When Vladimir Nabokov brought Russian poetry into English ...
'Verses and Versions: Three Centuries of Russian Poetry,' by Vladimir Nabokov
When Vladimir Nabokov brought Russian poetry into English, he sought to be true to the poets.
By Alexander Theroux, Special to the Times December 21, 2008
Verses and VersionsThree Centuries of Russian PoetrySelected and translated
by Vladimir NabokovHarcourt: 442 pp., $40The only true translation is a literal one. Vladimir Nabokov's repetition of this truth became one of his many commandments. By literal, he means the strict rendering -- as closely as associative and syntactical capacities of the "into" language will allow -- of the poem's exact contextual meaning in the "from" language. Other means of translating poetry (both are not only lame, in Nabokov's view, but ignorant) are: the lexical, which is the attempt to render, word-for-word, the basic meanings of each word without any concession to syntax (basically this is a robotic "trot"); and then the paraphrase, which is to try to offer a free version of a poem with all attendant omissions, additions and distortions. The literal alone is true."Verses and Versions" collects, for the first time in one volume, Nabokov's English translations of Russian verse, with each poem presented next to Russian originals and accompanied by his own succinct, witty portraits of the 18 poets included, an aggregate highlighted (not surprisingly) by his favorite, Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin is the tutelary deity of Nabokov's last, greatest Russian novel, "The Gift." Nabokov translated into English and published Pushkin's vast masterpiece "Eugene Onegin" in 1964 (along with 1,200 pages of his commentary), indifferent to but certainly aware of the exasperated responses of any reviewer over "literality's salutary jolts." Nabokov also provides insightful notes on the trials and delights of translations; he had proposed this book, or something like it, to McGraw-Hill years before he died in 1977.In his poem of 1954, "On Translating 'Eugene Onegin,' " Nabokov sums up in verse -- and defines -- the job:What is translation? On a platterA poet's pale and glaring head,A parrot's screech, a monkey's chatter,And profanation of the dead.The parasites you were so hard onAre pardoned if I have your pardon,O, Pushkin, for my stratagem:I traveled down your secret stem,And reached the root, and fed upon it;Then, in a language newly learned,I grew another stalk and turnedYour stanza patterned on a sonnet,Into my honest roadside prose -- All thorn, but cousin to your rose.He concludes:This is my task -- a poet's patienceAnd scholiastic passion blent:Dove-droppings on your monument.Nabokov bequeaths us his translations of Alexander Blok's "The Strange Lady" and "The Railroad," although he does not hesitate to criticize that poet's long verses ("which are weak") or his famous "The Twelve," which Nabokov (who rarely, if ever, passed up the chance to air one of his anti-clerical grievances -- read him on Dostoevsky) dismisses as "dreadful, self-consciously couched in a phony 'primitive' tone, with a pink cardboard Jesus Christ glued on at the end." There is a sharp translation of "For the sake of the resonant valor of ages to come," a notable poem by Osip Mandelshtam ("note the correct form of his name," adds pedantic stickler Nabokov). He whimsically includes translations of such minor poets as Konstantin Batyushkov and Vilgelm Kyuhelbeker.I love the short lyrics he "Englished" of Fyodor Tyutchev, whose bittersweet poems he judges "belong to the greatest ever written in Russian" -- "Tears," for instance, "Last Love" and "Autumn" -- and which he had included in "Three Russian Poets," a small collection of translations he published in 1944. Nabokov seems to include the work of certain poets (Nikolay Karamzin, Anton Delvig and Vasiliy Zhukovski) simply because they all happened to be friends of Pushkin, who holds a special place in every Russian's heart. It was of this great poet that Nabokov wrote, probably realistically, that for a true appreciation "too much is required from the reader to make such readers numerous." His conventional admirers think of him mainly, observes the translator, "in terms of schoolbooks and Chaikovsky's operas."Included here we have translations from Pushkin's "The Bronze Horseman: A Petersburg Tale"; several scenes from that indelible drama between spiteful villain and genius, "Mozart and Salieri"; various sections from "Ruslan and Lyudmila," "The Bosom Friend of Magic Ancientry," "The Gypsies" and chapter one of "Eugene Onegin," as well as many shorter poems including "To Dawe, Esqr." which goes:Why draw with your pencil sublimeMy Negro profile? Though transmittedBy you it be to future time, It will be by Mephisto twitted.Draw fair Olenin's features, in the glowOf heart-engendered inspiration:Only on youth and beauty should bestowA genius its adoration.We are also treated to a long scene from "The Covetous Knight," as well as the brilliant "Exegi Monumentum," a five-stanza poem in which Pushkin prophesies his lasting fame and which Nabokov manages to match in English the Russian words, rhyme for rhyme, and splendidly. The different approaches to translation -- literal, lexical and paraphrastic -- Brian Boyd cogently analyzes in his introduction by way of showing the different techniques applied to Pushkin's elegant little poem, "Ya Vas Lyubil," in English "I Loved You." Nabokov helpfully provides a parsed translation beside his literal one to explicate the subtle complications (and hazards) of transferring languages.In "Verses and Versions" we have not only a sampler of the problems and possibilities of literary translation, as demonstrated by someone who wrote and translated in three languages for more than 60 years, but also an authoritative contribution to Nabokov's literary legacy. It does not pretend to be a collection of perfect or near-perfect translations, mind you. Some of Nabokov's translations come as close as possible simply because he understood the subtlest nuances in both languages. Much of the work that Nabokov did in the 1940s, for example, found a translator not so hidebound about maintaining the literal tit-for-tat he later insisted on. He widely experimented, with and without rhyme, for years, and was not always a slave to strict fidelity. But he eventually concluded that to paraphrase a poem was not only a lazy and vain presumption but an actual betrayal of the poet's original vision. By taking a dogmatic stand he could, in his own words, save poetry "from the enthusiastic paraphrast who strangles another man's muse with his own muse's strong hair."It was only after the 1950s that he came to see the necessity of an unflinching literalism that addressed, in the words of Boyd, "the impossibility of perfection, the possibility only of offering improved access to the originals, but not of creating its image and equal." In his notes to his translations from the poet Bulat Okudzhava, Nabokov declares: "Except in a very few cases, the form of the original poem in From, and especially its rhymes, cannot be retained in a literal Into translation."Verses. Versions. Voices. Be careful: This is a book filled with a chorus of many voices -- Boyd's introduction, Stanislav Shvabrin's program notes, along with Nabokov's own prose introductions, which include several essays titled "The Art of Translation." You must stay alert and cannot nod if you want to remember who is speaking! In any case, this is a book, part of the oeuvre, that true Nabokovians will want.Theroux is the author, most recently, of "Laura Warholic: Or, The Sexual Intellectual."
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