is a chance of misunderstanding, as when it is necessary to distinguish between все and всë, the former of which is all applied to people and the latter all applied to things. The name Khrushchyov has, so far as I know, never been properly transliterated except in the Moscow Daily News, the Soviet paper in English, and, consistently, in the Canadian press, because, in the latter case, the Soviet Embassy, I have been told, complained and set the journalists right. We, however, are stuck with Khrushchev, as we already were with Potemkin and Budenny, which ought to be Potyomkin and Budyonny. Now, Mr. Nabokov arouses one’s hopes when we find such correct transliterations as Lyov, Pyotr, Pletnyov, and Oryol; but then he discourages these hopes by writing—except in the index, where, for some reason, both spellings are given—what ought to be Kishinyov and Mogilyov as Kishinev and Mogilev.

On certain points, I volunteer suggestions. May not some light be thrown on the fact—which Mr. Nabokov discusses—that the adjective красный mears both red and beautiful by the custom in old Russia, described in Hakluyt’s Voyages, of the peasant women’s painting large red spots on their cheeks in order to beautify themselves? In connection with the “pensive vampire” of Onegin, III, 12, Nabokov takes account of certain vampires which figure in romantic literature and with which Pushkin may have been familiar, but he fails to mention the legends of vampires translated by Pushkin in his Songs of the Western Slavs from the forged folk ballads of Merimée, which Pushkin took to be genuine. I would call his attention, also, to the fact that the application by the French of the word goddams to the English did not, as he seems to think, begin in the eighteenth century. The French were referring to the English as “goddams” in their wars with them in the fifteenth century.

The commentary, the appendices, and the scholarly presentation suffer in general from the same faults as Nabokov’s translation—that is, mainly from a lack of common sense—something that is not detrimental to the fantastic fiction he writes, of which it is, in fact, an essential element, but which in an erudite work of this kind is a serious disadvantage. The first requisite for such an enterprise as Nabokov has here undertaken would have been to print the Russian text on the opposite page from the translation; but, instead of this, he gives us a facsimile of the edition of 1837, which, with the index, takes up the whole of Volume Four but of which the print is too small to be read without a magnifying glass. He has elsewhere invariably transliterated the Russian—a procedure which is confusing and useless. Transliterated Russian means as little to anyone who does not read Russian as if it were printed in Russian characters, and for anyone who does read Russian it is an unnecessary nuisance to have to transpose it back into the Cyrillic alphabet before one can recognize it. This alphabet, since five useless characters were got rid of at the time of the Revolution, is one of the only features of Russian that are really convenient and logical—far more practical than the English alphabet. And there can be no really simple and satisfactory way of transposing it into English. The one system by which it has been possible to provide a full set of Roman equivalents for the characters of the Russian alphabet, with its varied combinations of vowels, is the laborious scholarly one which, since it produces such outlandish effects as a Dostoevsky that ends in ij, is impractical for ordinary use. There is a workable standard system established by the Oxford publications, and we might as well stick to this—though the system employed by Nabokov does have the distinct advantage that it transliterates xa, the Greek chi, as h instead of kh, except when there is something like a k sound, and is thus closer to the real pronunciation. Hemingway and Khrushchyov in Russian begin with the same letter. Mr. Nabokov, in explaining his system, has provided a guide to pronunciation which he evidently imagines to be useful to the reader with no Russian since he prefixes it to each volume except the last. But this guide is strangely unreliable. An accented o is not pronounced like the first o in cosmos; the variable Russian e, which is one of the principle problems for a foreigner, is not invariably, if ever, pronounced like the first two letters of yellow; there is nothing about the difference between the hard and the soft l, the instructions for managing the soft sign would be certain to mislead the student.

In a tedious and interminable appendix—or rather, one that terminates only at the end of ninety-two pages—Nabokov expounds a system of prosody, also invented by himself, which he claims may be accommodated to both English and Russian verse. In the vocabulary of this system, a syllable becomes a “semeion.” This is a Greek word that is not to be found in the English dictionary. It usually means sign or signal but one finds in the last definition in the complete Liddell and Scott that it has also been used by one Aristoxenus, a fourth-century B. C. writer on music, to mean a “unit of time, a note.” A “scud” is made by Nabokov to refer to “an unaccented stress”—that is, what we call a secondary accent. But this system is ridiculous and will not work. The point is that when Russian versification took over from German versification the technique of accentual stress, this system did not really fit the rhythms of the language, which, in turn, produced in Russian poetry something quite distinct from German or English verse. The English-speaking foreigner is at first surprised, if he takes to scanning Pushkin’s blank verse, to find that there are few substitutions of feet—hardly even a trochee for an iamb. Such blank verse is unthinkable in English. We remember the virtuosity of Shakespeare and Milton, who can maintain the basic iambic rhythm while constantly, with the utmost flexibility, manipulating other kinds of feet. Yet the effect of Pushkin’s poetry is never monotonous, and this is because the main stresses in the so often long Russian words are more emphasized than they are in English—the other syllables seem likely to go more or less slithering—and Pushkin is always shifting these stresses. This Nabokov understands very well, but a prosody designed to deal with it cannot be used for English poetry, which Nabokov does not quite understand, as he occasionally betrays, in his otherwise delightful English verse, when he momentarily runs off the rails, and as he makes very plain in this essay. In order to deal with English verse, you need to talk about only five feet: the iambus, the trochee, the anapaest, the dactyl, and the spondee. The very conception of the spondee seems for some reason to irritate Nabokov. He denies that real spondees exist, for the strange reason that “no poem, not even a couplet, can be wholly made up of them.” He cannot see that two lines which he quotes—Tennyson’s “On the bald street breaks the blank day” and Marvell’s “To a green thought in a green shade”—both contain pairs of spondees. The way that Nabokov has accented these lines shows that he has not heard them correctly. This appendix, however, contains admirable pages on the differences between Russian and English. For example:

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