Goading the Pony

Notice and text of Mr. Nabokov’s article reached me only recently. The resulting stringencies, academic, editorial, and postal, allow me little more than a few verbal reflexes in answer to his more privileged assault. While taken by surprise, I am not surprised that Mr. Nabokov was able to “master his embarrassment.” All prior invaders of the precinct of Onegin translation have found him coiled at the exit (see his article in Partisan Review, Fall, 1955) and have been dosed, jointly and severally, alive or posthumously, with much the same mixture of arrogance, cuteness, and occasional distortion. The living among them may again relish with a certain fascination the fine sparkle of pure venom behind the sacerdotal (albeit genuine and admirable) solicitude for textual integrity.

I obviously differ from Mr. Nabokov on the manner, even the possibility, of conveying a poetic message across cultural and linguistic boundaries, and on where and how to make the inevitable sacrifices. It would require a separate essay to clarify these differences. But my statement of the translation’s purpose, which he finds so bizarre and which he paraphrases with the brand of fairness peculiar to him, makes it clear that I do not believe in seating the would-be reader of Pushkin on the kind of prose pony he provides (after all, there simply are no interlingually equivalent semantic units, regardless of the form of discourse), and then goading him, with “ardent stir” and “in the blossom of glad hopes,” up a pyramid of footnotes every bumpy line or two, throughout a multi-volume trek. The scholarly yield and value of his undertaking, I have no doubt, will be outstanding, and many besides myself have been eagerly looking forward to it for a decade. But what it will supply is copious and accurate information, and not an inkling of the poetic impact which a verse translation, diluted and flawed as it must often be, can at least intermittently convey.

I also differ from Mr. Nabokov—who I gather finds no merit in my Onegin stanzas or does not quote them where he does—in that I have found merit in some of his own: the trio I, 32-34 published in Russian Review IV, 2 (1945). Yet I wonder how they would fare if forced to meet their maker and undergo his own critical technique. All three achieve a great measure of success, but all three obviously contain just such enforced liberties and padding as those which their writer so abominates in others, as well as some obscurities and infelicities that to me seem gratuitous. Had I the space, I believe I would be forgiven the brief indelicacy of pointing some of these out, garnished with a suitably Nabokovian by-play of donnish cackles and sham obtuseness; such as, in 1,32, “dimple” for cheeks (“elephantine Germanic coyness”), rhyming with the otsebyatina “less simple”; “instep” for little foot (“ballerina in orthopedic footgear”). Or in I,33, “the storm-rack flying” (?) for before a storm, in I,34 “again to build mad builders start” for again…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.