Mikhail Lermontov
Mikhail Lermontov; drawing by David Levine

Russian literature, passing rapidly from Classicism to Realism, never had a romantic period comparable to those of France, England and Germany, but it has had its Romantic poets and the greatest of these is Lermontov. He was born in 1814, when Pushkin was fifteen years old, and he died in 1841, four years after Pushkin, and like him, killed in a duel. Fearless and outspoken, reckless and idealistic, he was always angry and he died young, which makes him understandable and appealing to our own tempestuous world. It is these qualities, certainly, that have attracted Mr. Daniels; and yet it is not bitterness and rebelliousness, but something else, that made him the poet he was: a feeling for the music of words, a sharp sense for the pictorial details of line, motion, and color, and an unsentimental capacity for introspection. He wrote some of the most melodious lyrics in the Russian language. Some of its most striking descriptions, and one of the world’s finest psychological novels, A Hero of Our Time, by which he is almost exclusively known in the West. But he was also the author of a good deal of blatant rhetoric, passionate, unpolished verse, and several stilted, poorly constructed plays and melodramatic stories—inferior compositions, which he himself recognized as such and did not want to publish. Unlike Pushkin, he was not endowed with a perfect ear and an absolute sense of rightness, but he aimed at perfection and had he lived longer, would doubtless have established the canon of his work.

These distinctions Mr. Daniels disregards. Intent, commendably, on making available such pieces as are hard to come by in English and some that have not been hitherto translated, he throws in the bad with the good and persuades himself that the bad is good. The greater part of his Reader—more than two-thirds of it—is taken up with a poor play, A Strange One, and a disjointed, unfinished story, The Princess Ligovskaya. They are interesting as early sketches of better things, A Strange One of Masquerade, The Princess Ligovskaya of A Hero of Our Time; but while recognizing their faults, “the mawkishness and inflated rhetoric” of the one and “the purple patches and clumsiness” of the other, Mr. Daniels insists perversely on their excellence. In the play, the work of an unhappy, chaotic sixteen-year-old boy, he detects “éclairs en profondeur,” and in the story, qualities of realistic observation that place it higher than the “unrealistic” A Hero of Our Time. These judgments are as preposterous as certain other remarks of his in the introduction, where he hints at Lermontov’s superiority to Pushkin as thinker and poet and discusses, quite absurdly, the relative “masculinity” of their work. One can but wonder at the astonishing blindness to artistic values and human characteristics which is here displayed. Is Mr. Daniels really unperceptive or just modishly original and brash? His facts are correct, his annotations scrupulous; he has, obviously, read much of Russian literature, but he does not understand it—or is he only pretending he does not?

The same mixture of accuracy and wrong-headedness is true of his translations. All of them—prose and poetry—are faithful, but only some of them are good. Mr. Daniels is at his best where music and subtlety are not required, in a facetious narrative like The Tambov Treasurer’s Wife, which runs along with typically Byronic shoddiness, or in that remarkable work. A Song About Tsar Ivan Vasil’yevich, the Young Bodyguard, and the Valorous Merchant Kalashnikov, one of Lermontov’s best, which is written in the style of Russian folk epics that beat out their stories in an impressive, but ponderous, sing-song rhythm. Very good, too, are his excerpts from The Novice (Mtsyri) where he has been most successful with his method of translation, which he, explains in a prefatory note: the meter of the original he has always followed, the rhyme scheme whenever possible, but because of great variations in the effects of stress in Russian and English, he has made “liberal use of slant-rhymes, assonance, etc.” The procedure is sensible enough and in the case of one early poem. “A Prophecy,” it has resulted in something rather better than its high-minded but clumsy original. It does not always work, however, and despite occasionally good lines, those few of Lermontov’s lovely lyrics which Mr. Daniels has selected are, in his rendition, mediocre at best and almost doggerel at worst. It must be that Mr. Daniels is not a good judge of his own work, that he cannot discriminate between his successes and his failures. How else could he have had the temerity to include two famous lyrics that have already been much better done, one, “Native Land,” by Vladimir Nabokov, the other, “A Soldier’s Testament,” by Maurice Baring? The latter is, in fact, a little miracle of translation. It achieves the impossible. Some years ago, in a brilliant essay On Linguistic Aspects of Translation, Professor Roman Jakobson proved conclusively that what has been done here could not be done at all. “Poetry by definition is untranslatable,” he wrote. “Only creative transposition is possible: either intralingual transposition—from one poetic shape into another or interlingual transposition—from one language into another, or finally intersemiotic transposition—from one system of signs into another, e.g., from verbal art into music, dance, cinema, or painting.” Well, if Baring’s is not translation but “creative transposition,” then words have lost their meaning and definitions are mere quibbling, for his is a wonderfully precise reproduction of the rhyme and rhythm, the sense, the idiom, and the tone of the original, a poem that is as good in English as in Russian:


I want to be alone with you, A moment quite alone.
The minutes left to me are few, They say I’ll soon be gone.
And you’ll be going home on leave,
Then say…but why? I do believe
There’s not a soul, who’ll greatly care
To hear about me over there.

And yet if some one asks you there, Let us suppose they do—
Tell them a bullet hit me here, The chest,—and it went through.
And say I died and for the Isar,
And say what fools the doctors are;—
And that I shook you by the hand,
And thought about my native land.

My father and my mother, too They may be dead by now;
To tell the truth, it wouldn’t do To grieve them anyhow.
If one of them is living, say
I’m bad at writing home, and they
Have sent us to the front, you see,—
And that they needn’t wait for me.

We had a neighbour, as you know, And you remember I
And she…How very long ago It is we said good-bye!
She won’t ask after me, nor care,
But tell her ev’rything, don’t spare
Her empty heart; and let her cry;—
To her it doesn’t signify.

And here is Mr. Daniels’s version:

Just for a moment, friend, I’d like
To be alone with you.
From what I hear, my earthly life
Is pretty nearly through.
You’ll soon be going home; and so
I thought…But what’s the use? I know—
To put it to you bluntly—
Nobody cares about me.

But if somebody should ask you—
Whoever it might be—
Tell them a bullet got me through
The chest. Tell them for me
That I died honorably for the Tsar;
How blundering our doctors are;
And that I send my homage
And greetings to our homeland.

I don’t think there’s much chance you’ll find
My mother and my dad
Alive—Besides I wouldn’t like
To have them take it hard.
But if they are alive, you might
Tell them I m too lazy to write;
That the regiment’s moved forward,
And I won’t get a furlough.

There was a girl, as you’ll recall…
How very long ago
We parted! She won’t ask at all
About me. Even so,
Tell her the whole thing from the start:
Don’t spare her cold and empty heart.
And if she cries—well, let her!
To her, it doesn’t matter.

This is not bad. But some of the lines limp awkwardly, the idiom has lost naturalness and strength, the total effect is crude rather than tragic, the poem’s concentrated passion has been dissipated.

In fairness, one should bear in mind that most translations of poetry are irritating to those who know the original, that perfect ones, like Maurice Baring’s, are extremely rare, and that it is surely pointless to be angry with any honest attempt that does not always come off. Mr. Daniels is always faithful and sometimes more than that. He has given us a few fine passages, an excellent version of Kalashnikov, and has, all in all, produced a volume that, whatever its literary merit, does exhibit Lermontov’s variety. For all of this—our thanks.

This Issue

September 16, 1965