Saturday, January 30, 2010

'Eugene Onegin' 5 Translations and A Commentary Part 1

Translators are the post horses of Enlightenment.

Part 1
5 Translations

The rhyming and metrical format of Onegin declare that it is a historical work.
Stanley Mitchell

It’s as if a sound proof wall separated Pushkin’s poetic novel from the English-reading world. There is a whole magic which goes by default: the touching lyrical beauty, the cynical wit of the poem, the psychological insight, the devious narrative skill, the thrilling, compulsive grip of the novel, the tremendous gusto and swing and panache of the whole performance.
Charles Johnston

Confronted with an evident inability to render a work faithfully in either its absolute form or its total sense… the only solution it seems to me is for the translator to try to view the work not as a hopeless dichotomy but as unified whole and to try to be faithful, in some mysterious spirit, to this vision of wholeness.
James E. Falen.

I would say that poetry translation is the art of poetic lie-sense.
Douglas Hofstadter

The history of translations of Eugene Onegin in English may be divided into two periods: pre- and post Nabokov, whose translation of 1964 rises like a peak between them. The first period includes Deutsch, Elton with Briggs, Radin and Patrick, and Spalding; and the second period, those translators who came after Nabokov and therefore had the benefit of his scholarship and modern translation theories: Arndt, Kayden, Johnston, Falen, Hofstadter, and Mitchell. A comparison of these last 4 post-Nabokov translations along with the version by Nabokov illuminates the difficulties of translating this great Russian masterpiece into English. At the same time it also raises essential questions about the nature of verse translation.
To help us in our comparison we will use the model devised by Nabokov himself. In his introduction to his translation of Eugene Onegin, Nabokov identifies three kinds of translation. Briefly summarized they are as follows:

1. paraphrastic In this type, Into Language dominates, and Out of Language is sacrificed. Some paraphrastic translations are more faithful to the original, while others are very far from it.

2. lexical In this type, Out of Language dominates and Into Language is sacrificed. The result reads like a machine translation, with Into Language taking on the syntactical properties of Out of Language.

The paraphrastic and lexical types may be seen as opposite ends of a spectrum.

3. literal In this type, an ideal only rarely and fleetingly achieved, both languages are perfectly balanced, and sacrifices and compromises are kept to a minimum.

Now let’s apply this model to three broad elements of language: syntax, lexical fields, and lexical distribution, especially focusing on how, in their search for a perfect compromise between the demands of meaning and the demands of finding English rhymes, translators add or subtract or substitute language present in the Russian verse.

Let’s focus in depth on one stanza, one of the most beautiful from Canto 6, in which, prompted by Lensky’s death in the duel, the narrator reflects on the early death of a poet and what is lost to the world thereby.

Perhaps for the world’s good
Or, at least, for glory, he was born;
His silenced lyre
A resonant, uninterrupted ringing 4
In centuries might have aroused. The poet,
Perhaps, upon the stairway of the world,
Had a high stair awaiting him.
His martyred shade, 8
Perhaps, had borne away with it
A sacred mystery, and for us
A life-creating voice has perished,
And past the tomb’s confines 12
Will not rush up to it the hymn of races,
The benediction of the times.

Eugene Onegin Canto 6 Stanza 37
: Vladimir Nabokov 1964

Although Nabokov is loudly convinced that this is a perfect literal translation (type 3), an equal balance of Into and Out Of, his version is in fact closer to type 2, a word-for-word lexical transcoding, according to his own model. English poesy, grace, beauty, even conventional syntax, are sacrificed for an exact rendition of Russian lexis and syntax. Iambic tetrameter and the rhyme scheme of the Onegin Stanza have been done away with and replaced with a kind of lumpy prose whose syntax is unnatural and whose meaning is sometimes a bit bizarre. Nabokov had a habit -increasingly so in his later translation years- of placing the prepositional phrases between subject and verb, a highly unnatural position in English, but one that is natural to Russian; one wonders how exactly does a hymn rush up a stairway; and why the tautology of resonant ringing? However, in keeping with his stated aim, we can be sure from Nabokov’s pony, that in the Russian perhaps appears three times in the stanza at the beginning of lines 1, 6 and 9; that there is a caesura in line 5; that the strange un-English word order of lines 3 through 5 exactly replicates the lexical distribution of Russian in the same lines; that the stanza consists of three sentences ending on lines 5, 7 and 14; that the word benediction comes before times in line 14 and not vice versa, and so on. We can also be absolutely sure of the specific lexical field (consisting of the terms lyre, stairway, hymn, martyr, shade, mystery, tomb, benediction and time) used in the construction of the metaphor which runs through the stanza. Nabokov’s lexical translation gives the non-Russian reader the most reliable version in terms of how the language of the original works. This version can be used as check for other versions in terms of linguistic closeness to the Russian. However, in skewering the heart of the stanza with the needle of his accuracy, he has also robbed it of life.

