Robert Frost said: “Poetry is what gets left out in translation.” That will do quite nicely, but it is like saying that the smell is what defines the cheese. Poetry, like prose, is a bulky, discrete, variable substance. It can be all of a piece or carry a great deal inside it. It can undergo successful transformations. Pope’s Iliad is not the same poem as Homer’s but it has the same story, the same characters, the same moving moments, and its own particular smell which is of course not the same as Homer’s. Frost was making the same fastidious point as A.E. Housman, who thought that poetry was often made to carry a lot of sense, meaning, or morality, and yet remained separate from them, aloof, pure, unmeaningful, to be recognized only by the tears it brought to the eyes or the prickles it raised on the skin.

Housman in the Nineties was in his own way akin to the more intellectual poetic ideals of his contemporary Mallarmé. French and American technicians of poetic meanings nowadays devise much more complex structures to analyze how a poem works; and though they may not be “poets” themselves as Mallarmé and Housman were, they see themselves as a part of the process as much as mechanics tinkering with an engine blueprinted by some designer perhaps dead. Their commentary on a poem is, they say, itself another poem; the words of the dead are modified in the guts and minds of the living, who now possess them and make of the poem a continuously ongoing process. A poem is dead if it is not continuously transformed in the lives of those who read it.

This is an obvious truth which has nonetheless to be set against an opposite one: that the words of the dead are tongued with fire beyond the language of the living. The two poets, Eliot and Auden, who express these different truths are united in their paradox: that a poem is at once unique and modifiable, both finished and forever incomplete. Our reaction to poetry should recognize the paradox; recognize, too, that it applies to different sorts of poetry in different ways. It is the function of a lyric by Heine or Pushkin to announce, as an element of its unique success, its total stability. Being unmodifiable it is also untranslatable. The stanzas of Byron’s Don Juan, on the other hand, insist on their precariousness and instability as part of their specification. Their rhymes totter along, brilliantly pretending they are not going to make it, shrugging their shoulders at the difficulty of performing this feat in the English language. Reckless and drunk with living they can reel with comparative facility into other languages and perform their act there. It will not be the same, but it will have much of the life of the original. Thus Byron’s Don Juan seduced Europe and its tongues, as Tasso and Ariosto had done before. Another different case would be Wordsworth, whose long poems, like rivers or cloud formations, endlessly coil and re-form in their own egotistical sublime, and hence can accommodate themselves in toto to the flow and idiom of a foreign language.

The considerations about whether and to what degree poetry can be translated are therefore endless, the problem different in each case, the simple question a nonquestion. It gets asked a lot today because the climate of our poetry is becoming steadily more internationalized, and also because critics and translators are increasingly predators who either are or want to be poets, roaming at will through centuries and tongues and adding their simulacra to the bag. As John Hollander and others have recently pointed out, the takeover poem has been a fashionable art form since Virgil and Horace were first imitated, but such poets as Robert Lowell in his Imitations and his translation of Phèdre added a new tycoon element to the genre. The old poem existed to serve the new, not vice versa. Though he rightly considered Pushkin a case apart, this may have been the chief reason for the extraordinary animus shown against translators of poetry by Vladimir Nabokov.

What is translation? On a platter
A poet’s pale and glaring head,
A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter,
And profanation of the dead.

Attempts at a metrical translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin resemble not so much a monkey’s chatter as a dog dancing on its hind legs. Fitting the complex and delicate verse pattern into English rhyming vowels and consonants calls for a prodigy of visible effort that is bound to seem embarrassing. For Pushkin is here the opposite of Byron. His rhyme scheme works like an infinitely variable minuet, in which the reader like a dancer treads the measure without feeling the complexity of what he delightedly does. The unfortunate translator has to pretend to do the same, while inadvertently drawing attention to every step he takes. It cannot be done well, but the good-natured spectator has to clap because it is being done at all.


