NABOKV-L post 0004385, Wed, 15 Sep 1999 15:23:48 -0700

Review of Hofstadter's Eugene Onegin
A year or two back, Douglas Hofstadter published a book on translation
_LeBon Ton de Marreau?_ in which he devoted much attention to Nabokov's
translation of Pushkin's ONEGIN -- mostly as an example of how NOT to
translate. Hofstadter now presents his own ONEGIN reviewed below.

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From: Galya Diment <>

Lost in Translation

A new version of the Russian national poet's novel in verse.

Related Link
First Chapter: 'Eugene Onegin'


He is flat, your poet,'' Flaubert said to
Turgenev after reading the Russian
novelist's translations of Pushkin's
poems. And that in a nutshell has been the problem
for a good hundred years -- the Russians insisting
that Pushkin is a poetic genius of the first order,
their case being thwarted by renditions that fail to
communicate the easy perfection of the original. To
paraphrase Robert Frost, Pushkin is what gets lost in

What can, however, be demonstrated is the centrality
and significance of Pushkin -- both his life and his
work -- in the day-to-day experience of Russians,
how tightly he is woven into their culture. One
example will suffice. The centenary of Pushkin's
death came in 1937 (he was killed in a duel
defending his honor against a man who had paid
inappropriate and all-too-public attention to his wife,
a frivolous beauty), and Stalin ordered that the Year of
Pushkin be celebrated with readings,
productions of his plays, symposiums. But 1937 was also the
year that Stalin's terror reached
its zenith, and so Russians were placed in the macabre
position of having simultaneously to
celebrate and to quake. A bit later the physics department
of the University of Moscow was
riven by a passionate debate -- whether or not to reject
classical physics totally for the new
world of relativity and quantum mechanics. The young Andrei
Sakharov, 17 at the time,
strolled the streets of Moscow with a friend arguing the
point. Finally, Sakharov clinched the
argument in favor of studying classical physics by quoting
by heart and at length from
Pushkin's verse drama ''Mozart and Salieri,'' the latter
always too quick to ''abandon all I'd
known before.'' An event no doubt inconceivable in any other
country -- a debate on the
proper approach to modern physics decided by citing lines of

The bicentennial of Pushkin's birth this year is being
celebrated in his native land with less
hoopla, but also less horror, than the centennial of his
death. There will of course be
considerably less fuss in this country, but we do now have a
new translation of Pushkin's
novel in verse ''Eugene Onegin'' by Douglas R. Hofstadter,
who won a Pulitzer Prize for
''GRated PG-13del, Escher, Bach.'' Though Pushkin's novel
has been translated into English
several times, it is probably best known to Americans
through Tchaikovsky's opera. A
variation on Byron's ''Don Juan,'' ''Eugene Onegin'' is a
tale of loves at cross-purposes,
jealousy and a fatal duel, whose charm resides as much in
the author's digressions as in his
spinning out of the narrative itself.

Both in a previous book, ''Le Ton Beau de Marot,'' and in
his preface to this one, Hofstadter is
much given to theories of translation, which to my mind
resemble culinary theories of
pudding -- we all know where the real proof lies. He is
constantly dodging the shadow of
Nabokov and his brutally literal trot, even beginning his
own dedicatory sonnet with the lines:

Not aiming to amuse the folk in
Nabokov's monde, but just my friends

(an early bad sign -- the first rhyme is ''token''). While
some of this theorizing, and
comparisons with previous translations, may be of interest
to a certain few, the reader would
have been better served by a little background on Pushkin
himself, but as Hofstadter admits,
his spoken Russian is not only ''rather poor'' but he is
''woefully ignorant about the bulk of
Russian literature -- even about the majority of Pushkin's
own output.'' Instead of information
about the poet (from the odd fact that Pushkin had some
African blood to the seminal role he
played in Russian culture), Hofstadter deemed it more
important that the reader learn that his
favorite coffee is hazelnut and that he allows himself the
latitude to indulge in such
cutesyisms as ''By golly, I don't just toy around with
tenses: I also sin in a big time way.''
After admitting his limitations as far as Russia's language
and literature are concerned,
Hofstadter himself raises the question of how he had the
hubris to undertake the translation
of such an elusive work and then offers his readers the
following invitation: ''Judge for
yourself, is all I can say.''

In the end, however, it is Hofstadter's ignorance of
English, the English of poetry, that dooms
his translation. He has absolutely no ear when it comes to
mixing levels of diction (he uses
more ofts, o'ers and 'twere's than Wordsworth and employs
the word ''jive'' not once but
twice). There's not a single line that sings or zings. He's
caught the rhythm and nothing else,
which makes the rhythm wrong by rendering it too pronounced.
Seized by what seems to
have been some sort of acrostic obsession to make all
Pushkin's nearly 400 sonnets fit into
the proper form, the translator forgets the cardinal insight
he sets forth in his introduction: to
wit, that Pushkin's language is ''graceful, sparkling, yet
mostly colloquial.'' The result is
tortured syntax, groan-inducing rhymes and a language unlike
that ever spoken by anyone on
earth. Discussing love with the heroine, Tanya, her peasant
nanny says:

''Oh, Tanya, stop! Your picture's hazy
Of love and marriage yesteryear.
A romance would have driven crazy
Mother-in-law, the late poor dear.''

He mistakes the word-game surface aspect of poetry --
alliteration and wordplay -- for the
thing itself, and when he combines the two the result can be
dreadful, as in this line describing
a ball: ''And flashy belles flash fleshy feet.''

Another of his stated principles is that a ''reader should
not be able to tell, by looking at two
rhyming lines, which of them came first and which was
created later, for the sake of rhyme.'' I,
for one, can't tell in the following couplet which of the
two rhymes came first or which is
worse than the other:

In matters of the heart still virgin,
With hope the lad began to burgeon.

At the end of this volume Hofstadter appends a two-page
''Word of Thanks'' to all who helped
him, but what he lacked was the one friend who, with the
astringent honesty of a Flaubert,
would have looked him in the eye and said: ''It is flat,
your translation.''

Richard Lourie is the author of the just published novel
''The Autobiography of Joseph