Perhaps he was for good intended
Or at the very least for fame;
His silenced lyre might have extended
Its sound through centuries to come 4
With ringing music. There awaited
Perhaps a special niche created
For him at an exalted site.
Perhaps his martyred shade in flight 8
Carried away a holy secret,
Remaining with him, and the joys
Are lost of an uplifting voice,
While from beyond the gravestone’s remit 12
No hymn will rush to where he’s laid,
Nor peoples come to bless his shade.

Stanley Mitchell 2008

Mitchell’s version comes closer to a literal translation (type 3 in Nabokov’s own typology of translations) in which the aim of a perfect balance between the two languages is more nearly achieved. Rhythm and rhyme have been preserved without disturbing the lexical distribution of Nabokov’s pony: perhaps is repeated in the same places; the caesura is in the same place in line 5; the three sentences end in the same places; most of the lexis is in the same place (silence in line 3 martyred in line 8 etc); most of the lexical substitutions are near enough synonymous: holy secret- sacred mystery, benediction-bless (Nabokov would no doubt deplore the substitution of gravestone for tomb and write 3000 words on the difference). The chief deviation from the Russian is in the slight change to the lexical field and the resultant metaphor: the stairway has been replaced with a niche in an unspecified high place. Apart from this, it seems to be a miracle of faithfulness to the original, (as seen through the lense of Nabokov’s pony) with the addition of rhythm and rhyme: a perfect compromise between the linguistic demands of the form and meaning of both languages. It has all the appearance of poetry. And yet, the meaning seems to be packed too densely into the lines to give it space to breathe; and some of the word choices sound prosaic to this reader’s ear: extended, niche, remit, site are ugly workaday words that do not resonate or sing. Mitchell’s literal version is very faithful to the language of the Russian, and a poetic and naturally readable version in English.

Perhaps to improve the world’s condition,
perhaps for fame, he was endowed;
his lyre, now stilled, in its high mission
might have resounded long and loud 4
for aeons. Maybe it was fated
that on the world’s staircase there waited
for him a lofty stair. His shade
after the martyr’s price it paid 8
maybe bore off with it for ever
a secret truth, and at our cost
a life creating voice was lost;
to it the people’s blessing never 12
will reach, and past the tomb’s compound
hymns of the ages never sound.

Charles Johnston 1977

Johnston’s version takes more liberties with the text and is therefore a paraphrastic (type 1) version. Although the caesura in line 5 has been kept, and the three sentences end in the same lines, an extra caesura has been added in line 7. Lexical distribution is more or less the same as the original, with stilled substituting for silence in line 3, and martyred in line 8. But tomb (12) and hymn (13) in the original have here switched lines. Lexical substitutions include staircase for stairway, truth for mystery, but these are near enough synonymous. The tomb’s compound, substituted for the tomb’s confines, is an ugly anachronistic image, the word compound suggesting a Soviet style death camp. An extra perhaps has been added to line 2, making four in total, rather than the original’s three, and the perhaps on line 6 has been moved to line 5. The biggest and most jarring addition is the metaphor of price and cost (lines 8 – 10) which is not present in the Russian. Some of the rhymes are not very felicitous; the unfortunate endowed of line 2 introduces an image of Lensky that I would prefer not to glimpse, and the lines are uncapitalised. Johnston’s version is closer to type 1 than Mitchell’s, a paraphrase, in Nabokov’s typology, (and no doubt Nabokov would deplore it for that reason). Although the sacrifices made to the Russian in favour of the English form have been kept to a minimum, as English poetry, however, it is rather inept and not very convincing.

Or maybe he was born to fire
The world with good, or earn at least
A gloried name; his silenced lyre
Might well have raised, before it ceased, 4
A call to ring throughout the ages.
Perhaps upon the world’s great stages
He might have scaled a lofty height.
His martyred shade, condemned to night 4
Perhaps has carried off forever
Some sacred truth, a living word,
Now doomed by death to pass unheard;
And in the tomb his shade shall never 12
Receive our race’s hymns of praise,
Nor hear the ages bless his days.