It is all a translator can do to keep up: he cannot begin to take over Pushkin’s poem or add a further dimension of his own. Nabokov himself, on the other hand, succeeded in doing just that, in his own version of the verse novel, by combining a scrupulous accuracy with his own loose stanzaic arrangement and inimitable vocabulary. The result is Pushkin fantasized, in a sort of airy baroque not at all unsuited to his own spontaneity and fun and elegance. In his own style and on his own scale Nabokov has done what Pope did, and what was done by numerous poets’ versions of Horace and the classics: to achieve a rapport between the original and the model. The two contrast, but in a harmonious and not a painful way; and the new version successfully hints at the power of the original. Above all Nabokov’s Eugene Onegin has an authentic air of negligence and charming ease; its effects are genuinely subtle; it does not bury Pushkin, as the rhymed translations do, beneath the laborious liveliness of would-be poetic English.

Why should the translation of poetry, and of Pushkin’s in particular, be so controversial a subject? It is something of a mystery, but it seems a matter of taste over which academics and intellectuals exhibit a peculiar sensitiveness, and defend with passion their own prejudices. No other question of literary theory arouses quite the same degree of animus. The homeric struggle between Nabokov and Edmund Wilson still reverberates, and a correspondence has even now been raging in the Times Literary Supplement on the niceties of the twenty-year-old translation, and on whether Nabokov should have used the odd word “shotman” for Pushkin’s strelok. (The answer from me is yes: Nabokov’s term is mysteriously perfect. Though strelok is quite an ordinary Russian word for one who shoots, no English equivalent—sportsman, marksman, “gun,” or gunner—quite naturally covers it as does Nabokov’s neat coinage-cum-revival with the same sort of sound impact in it as the Russian.) Nabokov’s son Dmitri has been defending this and other verbal eccentricities favored by his father against the more orthodox view of Sir Charles Johnston, the poet and ex-diplomat, whose lively and elegant version of Eugene Onegin has lately received high praise. He has just completed his own translation of The Bronze Horseman and other of Pushkin’s narrative poems, which I hope to review later.

But taste in this context lends itself to every vagary. The real trouble with Pushkin is that he is the only poet in Europe whose greatness translation not only fails to reveal but actually depreciates. It is not that he is “untranslatable,” as Nabokov claimed, for his plain words have their literal equivalents in other languages, but that when he is translated literally he does not seem much good. “But he’s flat, your poet,” exclaimed Flaubert in genuine astonishment when his friend Mérimée tried to give him some idea of Pushkin in plain French.

And flat in a sense he is—it’s an uncomfortable fact. He seldom says anything at all striking, or anything that extends a link of real poetic sympathy from one language to another, of the kind that comes across from Homer into the line “And so they held the funeral of Hector, tamer of horses,” or from Horace claiming that he will be read “so long as priest and silent virgin shall climb the Capitol” (an enormous understatement, as Frankel observed). When Dante says goodbye in hell to his old schoolmaster it is in words that send an authentic shiver of poetic meaning down the spine no matter how or in what language they are rendered. Pushkin is not like this. His true poetic electricity never jumps between languages. Maurice Baring said that one of his greatest lines was: “And the sea, where ships were running.” My own favorite, from Rusalka, is: “He has stayed / Alone in the forest on the Dnieper’s bank.” How can these be so good? They are not “pure” poetry, or deliberate simplicity with all its necessary self-consciousness: they are just bald statements in verse.

Reviewing my book on Pushkin some years ago Christopher Ricks remarked quite justifiably that it was no good telling us that the line about the forest on the Dnieper’s bank is so wonderful when in English it seems merely prosaic, or—even more depressing—feebly poetical. He was right. Dostoevsky used to talk a lot about Pushkin’s “secret,” which is irritating but not more irritating than the claims made by those who can read Pushkin (and he is easy to read, even with the most elementary knowledge of Russian—all his meters are immediately familiar) to those who can’t. Of course the effect of his two lines, as of those from Homer, Horace, or Dante, is partly a matter of context, but it is chiefly that of a language discovering its identity, opening its eyes to what is around it. For a Russian Pushkin is poetry. The only answer to Ricks is not to read either a literal or a poetical translation but to study the alphabet and grammar a few days, until one can see the shape of the words and tell nouns from verbs, then put their English meanings to the Russian words on the page; then one will see why.


But, given the great claims made for Pushkin, even that is not very satisfactory. What becomes of the universality of great art? To explain the nature of Pushkin’s greatness in this way may seem uncomfortably close to saying that X will always have a special place in the heart of his fellow Estonians because he is the Estonian poet par excellence. Is Pushkin the big fish in the small pool, even though that pool is as wide as Russia, a poet tied to nationhood and cultural identity? I feel this to be in some degree the case, even though he is a very special case.

