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The Poet’s Head on a Platter

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Carl Mydans/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Vera and Vladimir Nabokov, Ithaca, New York, September 1958

1.

On May 28, 1940, Vladimir Nabokov arrived in New York—the third major stage of his exile from Russia, after Berlin and Paris. Nathalie Nabokov—his cousin Nicolas’s ex-wife—was meant to be meeting him, his wife Vera, and their son Dmitri. She had, however, been confused about their precise time of arrival. No one, therefore, was waiting for them at the dock. They took a taxi to the address they had been given on 61st Street. When they arrived, the meter appeared to be demanding $90. Sadly, Vera handed over all the money they had brought with them from Europe: a $100 bill. And the cab driver ruefully put her right. The fare was 90 cents.

If there is anything good about exile,” wrote Joseph Brodsky in 1987, fifteen years after leaving Soviet Russia, “it is that it teaches one humility.” And one way exile teaches this lesson is through the everyday slapstick of linguistic mistakes: the misunderstood taxi meter, the mispronunciation.

Perhaps humility, however, isn’t the usual quality associated with Nabokov. Especially not by Nabokov. “Nowadays,” he wrote in 1973, four years before his death, “I take every precaution to ensure a dignified beat of the mandarin’s fan.” In his American exile, Nabokov fashioned an image of himself as oblivious to exile’s problems: “I’m the shuttlecock above the Atlantic, and how bright and blue it is there, in my private sky, far from the pigeonholes and the clay pigeons.”

Privately, Nabokov was less buoyant. In an unpublished note, he recorded that “the déménagement from my palatial Russian to the narrow quarters of my English was like moving from one darkened house to another on a starless night during a strike of candlemakers and torchbearers.” And this figure of the exile—painfully negotiating his dignity—is the key to understanding the history of Nabokov’s translations of Russian poetry into English, now collected as Verses and Versions.

In the 1960s, after Lolita had made him famous, Nabokov was at the center of two controversies involving the translation of Russian poetry. The first was Edmund Wilson’s attack on what he took to be Nabokov’s militant literalism when translating Pushkin’s verse novel, Eugene Onegin; the second was Nabokov’s reverse attack on the liberties Robert Lowell took in producing his imitations of Mandelstam. At the time, Nabokov appeared to be the mandarin, haughtily punitive and remote. Now, perhaps, it is easier to consider his theory of literal translation with more sympathy and precision.

Both controversies stemmed from a radical shift in attitude on Nabokov’s part. In Berlin, early in his career, he had freely and brilliantly translated Alice in Wonderland into Russian—preserving the forms of Carroll’s puns and parodies, rather than their literal content. (So that, for example, Carroll’s portmanteau inventions “reeling and writhing” were rendered into Russian by switching the initial syllables for reading and writing—chitat’ and pisat’—to create chesat’ and pitat’: scratching and feeding.) Having just arrived in America, he made rhyming translations of Russian nineteenth-century poetry—including an excerpt from Onegin. By 1964, however, when his full translation of Eugene Onegin was published, he had become a severe literalist. This shift cannot be understood without remembering the painful reinventions of Nabokov’s life in exile—and, especially, his decision to stop writing in Russian, for a limited émigré audience, and to write in English.

Nabokov despised biography, and history, as an explanation of a style. But the history of his exile is inescapable. For Nabokov, translation was an aesthetic issue that constantly morphed into an ethical one: a constant effort of what he called “fierce fidelity” to the silenced, the lost, and the dead.

In America, Nabokov undertook two major translation projects involving the canon of Russian poetry. (The canon of modern Russian poetry, that is: he also made a translation of the medieval Russian epic The Song of Igor’s Campaign.) The first, Three Russian Poets, made for James Laughlin at New Directions and published in 1944, contained translations from Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tyutchev. The second was his four-volume edition of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (including two volumes of commentary), eventually published by Bollingen in 1964.

The present book, Verses and Versions, seems to radically enlarge this corpus of translations—offering selections from eighteen poets, from Mihail Lomonosov, born in 1711, to Bulat Okudzhava, born in 1924. In fact, although the book does print crucial unpublished archive material, it is still based heavily on Nabokov’s two published books. Most significantly, poems by various classic poets first translated in the notes to Eugene Onegin are here reprinted in isolation. It’s therefore not certain—especially of poets who lived prior to Pushkin—whether the poems represent the selections Nabokov would have made had he been creating an anthology of Russian poetry. In the commentary to Onegin, for instance, he stated that the “greatest Russian poems of the eighteenth century are Derzhavin’s majestic odes to his queen and his God.” Neither of these poems was translated by Nabokov. Instead, the book offers one poem by Derzhavin, “Monument,” a conventional version of Horace’s “Exegi monumentum,” which Nabokov translated in the notes to Onegin when explaining the minute and brilliant parody to which it was subjected by Pushkin.