James E. Falen 1990

Falen’s version (also type 1) takes even more greater liberties with the Russian in favour of a more resonant and sonorous, vowel-laden English stanza which still reproduces all the structural features of the Onegin Stanza, but on English ground, not Russian. One perhaps has been replaced with a synonym and moved; the caesura in 5 has been moved to 3; some totally new images not found in the Russian have been introduced: fire, night, a living word; and substitution has changed other images: stairway- stages, centuries- ages. However, for these additions and substitutions, words have been chosen which have a totemic, universally archetypal quality, (a quality not present in Mitchell’s niche and site or Johnston’s compound). They are, moreover, also entirely in keeping with the common topoi of European Romanticism; and do not jar. As well as end-of-line rhymes, Falen has found internal echoes of rhyme (and metre) on certain vowels: scaled in line 7 with shade in line 8; race’s in line 13 with ages in line 14 (the /ei/ sound predominates throughout the stanza); a pattern of monophthongs and diphthongs is very sensitively rendered and creates an elegiac quality. In the first quatrain Falen explores the ambiguity of masculine or feminine endings on fire and lyre, unlike Mitchell’s more clearly feminine but deadening intended and extended. Falen’s version is more paraphrastic than Johnston’s even, but still retains some faithfulness to the Russsian lexical field and its syntactical distribution. His additions and substitutions are entirely in keeping with the mood and emotion of the original. Falen’s great strength is in his creation of a convincing poetic artifact in English.

Perhaps for goodness’ sake, or glory’s,
Vladimir Lensky, bard, was born;
His silenced lyre perchance hid stories
Untold, which through his magic horn
Blown sweetly, might have mad men gladder.
Some high-ranked rung on fame’s tall ladder
Perhaps awaited him. Perchance
His suffering shade’s deep mystic dance 8
Lies buried with him; thus for us is
Forever lost a vibrant voice.
To thank him would have been our choice,
But our mere mortals chants and fusses 12
Can’t reach across death’s mystic pale:
Our hymns we’d sing to no avail.

: Douglas Hofstadter 1999

Hofstadter’s version is the most paraphrastic (type1), an imitation rather than a translation, Nabokov would no doubt say. The meaning, language elements and mood of the Russian have been almost entirely sacrificed to the demands of a contemporary, idiosyncratic American English and a highly personalised vision and reading of the poem. Enormous liberties have been taken with lexical field, and its distribution. Perhaps on line 9 has been moved to line 7, and an extra perchance has been added which is not there in the original; Lensky’s tomb has become death’s mystic pale; the stairway of the world has become a rather precarious and penny- pinching ladder; the hymns of races have become superstitious chants and atheistic fusses. New images have been introduced which blur the clarity of the metaphor and risk rendering the mood of the stanza ridiculous, unlike Falen’s new images, which reinforce the metaphor running through the stanza, and heighten its archetypal quality. In Hofstadter’s version the poet’s name and occupation have been given, perhaps for the benefit of a celestial clerk, while poor Lensky’s ghost seems to have his hands full with a lyre and a horn while he clings precariously to the ladder, dancing. No rest for the wicked there then. Some of the rhymes, while reproducing accurately the Onegin Stanza, are most infelicitous: the gladder/ladder rhyme suggests that the antics of Lensky’s harassed shade might make men madder; the first for goodness sake has a touch of the exasperated about it; while line 11 has nothing to do with anything except to provide the necessary rhyme for voice in 10.

Of course it might be unfair to judge the whole work on the strength of one stanza. However, taken as a whole, Nabokov’s pony is a tough little beast, capable of carrying loads and working hard, but without verve or grace; neither poetry nor good English prose: an excellent reference, but ultimately unreadable.

Taken on mass, throughout the whole length of the poem, Mitchell’s dense stanzas and highly specific lexical fields, paradoxically give the most novelistic rendering of this verse novel. Mitchell’s highly readable and engaging translation situates the work within the tradition of the Russian realist/psychological novel, which it indeed helped to engender. Mitchell’s introductory essay and translator’s note are superbly informative, often provoking, and excellently expressed.

Johnston’s workmanlike paraphrase imposes an unfaithful uniformity on the work. In his version, Pushkin’s wild swerves of tone have all been ironed out in favour of a consistency of tone, lexically close to the original, with all the features of the Onegin Stanza in place, but without Mitchell’s density: self effacing and a touch bland. It might be too obvious to mention Johnston’s previous career as a diplomat in this connection. Both Johnston and Mitchell’s alterations are frequently anachronistic and jar.