But, more important, he is a poet of the nineteenth century, with the kind of unique personality, of romantic identity, possessed by all the great poets of that time, from Byron and Keats to Tennyson, Browning, and Baudelaire. No nineteenth-century poet is exactly universal, in the manner of the great classics, but all have their own character, create their own world. So in his way does Pushkin, but this vital fact is obscured both by his omnipresence on the Russian literary scene and in every Russian writer who came after him, and by the fact of his writing in deliberate genres—the epic, the romantic narrative, the drama in blank verse, the novel in stanzas, to say nothing of the lyric, the prose romance, and the short story. In the West his best-known works are Eugene Onegin and that marvelously melodramatic tale The Queen of Spades, but it is arguable that neither of these gives Pushkin at his most intense and characteristic self as an artist.

In his new translations, and in the selection he has made to try to render Pushkin in English,* D.M. Thomas has a very delicate idea of that self, and I think it is the right one. Thomas is himself a poet, though that would not necessarily be an advantage: a poet might well try simply to present Pushkin in his own image, as Nabokov came near to doing. The result was felicitous because Pushkin and Nabokov are highly compatible, however different. Thomas is also compatible, in his own way, which is a very muted one. As he points out, one of Pushkin’s favorite words is the adjective tikho—“quiet.” In his best effects, whether on a small scale or a large, there is a kind of deep, clear repose. Thomas is pretty tikho himself, maintaining the lowest profile of any ambitious Pushkin translator. So low, indeed, that he has been accused of borrowing from previous translators, even of copying from them instead of working from the original.

The charge of plagiarism was also made against his best-selling novel The White Hotel, and in both cases seems equally unfounded. Apart from not admitting his theft, the plagiarist hides behind the material he has stolen. Thomas handsomely acknowledged the use he had made in the novel of Kuznetzov’s memoirs of Babi Yar. His translations acknowledge a debt to Professor John Fennell, whose Penguin selection gives the best plain prose rendering available of Pushkin’s verse. But Thomas’s selection includes vitally important longer pieces like The Gavriliad, The Stone Guest, and Rusalka, which do not appear either in Fennell or in the equally helpful versions—which he should have acknowledged—by Walter Arndt in Pushkin Threefold. Where his predecessors have managed an adequate ease and economy, as well as accuracy, he has often followed their lead, only making small alterations to the word order. Pushkin’s idiom is usually so “open,” his diction so simple, that this is the best thing to do: it would be mere conceit and perversity in a translator to change a good thing simply in order to leave his own mark on it.

In this context, though, a small change can make a big difference. As Thomas observes in his own quiet but penetrating introduction, “The night is tender” is not the same phrase as “Tender is the night.” Poetry in English plays around with word order, but in inflected Russian there is no natural word order to follow or to diverge from poetically. At the end of the opening section of The Bronze Horseman, a marvelous celebration of the city of St. Petersburg and how it was founded, the mood abruptly changes. The poet recalls a terrible event, which he will now recount to us. Pechalen budet moi rasskaz: “Sad will be my tale.” The laconic force of the Russian tetrameter becomes limp if the word order is faithfully rendered. “Quoth the Baron: ‘Sad will be my tale”‘ is the sort of line the eye passes over languidly in a standard romantic narration like Scott’s Marmion. Walter Arndt, who had the happy idea in Pushkin Threefold of interleaving a literal translation with the original and then adding a rhyming English version in Pushkinian meter, renders it “Sorrowful will be my tale” in the literal version, and in rhyme he weaves it, like Pushkin, into a short paragraph.

There was a time—our memories keep
Its horrors ever fresh and near us
Of this a tale now suffer me
To tell before you, gentle hearers.
A grievous story it will be.

In spite of the “hearers / near us” rhyme, and the awkwardness of “before you,” the passage is spirited and effective, the last line carrying a punch which is at least an echo of that in the original. It also shows that a literal translation is just as unlike Pushkin as one with artificial rhyme. In both cases the reader is distracted from the story itself, conscious chiefly of the way it is being offered to him. Fennell renders the passage simply:

There was a dread time—the memory of it is still fresh…. I will begin my narrative of it for you, my friends. My tale will be sad.

