Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000840, Wed, 29 Nov 1995 09:57:22 -0800

Review: M. Eskin's _Nabokovs Version von Pushkin "Evgenij Onegin"
EDITORIAL NOTE. Dr. Nassim Berdjis, whose dissertation "Imagery in VN's
Last Russian Novel (Dar)..." has just been published by Peter Lang (see
NABOKV-L of Nov. 16 for an abstract), offers this review of a recent
German study of Nabokov's much disputed EUGENE ONEGIN translation.
NABOKV-L thanks Dr. Berdjis. DBJ
Michael Eskin. Nabokovs Version von Pushkins "Evgenij Onegin": Zwischen
Version und Fiktion--eine uebersetzungs- und fiktionstheoretische
Untersuchung. [Nabokov's Version of Pushkin's "Evgenij Onegin": Between
Version and Fiction--An Analysis Based on Theories of Translation and
Fiction.] Slavistische Beitraege 313. Munich: Otto Sagner, 1994. ISBN

At the beginning of this master's thesis (written at the
University of Munich, Germany), the author points out the lack of
studies on Nabokov's version of Pushkin's "Evgenij Onegin"
(henceforth referred to as EO), a fact that he finds all the more
astonishing because it is the most expansive version of EO in any
foreign language and because it is the most extensive text in
Nabokov's oeuvre. Eskin uses the second edition (1975; rather than
the first edition of 1964) of Nabokov's EO, as the second edition
adheres even more strictly to Nabokov's principles of translation.
The first chapter shows that critics of Nabokov's EO disregarded
the complementarity of the translation and the commentary (which
add up to what Nabokov called "version"), and they also failed to see
the stronger use of "recurring epithets" and "mere signal words" in
the second edition. In the following chapter, Eskin discusses
Nabokov's ideas on the translation of poetry and comes to the
following conclusion: "The individual lexemes of the translation signal
the presence, recurrence, and contextual meaning of a lexeme in the
original text; the commentary describes those aspects of the original
text that are sacrificed in the translation and provides a 'complete
explication' of the text" (cf. 34 [my translation]). Eskin then discusses
Nabokov's method of translation by analyzing examples for VN's
translations of rhyme, meter/rhythm, keeping the same line endings,
"elegance, euphony, clarity, good taste, modern usage and ...
grammar." He also scrutinizes the use of foreign words and the
sacrificing of grammar and syntax for the sake of keeping larger
syntagmatic units. Eskin discusses several instances of Edmund
Wilson's criticism and supports Nabokov's word choices as justified
by context and as in tune with Nabokov's translation theory. In the
analysis of signal words, he comes to the conclusion that Nabokov
often equated 2 English words with 2 Russian words, but that he
sometimes split up one Russian word into several English
translations, depending on the individual context.
The second part of the study focuses on the commentary. Eskin
argues that Nabokov's version of EO can be regarded as fiction. (In
contrast to Wilson's and Gershenkron's views, the perspective of a
fictionalized version renders VN's supposed subjectivity and
eccentricity unproblematic.) The question as to whether Nabokov
intended to fictionalize his EO version is tackled by discussing "roles"
that Nabokov plays in the commentary: scholar of philology,
translator, scientist, persona connecting EO and Pushkin with VN.
Additionally, Eskin sees VN posing as Pushkin's competitor (voicing
his own stylistic goals), as a romancier (using rhetorical methods to
address the reader and thus turning into a narrator), as a competitor
by quantity (digressing disproportionally). The latter role provokes
the question of who is in charge of exactly setting the limit for an
"appropriately long" commentary. Having discussed those roles, Eskin
concludes that the role play that the author of the commentary
engages in undermines the objectivity of a scholarly study and that
the heterogeneity of the commentary leads to a lack of authority in
the text. As all roles involve an element of irony, Eskin interprets the
commentary as self-parody, saying that other-directed irony turns
into an ironic stance towards the commentary itself. Thus, the
commentary loses credibility and contradicts itself.
In order to show the ambiguities in Nabokov's translation and
to demonstrate that VN's version cannot be the only solution, Eskin
translates several English passages back into Russian. He surmises
that if the the commentary lacks credibility, the translation cannot
be accepted at face value either. Analyzing Puskin's and Nabokov's
uses of the genitive, Eskin comes to the conclusion that Nabokov did
not follow his own advice in all cases. Unfortunately, Nabokov's
commentary is not referred to in this discussion of the translation,
thus disregarding the complementarity established earlier.
In the last part of the study, Eskin describes the loss of the
authenticity function of a text as "typical" for contemporary
literature and stresses that fictionalization and fiction are analogous
to method and genre. He then refers to Nabokov's fictionalization in
his version of EO as an example of Bakhtin's "hybrid construction": in
that sense, Nabokov's EO follows philological as well as fictional,
artistic, and political goals that are united in a dialog that comprises
the respective stylistic elements of these realms. Finally, Nabokov's
views are seen as anticiptaing Michael Riffaterre's ideas.

Reading this study may puzzle the reader. What starts as a
defense against Nabokov's critics moves from a possibly exaggerated
criticism of the translation and commentary to the conclusion that
the extravagant form of a fictionalized version of EO disguised as a
scholarly work places Nabokov into the generalized community of
authors (whose literature shows features "typical" for their time) and
makes him the herald of new trends in some schools of linguistics. It
seems that the examples in Eskin's discussion of Nabokov's
translations of genitives should be related to the latter's
commentary, in order to get a fuller picture of his intentions and to
heed the interaction of translation and commentary. A complete
discussion of Nabokov's EO definitely constitutes a challenging task
for a master's thesis which has to be completed in the course of six
months and for a study which comprises ca. 150 pages. Eskin's work
indicates that the discussion of Nabokov's scholarly masterpiece will
necessarily continue to occupy researchers' minds and imaginations.

Nassim W. Berdjis
English Department
University of California Davis
Davis, CA 95616
phone: (916) 752-5371 (w)
phone: (916) 750-2759 (h)