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Looking in on Pushkin

Robert Frost said: “Poetry is what gets left out in translation.” That will do quite nicely, but it is like saying that the smell is what defines the cheese. Poetry, like prose, is a bulky, discrete, variable substance. It can be all of a piece or carry a great deal inside it. It can undergo successful transformations. Pope’s Iliad is not the same poem as Homer’s but it has the same story, the same characters, the same moving moments, and its own particular smell which is of course not the same as Homer’s. Frost was making the same fastidious point as A.E. Housman, who thought that poetry was often made to carry a lot of sense, meaning, or morality, and yet remained separate from them, aloof, pure, unmeaningful, to be recognized only by the tears it brought to the eyes or the prickles it raised on the skin.

Housman in the Nineties was in his own way akin to the more intellectual poetic ideals of his contemporary Mallarmé. French and American technicians of poetic meanings nowadays devise much more complex structures to analyze how a poem works; and though they may not be “poets” themselves as Mallarmé and Housman were, they see themselves as a part of the process as much as mechanics tinkering with an engine blueprinted by some designer perhaps dead. Their commentary on a poem is, they say, itself another poem; the words of the dead are modified in the guts and minds of the living, who now possess them and make of the poem a continuously ongoing process. A poem is dead if it is not continuously transformed in the lives of those who read it.

This is an obvious truth which has nonetheless to be set against an opposite one: that the words of the dead are tongued with fire beyond the language of the living. The two poets, Eliot and Auden, who express these different truths are united in their paradox: that a poem is at once unique and modifiable, both finished and forever incomplete. Our reaction to poetry should recognize the paradox; recognize, too, that it applies to different sorts of poetry in different ways. It is the function of a lyric by Heine or Pushkin to announce, as an element of its unique success, its total stability. Being unmodifiable it is also untranslatable. The stanzas of Byron’s Don Juan, on the other hand, insist on their precariousness and instability as part of their specification. Their rhymes totter along, brilliantly pretending they are not going to make it, shrugging their shoulders at the difficulty of performing this feat in the English language. Reckless and drunk with living they can reel with comparative facility into other languages and perform their act there. It will not be the same, but it will have much of the life of the original. Thus Byron’s Don Juan seduced Europe and its tongues, as Tasso and Ariosto had done before. Another different case would be Wordsworth, whose long poems, like rivers or cloud formations, endlessly coil and re-form in their own egotistical sublime, and hence can accommodate themselves in toto to the flow and idiom of a foreign language.

The considerations about whether and to what degree poetry can be translated are therefore endless, the problem different in each case, the simple question a nonquestion. It gets asked a lot today because the climate of our poetry is becoming steadily more internationalized, and also because critics and translators are increasingly predators who either are or want to be poets, roaming at will through centuries and tongues and adding their simulacra to the bag. As John Hollander and others have recently pointed out, the takeover poem has been a fashionable art form since Virgil and Horace were first imitated, but such poets as Robert Lowell in his Imitations and his translation of Phèdre added a new tycoon element to the genre. The old poem existed to serve the new, not vice versa. Though he rightly considered Pushkin a case apart, this may have been the chief reason for the extraordinary animus shown against translators of poetry by Vladimir Nabokov.

What is translation? On a platter
A poet’s pale and glaring head,
A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter,
And profanation of the dead.

Attempts at a metrical translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin resemble not so much a monkey’s chatter as a dog dancing on its hind legs. Fitting the complex and delicate verse pattern into English rhyming vowels and consonants calls for a prodigy of visible effort that is bound to seem embarrassing. For Pushkin is here the opposite of Byron. His rhyme scheme works like an infinitely variable minuet, in which the reader like a dancer treads the measure without feeling the complexity of what he delightedly does. The unfortunate translator has to pretend to do the same, while inadvertently drawing attention to every step he takes. It cannot be done well, but the good-natured spectator has to clap because it is being done at all.

It is all a translator can do to keep up: he cannot begin to take over Pushkin’s poem or add a further dimension of his own. Nabokov himself, on the other hand, succeeded in doing just that, in his own version of the verse novel, by combining a scrupulous accuracy with his own loose stanzaic arrangement and inimitable vocabulary. The result is Pushkin fantasized, in a sort of airy baroque not at all unsuited to his own spontaneity and fun and elegance. In his own style and on his own scale Nabokov has done what Pope did, and what was done by numerous poets’ versions of Horace and the classics: to achieve a rapport between the original and the model. The two contrast, but in a harmonious and not a painful way; and the new version successfully hints at the power of the original. Above all Nabokov’s Eugene Onegin has an authentic air of negligence and charming ease; its effects are genuinely subtle; it does not bury Pushkin, as the rhymed translations do, beneath the laborious liveliness of would-be poetic English.

