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

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 In an unpublished note, he recorded that “the déménagement from my palatial Russian to the narrow quarters of my English was like moving from one darkened house to another on a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 …

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