NABOKV-L post 0021850, Sun, 24 Jul 2011 17:22:20 +1200

Re: ADA Online 1.30, more pics, and Stein-Stone
Dear all,

ADA Online has been updated to include the Annotations to Part 1 Chapter 30. The annotations to this chapter have a large number of illustrations, links to which have been missing from recent updatings, and the illustrations toPart 1 Chapters 1, 10 and 13 have also been substantially amplified.

Those discussing R.G. Stonelower might like to refresh their memory of what I offer in ADA Online at this point:

3.04<>: transfigured . . . R. G. Stonelower: "R. G. Stonelower" combines George Steiner (1929- ) and Robert Lowell (1917-77), one a theoretician, the other a practitioner of the free translations into verse that Nabokov had been berating since he began his own very literal translation of Eugene Onegin in the early 1950s. Steiner's extolling Lowell's translations of Osip Mandelshtam (1891-1938) particularly exasperated Nabokov.

Nabokov had read Mandelshtam's verse with care late in 1965, when his old friend Gleb Struve, the chief editor of Mandelshtam's collected works, sent him the 1964 volume of his collected poetry. He replied: "The poems are marvelous and heartrending, and I am happy to have this most precious volume on my bedside shelf" (SL 378, 4 October 1965). When he read Lowell's translations of nine poems by Mandelshtam in the New York Review of Books for 23 December 1965, he was incensed by their confident infidelities. In February 1966 Véra Nabokov wrote to William Maxwell of the New Yorker: "V.'s blood boils when he sees what passes [for] translations from the Russian of, say, poor, defenseless, doubly murdered, Mandelshtam by some of our modern practitioners" (unpublished letter of 3 February 1966, VNA).

When he had published his translation of Eugene Onegin in 1964, Nabokov had expected to provoke controversy for his literalism. But he had not expected the fierce and inept attack from his former friend Edmund Wilson (New York Review of Books, 15 July 1965). His first reply had precipitated a lively transatlantic debate, the major literary controversy of the mid-1960s. His second, devastating, reply to Wilson and others was published in Encounter in February 1966. Lowell in a letter in Encounter in May defended Wilson; in the same issue, Nabokov retorted "I wish . . . that he would stop mutilating defenceless dead poets--Mandelshtam, Rimbaud and others."

Later that year George Steiner published an essay "To Traduce or to Transfigure: On Modern Verse Translation" (Encounter 27:2 [August 1966], 48-54), whose title seems to derive from Nabokov's comment that "A schoolboy's boner mocks the ancient masterpiece less than does its commercial poetization, and it is when the translator sets out to render the 'spirit,' and not the mere sense of the text, that he begins to traduce his author" (EO I,ix). Steiner argues the converse: that the unfaithfulness inevitable in translating into verse is more than compensated for by the attitude of the translator, the initial decision to write poetry: "This creative insurgence"--"against the grain of the ordinary"--"is the very start of the poem." He writes that "A great poetic translation--Holderlin's Sophokles, Valéry's restatement of Virgil's Eclogues, Robert Lowell's readings of Osip Mandelstam--is criticism in the highest sense."

A letter from Alec Nove appeared under the title "To Traduce or Transfigure," Encounter, December 1966, 110-11: " 'Robert Lowell's reading of Osip Mandelstam is criticism in the highest sense. It surrounds the original with a zone of unmastered meaning. . . . ' Thus George Steiner [Encounter, August]. Really? Surely this proposition is not illustrated by the example he quotes. The original poem has a haunting beauty, it rhymes, it scans. It is poetry. Lowell's version is not. This may be a necessary price to pay for verbal exactitude, but he does not achieve this either. It is sufficient to inflict two lines on your readers (25 per cent of an 8-line poem):

Line 2:

MANDELSTAM: Chúyu bez strákha chto búdet i búdet grozá
LITERALLY: I feel without fear that there will be, will be a storm.
LOWELL: I'm not afraid. I know what's on the calendar--a storm.

Line 4:

MANDELSTAM: Dúshno, i vsyótaki dó smerti khóchetsa zhit'.
LITERALLY: It is stuffy and yet
1. I long desperately to live
2. I wish to live until my (natural) death.
LOWELL: It's stuffy here. It's boring how much I want to live.

The double sense of this last line is probably untranslatable. The words 'dó smerti' literally mean that I want something so badly I would be willing to die for it. By colloquial use this sense has become weakened, much as in English the word 'dreadfully' no longer inspires dread. But these words have not taken on the meaning of 'deadly' in the sense of dull or boring. In fact an accurate rendering, using the same image, would be 'I am dying to live.' However in Russian the words 'dó smerti' can also mean 'until death.' Lowell's version misses both possible meanings. Since he reproduces neither rhyme nor metre, there is no advantage gained. How can this possibly serve as a model?"

A letter from Lowell "in defence of George Steiner" then appeared, again under the title "To Traduce or Transfigure," in the February 1967 Encounter, immediately after a letter by Nabokov on another subject (Freud). Nabokov therefore fuses Lowell and Steiner in Ada into the transfigurer "R.G. Steinlower."

In Ada's next chapter he directly parodies howlers in Lowell's Mandelshtam translations (11.26-34 and n.). After Ada's publication, in "On Adaptation" (New York Review of Books, Dec. 4, 1969), he took Lowell to task even more directly for an adaptation of "one of the masterpieces of Russian poetry," a poem by Mandelshtam ("Za gremuchuiu doblest' griadushchikh vekov," "For the resonant valor of ages to come," 1931); one infidelity, significantly, he calls "another miracle of misinformation, mistransfiguration, and misadaptation" (SO 280-83).

The portmanteau "Stonelower" neatly packs into one word a reverse "Exegi monumentum," the Vandals attacking Horace. For other satirical name-compounds, see Lowden (127.32), Gerschizhevsky (225.27), Falknermann (371.31), “one Eelmann” (403.05-06). (Sergey Karpukhin, private communication). MOTIFS: metamorphosis<>; trans-<>; transfigure<>.

Brian Boyd

Search archive with Google:

Contact the Editors:,
Visit Zembla:
View Nabokv-L policies:
Visit "Nabokov Online Journal:"

Manage subscription options: