San Francisco Chronicle

Poetry review: Nabokov translates Russians

Barbara Berman, Special to The Chronicle

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Verses and Versions

Three Centuries of Russian Poetry

Selected and translated by Vladimir Nabokov; edited by Brian Boyd and Stanislav Shvabrin

Harcourt; 480 pages; $40

After a book creates a big splash, the author's reputation can be tied so tightly to it that audiences can be distracted from work that preceded or follows it. Vladimir Nabokov, best known for the novel "Lolita," is an excellent example, with a title that became and is still a part of speech. "Verses and Versions," his translations of three centuries of Russian poetry, highlights other enormous gifts. It is gloriously rich and astutely chosen.
Nabokov, fluent in French and English at a young age, wrote riveting essays about poets and poems he loved. Editors Brian Boyd and Stanislav Shvabrin were wise to include them. Poems are offered in English and Russian, giving further opportunity to be grateful for what Nabokov did in the service of literature. Also included, oddly, are translations from French into English of poems by Remi Belleau and Henri de Regnier.
Boyd's excellent introduction scrupulously showcases the intentions of Nabokov, who died in 1977, for the project that became this volume. Boyd calls it "a master class in the possibilities and problems of literary translation," and repeatedly displays the accuracy of this declaration. Nabokov's thoughts are precise gems that glow with erudition and ardor.
Some of what Nabokov says is technical, and if he seems arcane, consider his nods to "everyday colloquialisms" and "popular speech," which help equalize the tastiness of all the dishes in this lavish banquet. Also consider the profoundly American notion implied by Nabokov - the immigrant who lectured at Cornell - that anyone can grasp the intricacies and meanings of a subject or a work of art, if illuminators are as dedicated as they should be, as is this group of poets, translator and editors. For those who are interested in even greater detail, a link,, is provided, and serves as a study aid workable in the classroom or at home. Pushkin, Mandelshtam and other prominent Russians are well represented here, but it is a special treat to become better acquainted with lesser-known writers. The elegantly expressed pleasures of Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev (1803-1873) provide the silken loveliness that poets of his generation often strove for:
The storm withdrew, but Thor had found its oak,
and there it lay, magnificently slain,
and from its limbs a remnant of blue smoke
spread to bright trees repainted by the rain.
These lines could easily have been clunkers. Instead they bring to mind the best of Edna St. Vincent Millay, generously suggesting that it may be time to revive interest in both poets.
When Nabokov's versions are too singsong or seem awkward, his reasoning is so compelling that dismay is fleeting, making one appreciate all the more the power and the reach of Russian writers. When the music of the lines in both languages sounds just right to ears exposed to Russian, and when the drama expressed is unforced, perfection is achieved. Far more often than not, that is the case.
Writing in 1945, and reprinted here, Nabokov said that Aleksandr Blok (1880-1921) was a poet who "gets into one's system." Blok's "The Strange Lady," quoted in part, makes the point:
Russia, beggarly Russia
your grey hovels,
your wind-borne songs
are to me like the first tears of love.
I know not how to pity you
but tenderly I carry my cross;
you may abandon your brigandish beauty
to any wizard you choose.
Let him entice you and deceive you;
perish you will not, nor disappear.
America owes its language and speech rhythms to many countries. Russian poetry is an important part of the mix. This superb book deserves an honored place in the process, especially in San Francisco and other communities made more vibrant by a strong Russian presence.

Barbara Berman is the author of the chapbook "The Generosity of Stars" (Finishing Line Press). E-mail her at


This article appeared on page E - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle


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