Why should the translation of poetry, and of Pushkin’s in particular, be so controversial a subject? It is something of a mystery, but it seems a matter of taste over which academics and intellectuals exhibit a peculiar sensitiveness, and defend with passion their own prejudices. No other question of literary theory arouses quite the same degree of animus. The homeric struggle between Nabokov and Edmund Wilson still reverberates, and a correspondence has even now been raging in the Times Literary Supplement on the niceties of the twenty-year-old translation, and on whether Nabokov should have used the odd word “shotman” for Pushkin’s strelok. (The answer from me is yes: Nabokov’s term is mysteriously perfect. Though strelok is quite an ordinary Russian word for one who shoots, no English equivalent—sportsman, marksman, “gun,” or gunner—quite naturally covers it as does Nabokov’s neat coinage-cum-revival with the same sort of sound impact in it as the Russian.) Nabokov’s son Dmitri has been defending this and other verbal eccentricities favored by his father against the more orthodox view of Sir Charles Johnston, the poet and ex-diplomat, whose lively and elegant version of Eugene Onegin has lately received high praise. He has just completed his own translation of The Bronze Horseman and other of Pushkin’s narrative poems, which I hope to review later.

But taste in this context lends itself to every vagary. The real trouble with Pushkin is that he is the only poet in Europe whose greatness translation not only fails to reveal but actually depreciates. It is not that he is “untranslatable,” as Nabokov claimed, for his plain words have their literal equivalents in other languages, but that when he is translated literally he does not seem much good. “But he’s flat, your poet,” exclaimed Flaubert in genuine astonishment when his friend Mérimée tried to give him some idea of Pushkin in plain French.

And flat in a sense he is—it’s an uncomfortable fact. He seldom says anything at all striking, or anything that extends a link of real poetic sympathy from one language to another, of the kind that comes across from Homer into the line “And so they held the funeral of Hector, tamer of horses,” or from Horace claiming that he will be read “so long as priest and silent virgin shall climb the Capitol” (an enormous understatement, as Frankel observed). When Dante says goodbye in hell to his old schoolmaster it is in words that send an authentic shiver of poetic meaning down the spine no matter how or in what language they are rendered. Pushkin is not like this. His true poetic electricity never jumps between languages. Maurice Baring said that one of his greatest lines was: “And the sea, where ships were running.” My own favorite, from Rusalka, is: “He has stayed / Alone in the forest on the Dnieper’s bank.” How can these be so good? They are not “pure” poetry, or deliberate simplicity with all its necessary self-consciousness: they are just bald statements in verse.

Reviewing my book on Pushkin some years ago Christopher Ricks remarked quite justifiably that it was no good telling us that the line about the forest on the Dnieper’s bank is so wonderful when in English it seems merely prosaic, or—even more depressing—feebly poetical. He was right. Dostoevsky used to talk a lot about Pushkin’s “secret,” which is irritating but not more irritating than the claims made by those who can read Pushkin (and he is easy to read, even with the most elementary knowledge of Russian—all his meters are immediately familiar) to those who can’t. Of course the effect of his two lines, as of those from Homer, Horace, or Dante, is partly a matter of context, but it is chiefly that of a language discovering its identity, opening its eyes to what is around it. For a Russian Pushkin is poetry. The only answer to Ricks is not to read either a literal or a poetical translation but to study the alphabet and grammar a few days, until one can see the shape of the words and tell nouns from verbs, then put their English meanings to the Russian words on the page; then one will see why.

But, given the great claims made for Pushkin, even that is not very satisfactory. What becomes of the universality of great art? To explain the nature of Pushkin’s greatness in this way may seem uncomfortably close to saying that X will always have a special place in the heart of his fellow Estonians because he is the Estonian poet par excellence. Is Pushkin the big fish in the small pool, even though that pool is as wide as Russia, a poet tied to nationhood and cultural identity? I feel this to be in some degree the case, even though he is a very special case.

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