The accurate prose is flat and lacks emphasis, making a mere anticlimax of the poet’s calm and tense decision. Thomas has taken a third course.

There was a dreadful time—the memory of it
Is still fresh…I will begin my narrative
Of it for you, my friends. My tale will be sad.

Just the same? But there is nothing fraudulent about the similarity. Thomas’s only change of detail is to substitute for the poetic word “dread” the more commonplace “dreadful,” which exactly corresponds to the Russian adjective. But by putting the lines into blank verse he has changed the whole tone of them, achieving something of Pushkin’s quietly coiled potential (his pruzhina—“spring,” as the Russian critics say).

Blank verse is as natural to English as rhymed tetrameter to Russian, and as capable of the same variation in mood, pace, and style. Indeed, because of the Shakespearean tradition it is more capable of them than prose, of which it is a heightened form. Thomas has perceived that the changes in style and tempo in Pushkin’s masterpiece can best be represented by the comparable changes natural to dramatic blank verse. Edmund Wilson did a stirring prose version of the poem which, in striving to give it speed and panache, is too consistently frenetic, and fails to give the feeling of its tikho passages. Thomas’s blank verse achieves this with an unobtrusive calm akin to Pushkin’s own. And this is vital, because the art of the poem, stylistically, is founded on the contrast between “Peter’s creation,” the magnificent and vivacious city with all its public stir and glitter, its culture of conquest and power, and the private dreams and hopes of a poor young clerk who only wants to marry his sweetheart and settle down, “go hand in hand with her to the grave,” to be buried by their grandchildren. The Neva flood which drowns his sweetheart drives him mad, and in his night wanderings he comes to the square where stands the great equestrian statue of Peter. Here, for a moment, Arndt’s version admirably renders his vision.

And high above those rails, as if
Of altitude and darkness blended,
There rose in bronze, one arm extended,
The I dol on its granite cliff.

Overcome with emotion the clerk shakes his fist at it and hisses: “Wonder-worker, just you wait!” Then in terror he sees the bronze head slowly turn toward him, and all night he flees about the city pursued by the clatter of brazen hooves.

The poem ends with the clerk found dead on an island offshore, where a little house, presumably that of his beloved, has been washed up. This is Pushkin at his quietest and most restrained, and neither literalism nor rhymed artifice can give us a sense of his tone. Here is Arndt:

   A little island
Lies off the coast. There now and then
A stray belated fisherman
Will beach his net at dusk and,
Cook his poor supper by the shore,
Or, on his Sunday recreation
A boating clerk might rest his oar
By that bleak isle. There no green thing
Will grow; and there the inunda-
Had washed up in its frolicking
A frail old cottage. It lay stranded
Above the tide like weathered brush,
Until last spring a barge was landed
To haul it off. It was all crushed
And bare. Against the threshold carried,
Here lay asprawl my luckless knave,
And here in charity they buried
The chill corpse in a pauper’s grave.

Unfair to carp, but it illustrates perfectly how such translation compels attention on its own performance, rather than on the poem. We attend to the commas; we attend at what should be the last moving moment to the need for a “luckless knave” to go with that grave. In Thomas’s version we can forget everything except what the poetry is actually saying.

A small island can be seen offshore. Sometimes
A fisherman out late will moor there with
His net and cook his meagre supper. Or
Some civil servant, boating on a Sunday
Will pay a visit to the barren island.
No grass grows, not a blade. The flood, in sport,
Had driven a ramshackle little house there.
Above the water it had taken root
Like a black bush. Last spring a wooden barge
Carried away the wreckage. By the threshold
They found my madman, and on that very spot
For the love of God they buried his cold corpse.

The “meaning” of The Bronze Horseman is not in doubt. Power confronts impotence, the sovereign the subject; the latter’s small human concerns are of no moment to the archetypal ruler, and the populace suffers the penalty when his grandiose schemes, like building his capital in a swamp subject to flooding, incur nature’s revenge. The little man is always powerless: after his one wild out-burst Yevgeni the clerk removes his cap and averts his eyes whenever he crosses the square. The lesson of the poem is not for Russia alone; it comes alive in the poem’s imaginative scope and absolute artistic mastery. Thomas’s feat is not to create a translation but to restore, as it were, the spell of Pushkinian narrative, so that we seem to be looking through onto Pushkin’s achievement, as the great czar Peter resolved to cut a window through which he could look on Europe.