The central editorial decision of Verses and Versions has therefore been to arrange the poems, for clarity, not according to the chronological order in which they were translated by Nabokov, but according to the date of the originals’ composition. This allows Nabokov’s personal history of Russian poetry to emerge in silhouette—to see the weight he placed on Pushkin; on Pushkin’s lyrical, mystical successors Tyutchev, Lermontov, and Fet; and on the visionary, formally meticulous poetry of Hodasevich. But at the same time it partially obscures Nabokov’s shift in translation practice—which itself explains the difference between the two main sources themselves. The poems from Three Russian Poets were intended as stand-alone translations. The poems from the commentary to Eugene Onegin were offered more dryly as source material, as raw factual history.

And yet reading Verses and Versions, especially its collection of previously disparate material—including an early free translation from Onegin, Nabokov’s later literal version of a poem by Mandelstam, some early free translations of Hodasevich, along with his more extensive selections from Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tyutchev—it is possible to reconstruct this adjustment in his ferocious care for accuracy. Through these translations, and their attendant arguments, what becomes visible is the shared root both of Nabokov’s wrestling with the implications of fidelity and of his personal, pragmatic, haphazard project to redefine and preserve the canon of Russian poetry from the potential catastrophe of Soviet censorship and the émigré diaspora. The ethical demand of an aesthetic of elegy: that is what underlies the biography of Nabokov’s style.

2.

In 1945, in The Russian Review, Nabokov published a translation of three stanzas from the first canto of Pushkin’s chef d’oeuvre, Eugene Onegin. Ostensibly, Pushkin’s novel is a melancholy romantic comedy: Tatiana loves Eugene, who does not love Tatiana. When Eugene finally loves Tatiana, Tatiana is married to someone else. But the novel’s interest is not so much its plot as its dazzling form, in which relaxed improvisation is performed through a system of intense constraint. The novel is written in stanzas of fourteen four-stress lines, whose first twelve lines, as Nabokov notes, “include the greatest variation in rhyme sequence possible within a three-quatrain frame: alternate, paired, and closed.” Using this intricate stanzaic form, Pushkin skips around his romantic storyline, creating a montage of zigzagging digressions.

The stanzas translated by Nabokov represent part of what he later called “the most conspicuous digression in the canto. It shall be known as the Pedal Digression”—a riff on remembrance and lost love, in the form of a miniature essay on his beloved’s feet. Nabokov’s extraction of these stanzas therefore created a new object with multiple refractions. Originally a digression within a digression, the extracted stanzas are transformed into a poem. And the poem that emerges, about desire conditioned by memory and existing through it, stands as an emblematic key to Nabokov’s own style, which he would hone and refine throughout his subsequent career as an American writer: a fizzy marvel of sprezzatura.

XXXIII

I see the surf, the storm-rack flying…
Oh, how I wanted to compete
with the tumultuous breakers dying
in adoration at her feet!
Together with those waves—how much
I wished to kiss what they could touch!
No—even when my youth would burn
its fiercest—never did I yearn
with such a torturing sensation
to kiss the lips of nymphs, the rose
that on the cheek of beauty glows
or breasts in mellow palpitation—
no, never did a passion roll
such billows in my bursting soul.

In Nabokov’s second version of these stanzas, however, published in the first edition (later revised) of his complete translation of the novel, the rhymes and the rhythms disappeared. “In translating its 5500 lines into English I had to decide between rhyme and reason—and I chose reason. My only ambition has been to provide a crib, a pony, an absolutely literal translation of the thing….”

XXXIII

I recollect the sea before a tempest:
how I envied the waves
running in turbulent succession
with love to lie down at her feet!
How much I wished then with the waves
to touch the dear feet with my lips!
No, never midst the fiery days
of my ebullient youth
did I long with such anguish
to kiss the lips of young Armidas,
or the roses of flaming cheeks,
or bosoms full of languor—
no, never did the surge of passions
thus rive my soul!

This was the translation that Edmund Wilson famously deplored in these pages: “a bald and awkward language which has nothing in common with Pushkin or with the usual writing of Nabokov.” Wilson went on to catalog what he saw as Nabokov’s errors: attacking Nabokov’s “Farewell, pacific sites!/Farewell, secluded refuge!/Shall I see you?” “Nabokov translates literally ‘Увижу ль вас,’” wrote Wilson, tetchily, “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.”

But no computer could preserve, as Nabokov preserved more cleanly in his literal version of the Pedal Digression, Pushkin’s prestissimo shifts in tone: from the prosaic to the romantic to the frankly parodic. And the economy of these shifts is the essence of Pushkin’s style. In focusing on the moments where Nabokov’s more literal version turned gawky, Wilson ignored the crucial way in which Nabokov was faithful to Pushkin’s form. Freed from rhyme, Nabokov could transparently show how carefully Pushkin thought through his stanza’s construction—just as, more widely, he thought through his arrangement of the stanzas into cantos, with their own fake gaps and ellipses. Nabokov’s earlier rhyming translation, forced into padding and trimming, was therefore not just inaccurate at individual moments to a particular line’s meaning. More importantly, it also blurred the underlying armature of Pushkin’s style. To that armature, Nabokov was later absolutely faithful.

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