The Strange Case of Pushkin and Nabokov

Eugene Onegin

A Novel in Verse by Alexandr Pushkin, translated from the Russian with a commentary by Vladimir Nabokov
Bollingen Foundation, Volume I, xxvi + 345, Volume II, xvi + 547, Volume III, xvi + 540, Volume IV, v + 316 pp., $18.50

Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov; drawing by David Levine

This production, though in certain ways valuable, is something of a disappointment; and the reviewer, though a personal friend of Mr. Nabokov—for whom he feels a warm affection sometimes chilled by exasperation—and an admirer of much of his work, does not propose to mask his disappointment. Since Mr. Nabokov is in the habit of introducing any job of this kind which he undertakes by an announcement that he is unique and incomparable and that everybody else who has attempted it is an oaf and an ignoramus, incompetent as a linguist and scholar, usually with the implication that he is also a low-class person and a ridiculous personality, Nabokov ought not to complain if the reviewer, though trying not to imitate his bad literary manners, does not hesitate to underline his weaknesses.

Mr. Nabokov, before the publication of his own translation of Evgeni Onegin, took up a good deal of space in these pages to denounce a previous translation by Professor Walter Arndt.* This article—which sounded like nothing so much as one of Marx’s niggling and nagging attacks on someone who had had the temerity to write about economics and to hold different views from Marx’s—dwelt especially on what he regarded as Professor Arndt’s Germanisms and other infelicities of phrasing, without, apparently, being aware of how vulnerable he himself was. Professor Arndt had attempted the tour de force of translating the whole of Onegin into the original iambic tetrameter and rather intricate stanza form. Mr. Nabokov decided that this could not be done with any real fidelity to the meaning and undertook to make a “literal” translation which maintains an iambic base but quite often simply jolts into prose. The results of this have been more disastrous than those of Arndt’s heroic effort. It has produced a bald and awkward language which has nothing in common with Pushkin or with the usual writing of Nabokov. One knows Mr. Nabokov’s virtuosity in juggling with the English language, the prettiness and wit of his verbal inventions. One knows also the perversity of his tricks to startle or stick pins in the reader; and one suspects that his perversity here has been exercised in curbing his brilliance; that—with his sado-masochistic Dostoevskian tendencies so acutely noted by Sartre—he seeks to torture both the reader and himself by flattening Pushkin out and denying to his own powers the scope for their full play.

Aside from this desire both to suffer and make suffer—so important an element in his fiction—the only characteristic Nabokov trait that one recognizes in this uneven and sometimes banal translation is the addiction to rare and unfamiliar words, which, in view of his declared intention to stick so close to the text that his version may be used as a trot, are entirely inappropriate here. It would be more to the point for the student to look up the Russian word than to have…

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