An even better example of how Thomas lets the reader look in on Pushkin is his version of Rusalka. This is a dramatic “fragment,” except that fragment is the wrong word. For poets of Pushkin’s time the fragment had virtually attained its own status as an artistic genre, and Pushkin is peculiarly adept at seeming to break off arbitrarily when in fact the poem has completed its own inner logic and achieved its proper existence. He does it in an early lyric, “The Sad Day Dies,” and in one of his finest shorter poems, “Autumn,” also clearly rendered by Thomas. Pushkin picked up the idea of the dramatic fragment from the now forgotten English poet B.W. Procter, whose pseudonym was Barry Cornwall; he was arranging for a translation of Cornwall to appear in his magazine Sovremennik (The Contemporary) only an hour before he drove out in the snow, January 27, 1837, to the duel in which he was mortally wounded. Pushkin himself, incidentally, had a very down-to-earth, straightforward view of translation—no nonsense about its exquisite difficulties. It existed to satisfy curiosity about what was being done in other countries: he called translators “culture’s post-horses.” His English was meager, and to see what was in them he read English poets, including Shakespeare and Byron, in French, in which he was of course fluent.

Cornwall’s dramatic scenes are a curiosity now and hardly worth reading, but Pushkin, as so often, saw the possibilities that lurked in the genre itself. Rusalka, which so far as I know has hardly been translated at all, closely resembles the much better-known “Little Tragedies”—The Covetous Knight, The Stone Guest (a variation on the Don Juan theme), and Mozart and Salieri, which Peter Shaffer has lately borrowed from for his play Amadeus. Rusalka is the story of a miller’s daughter with whom a prince falls in love. When she is with child he leaves her to get married; she throws herself into the Dnieper to become “a cold powerful Rusalka.” The fragment ends with her child, the Rusalochka, accosting the prince as he wanders along the bank, having left his wife at home. The unspoken end is that he will be lured to his death in the water, to satisfy Rusalka’s revenge. Standard romantic stuff, one might think, and suited to the romantic opera adapted from it. But there is much more to it than that. Like the “Little Tragedies” it has a Shakespearean depth and suggestiveness, which Thomas’s version brings out, and it carried to the limit Pushkin’s growing art of implication.

Indeed, it would not be too much to say that nowhere else does European poetry convey more calmly and with such compression an unchanging tragedy of love between the sexes. It is not only compressed but extremely down to earth, the uncanny simplicity of its lines of a piece with their impassive humor. Nowhere else in Pushkin do we seem to look more clearly into the heart of the matter, and nowhere else does he show a greater mastery of blank verse—Boris Godunov is apprentice work beside it.

The lucidity and transparency of its blank verse are well suggested by Thomas, who translates it in the same medium. It may seem a perverse decision to render, as he does, the comparable blank verse of The Stone Guest into a quasi-rhyming form, but this may be justified by the vivacious, highly charged atmosphere in which it opens, and which can be emphasized in English by sprightly exchanges partially rhymed. As the little tragedy proceeds it becomes more tranquil and somber and the disappearance of rhymes reflects this change in the Russian tone. Pushkin’s Don Juan, like Pushkin himself, is a warm, human creature, who feels a genuine “love” (as males understand that emotion) for each of his conquests, and a very special fated and tragic love, a “cold peaceful” love, for Donna Anna, who in Pushkin’s version is the wife and not the daughter of the Commander. It is something like Pushkin’s own fated love for his beautiful wife Natalia, who was to cause his death. There is an autobiographical element in Rusalka too: Pushkin before his marriage had seduced a serf girl on his estate who bore him a child. Turgenev and Tolstoy were to do the same.

“Perhaps I am elegant and genteel in my writings,” Pushkin once wrote to a female admirer, “but my heart is completely vulgar.” Thomas’s achievement is to show the nature of that vulgarity, and to show how it combines with a verbal art of such purity and restraint. Pushkin’s love poems are strangely ethereal and yet straightforward to the bone. As Thomas says, “The sexual and creative instincts in him ran as parallel as the twin blades of a skater.” The matchless lyric to Anna Kern, “I remember the wonderful moment,” which no one has begun to be able to render, though Thomas at least gets its calm simplicity, is mysteriously yet completely at home with the cheerful comment Pushkin later made in a letter to a friend: “You write me about Madame Kern, whom with God’s help a few days ago I fucked.” Pushkin loved the sex, and the “genius of pure beauty” was also a warm and willing accomplice in a brief affair.