Taken as a whole, Hofstadter’s modern colloquialisms clash clumsily against the text’s references to Horace and Tasso; they feel crass next to the poem’s Romantic sensibility. Hofstadter believes that as Pushkin’s Russian was the Russian of his contemporaries, a contemporary translation should therefore also be in contemporary English, surprisingly faulty reasoning for an author who won a Pulitzer for his book on the great artistic logicians Bach, Godel and Escher. He maintains in his introduction, comparing his version with Falen's: where he is lyrical, I’m jazzy, where he’s legato, I’m staccato, where he’s flowing, I’m percussive, where he’s subtly seasoned, I’m saucy and spicy, in other words, a joke; and a text book example of what Nabokov and Pushkin would have called poshlost.

Falen’s translation is how one might imagine the work to have been written in English if Pushkin had been an Englishman. It has the elegiac lyricism of Keats, the political anger of Shelley, the clarity of Wordsworth’s metaphysical meditations, Blake’s mysticism and prophetic power, the detailed (but highly derivative from the French) pastoralism of Grey and Thomson, spiced throughout with Byron’s satirical elan and verbal wit. Moreover, it manages to echo these various intonations without ever succumbing to parody. Falen’s version situates the work firmly within the English Romantic tradition, as is only right for a work composed in the 1820s, and turns Pushkin’s Russian into a song of equal beauty in English.

Of these 5 translations, Nabokov’s may be referred to, Johnston’s may be overlooked, Hofstadter’s may be ignored. Mitchell’s may be studied, and Falen’s may be learnt by heart and recited with reverence and love. Of the difference between these last two, it may be safely said that Mitchell is the better writer, Falen the better poet.

Part 2: A Commentary coming soon...


Bryan said...

Interesting post. It is funny how translations can be different.

Makifat said...

TC, thanks for this useful guide. I have three translations of Eugene Onegin (Penguin's Babette Deutsch, a 1937 UC Berkley translation by Radin and Patrick, and the Nabokov that gave Wilson such heartburn). Still, I have never screwed up the courage to hit any of them in anything but small pieces. Ultimately, I doubt that any translation can truly capture the original artifact. But you may have inspired me to take another stab at it.

Your writing is always a joy to read.


Khoniker Atithi said...

but you still didn't answer my question...pardon my ignorance but as I discovered this wonderful blog of yours only a week or so..I don't even know your name:-(
I'm Madhumita Chatterjee and I'm from India..what IS your name?where are you from?
And I second Maki..your writing IS a joy to read.
Take care:)

Murr said...

Thank you all for your comments.

Mr Chatterji, you may call me Tom. I am a UK gent living in Taiwan (12 years now), where I teach English among other things. My inspiration for Murr comes from Hoffman's masterpiece (see review here:

Delighted to make your acquaintance, and even more that you enjoy my ramblings.

Best wishes,
Murr (tom)

Khoniker Atithi said...

It's Ms.Chatterjee to be precise!n you may call me Maddy,that's what I ask all my non-Indian friends to do,as I feel that they'd break their teeth in the process of pronouncing my name!
keep up the wonderful work!

Murr said...

oh how dreadfully boorish of me, Ms Chatterjee, to assume you were a Mr. Please accept my apologies. And Madhumita has a beautiful sound to it. I shall certainly not shorten it, but learn to say it properly.

Khoniker Atithi said...

Haha,no worries!when do you get the time to read and analyse the great books that you have read till now?My exams are right at the corner so my folks do not allow me to read much now...but I've still bought a bilingual edition of Pablo Neruda's work and I'm just loving every bit of it:)
And it's really nice to learn that you like the sound of my name!

Dave said...

I agree with your statement that Stanley Mitchell's translation is "a miracle of faithfulness to the original." That being said though i find James E. Falen's translation the most relatable for a native english speaker that manages to capture the same spirit.

Slevenklevra said...

Mitchell and Nabokov's translations seem to be staying extremely close to the text on the page and the literal word meanings, with mitchell trying to keep the scheme and feel. It doesn't, though, have the same feeling as the original; so I have heard. I believe that a translator needs to take some liberties with what is on the page simply because it will not translate perfectly between the original language and the destination language no matter what.
The translator therefore must make the work his/her own with out straying too far from the original. They have to keep the feel and meaning but make that work in the destination language. This is no easy task. I think that the "best" translation of these five would be Johnston's. Though the author of this blog seems to be in the camp of Nabokov's I think his translation was a bit of a copout. Where as Johnston made the conscious decision to lose some of the literal meaning and structure to save the rhyme. It makes much more of a statement than Nabokov's simply giving up on translating the beauty of the work and simply translating the words and explaining them.

Murr said...

Thanks for your comments both.

I wouldn't say I'm in the Nabokov camp. I admire his commentary very much, but, as I said in the piece, the translation doesn't work as English literature. My favourite of the 5 I analysed is Falen's.

Rumour has it, though, that DM Thomas is working on a version....