Thursday, December 27, 2012

From "Onegin in English: Against Nabokov"

Nine years prior to the appearance of Nabokov's Onegin, The Partisan Review [in 1955] published an essay by Nabokov, titled “The Art of Translation: Onegin in English,” which amounted to a manifesto concerning the possibilities of Onegin in translation and the translator’s self-imposed standards for his own version of the novel:
To translate an Onegin stanza does not mean to rig up fourteen lines with alternate beats and affix to them seven jingle rhymes starting with pleasure-love-leisure-dove. Granted that rhymes can be found, they should be raised to the level of Onegin’s harmonies but if the masculine ones may be made to take care of themselves, what shall we do about the feminine rhymes? When Pushkin rhymes devy (maidens) with gde vy (where are you?), the effect is evocative and euphonious, but when Byron rhymes “maidens” with “gay dens,” the result is burlesque … . [p.277]


The tone of resentment that so frequently accompanies discussion of Nabokov as translator and, more broadly, as authority on Russian literature, certainly has something to do with the reader’s reluctance to be bullied into the role of Nabokov’s imaginary oafish, middling student, to be hectored in this patronizing manner, no matter how illustrious the mentor whose covert wish is to torment. [p.288]


By declaring that this is the method he wanted applied to all poetry in translation, Nabokov, it seems to me, attempted to conceal his very special bias with regard to Onegin. What motivated Nabokov to create this translation, instead of producing the kind of graceful stanzas he embedded in The Gift and printed in The New Yorker? One wonders whether he might have been more interested in affirming the impossibility of Onegin in English than in allowing a non-Russian reader the happy illusion of intimacy with Pushkin. [p.291]

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The three excerpts above are taken from the excellent article "Onegin in English: Against Nabokov" by Anna Razumnaya, as appears in Literary Imagination Volume 14 Number 3, pp. 277-291.

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