Thomas’s versions of “Under the blue skies of her native land” and “For the shores of your distant home” are wonderfully rendered, but he has not been able to prevent the opening lines of all these lyrics—it is the same with “I remember the wonderful moment”—sounding when Englished like the lyrics in a 1930s musical (magic simplicity in Russian becomes in English simple cliché). “19 October,” on the other hand, like “Autumn,” sounds easy and spacious in a fine Yeatsian meter, and Thomas has been equally successful with “Arion” and “The Prophet.” Highly effective too are such “naked” love poems as “No, I don’t miss the dissipated nights,” where again we are taken at once not by the way it’s done but by the way in which the force of the meaning is brought out—here it is Pushkin’s seemingly artless confession that he loves more than “the final spasm” of a “young bacchante writhing like a serpent in my arms,” a different kind of physical response.

at long last you condescend
To yield to my pleas, tenderly,
   without rapture,
Cold, ashamed, scarce responding to
My transports, avoiding them with your lips, your eyes,
More and more coming to life,
At last you share my pleasure against your will.

The placing of “tenderly” is the same and works as well in English as in Russian. (It must be added, however, that the original does not have the bit about lips and eyes, but reads literally: “You barely answer, heed not at all.”)

Thomas has rendered these untranslatable lyrics in such a way that much of the vibrant life in them, in particular the sexual life, comes across: they do not just stand in English like awkward monuments to an unapproachable and vanished beauty. But more important is his success with the longer pieces and the less familiar ones. It is here, oddly enough, that Pushkin’s own special universality, the lively, unemphatic perceptions of his “vulgar heart,” can be seen at their most striking. In Rusalka, for instance, how brilliantly Pushkin brings out the difference between the two women—the miller’s daughter and the young princess who unwittingly supplants her—revealing their natures with an economy as brief as it is tender.

He does the same with the women in The Stone Guest and with the heroine of Count Nulin, a light poem about country life which pulsates not only with Pushkin’s animated sense of the complexities of a young woman’s behavior, but also with the life of objects—coffee pots, hunting crops, dressing gowns, candles, vodka. It makes us realize that the rich detail of Gogol, or Tolstoy’s portrait of Natasha Rostov, come as much from Pushkin as from life. Pushkin’s heroine finds herself playing the role of Lucrece to the Count’s Tarquin, and she is by turns indignant, amused, and flirtatious: Pushkin understood perfectly the realities of female behavior sentimentalized in the old story of Lucrece. In The Gavriliad, a youthfully daring poem, he recounts the amorous experiences of the Virgin Mary with the Archangel Satan and the Holy Ghost itself. The blasphemy is superficial: what matters in the poem is again Pushkin’s loving portrayal of the psychology of love.

To enable us to look through into Pushkin and live for a while in his world as we live in a spacious novel—that is a real achievement. The art is to render the words of an English version more or less transparent, so that we can get through to the still center of the poet’s creative common sense, his vital transformation of the ordinary.

I must admit at this point my own special interest in Thomas’s work, since it follows the period of our academic acquaintance; I had myself been writing about Pushkin, and Thomas shared my enthusiasm, as he notes in his book.

Pushkin’s gift is to bestow a kind of verbal annunciation, the spirit of poetry entering as one reads. He is the least exclusive of poets, but the nature of his visitation is nonetheless incommunicable. That paradox has fascinated and inspired his most effective translators who are themselves poets—Nabokov and Johnston as well as Thomas—but to bridge the gap between ourselves and Pushkin a novelist too is necessary. Nabokov’s commentary is a wonderful voluminous ghost novel, a shadowy bulk overlying Pushkin’s brightly lit story of Tatiana and Onegin. Thomas is a novelist of a different sort, and his task has been more unobtrusive; to let the reader find and feel for himself the simple and the complex truths contained in Pushkin’s other poetic tales and dramas. In this he has admirably succeeded.

This Issue

February 3, 1983