Monday, September 30, 2013

Following a train of thought: Pushkin's Eugene Onegin to Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin

Alexander Pushkin has roughly the same stature in Russian literature that Shakespeare does in English, and Eugene Onegin (1823-1833) is his greatest work. Called "a novel in verse," it is a long narrative poem that recounts the adventures of the title character. Onegin is a sort of Byronic anti-hero: dashing and handsome, with a ready and wicked wit, he is a man of fashionable society who lives for his own pleasure, but who has become jaded with the endless round of dinners, balls, and semi-clandestine affairs with his friends' wives.

At the opening of the poem Onegin has inherited his uncle's country estate. There he is even more bored than in the city, until he meets a neighbor, the young poet Vladimir Lensky. Lensky is engaged to his childhood sweetheart Olga, the daughter of Larin, a local landowner. Lensky ultimately prevails on the reluctant Onegin to attend a dinner party at Larin's estate, where he meets Olga and her older sister Tatyana. The meeting is fateful for everyone involved. Tatyana, shy and serious, falls head over heels in love with this dark, brooding stranger, who seems to embody all the qualities of the heroes of her novels. Daringly, she writes Onegin a letter in which she declares her feelings.

And this is where the tone of Eugene Onegin shifts. Up to this point (the middle of Chapter 3), the narrator has adopted a lightly ironic style in which all the foibles, contradictions, and vanities of his characters are held up for our amused examination; Byron's "epic satire" Don Juan (1818-1824) seems to have been the model. But with Tatyana's letter, the poem shifts into a different emotional register. The narrator writes that he rereads her letter with "secret pain," and is moved by the genuine feeling expressed in her tender, heartfelt, and impetuous words:
Tatyana's Letter to Onegin
I write to you—no more confession
is needed, nothing's left to tell.
I know it's now in your discretion
with scorn to make my world a hell... (translated by Charles Johnston [1])
Tatyana's letter is a key test of any translation of Eugene Onegin. Not only must a translator capture all the shades of Tatyana's emotions, he or she must do so within the constraints of the verse form that Pushkin employs. Called the "Onegin stanza" or the "Pushkin sonnet," it consists of fourteen lines of iambic tetrameter following the rhyme scheme aBaBccDDeFFeGG, where the lower-case letters indicate feminine rhymes (rhymes in which the last syllable is unstressed, such as pleasure/measure) and the upper-case letters masculine ones (where the last syllable is stressed, such as dream/scheme). Iambic tetrameter is a poetic line made up of four two-syllable groups (metrical feet), in which the first syllable is unstressed and the second is stressed; such a two-syllable group is called an iamb. Got all that?

An example of an English poem that uses iambic tetrameter is Byron's "She walks in beauty" from Hebrew Melodies, 1814:
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meets in her aspect and her eyes...
The short rhymed line in less expert hands, though, can sound forced or obvious. Johnston in his translation of the opening of Tatyana's letter uses enjambment ("no more confession / is needed...") to smooth out the rhythm of the first two lines. Here are three other attempts to render the opening of Tatyana's letter:
I'm writing you this declaration—
what more can I in candor say?
It may now be your inclination
to scorn me and to turn away... (translated by James E. Falen [2])

I write to you—what more is needed?
This said, have I not said enough?
And you are free now, I conceded
To slight me with a chill rebuff... (translated by Walter Arndt [3])

I write—what more is there to say?
How shall I add to my confession?
I know it’s in your power today
To punish me with your derision. (translated by A. S. Kline [4])
It's impossible to generalize about the overall quality of each translation from these short excerpts, especially since I don't read Russian. But for me the Falen version sounds a bit too matter-of-fact, and it also loses the sense that Tatyana knows she has revealed everything by the mere act of writing to Onegin. Arndt introduces an odd change of tense (why is it "I conceded" rather than "I concede," except to force the rhyme with "needed"?), and also doesn't convey the perilous position in which Tatyana has placed herself—she's risking utter social ruin, not merely a "chill rebuff." Kline reverses the pattern of masculine and feminine line endings and uses a near-rhyme ("confession"/"derision") that sounds jarring to me.

If you'd like to see further translation comparisons, Stephen Frug has posted eleven different versions of Eugene Onegin's opening stanza on his blog Eugene Onegin in English Translation, and discusses the issues involved in his post "Eugene Onegin in English: Comparing Translations." Douglas Hofstadter gives multiple versions of Chapter 2, Stanza 29 in his lecture "Analogy as the Core of Cognition" (search within the page for "Onegin"). Hofstadter also discusses the problem of translating Eugene Onegin in two chapters of Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language (Basic Books, 1997), and in the preface to his own translation of Pushkin's work (Basic Books, 1999).

Famously, Vladimir Nabokov denounced the very possibility of an English translation that attempts to match the rhyme and metrical schemes of the original. In his preface to his own unrhymed translation Nabokov asked, "Can a rhymed poem like Eugene Onegin be truly translated with the retention of its rhymes? The answer, of course, is no." He goes on to say that when a translator goes beyond the "mere sense of the text...he begins to traduce the author." [6] Perhaps Nabokov gave his final word on the subject in his poem  "On Translating 'Eugene Onegin'" (written in Onegin stanzas):
What is translation? On a platter
A poet's pale and glaring head,
A parrot's screech, a monkey's chatter,
And profanation of the dead.
Elsewhere in that poem Nabokov describes his prose rendition of Pushkin's poem as "All thorn, but cousin to your rose." Judge for yourself: here is Nabokov's thorny "literal" translation of the first lines of Tatyana's letter:
I write to you—what would one more?
What else is there that I could say?
'Tis now, I know, within your will
to punish me with scorn.
I think "what would one more?" could be rendered more colloquially (but less tetrametrically) as "what more is it necessary for me to do?" or, perhaps, "must I do more?" or, as Arndt has it, "what more is needed?" But as it stands, an English reader is forced to stop at the end of the first line to try to figure out what's being said. Nabokov disdained "readable" translations, but this awkwardness of locution (far from the only one in his translation, alas) is carrying things a bit far.

My own feeling is that Johnston's translation succeeds admirably in conveying both the structure of the original and its sense—at least, as far as I've been able to determine it by comparison with other translations and with Nabokov's version. For example, here is Nabokov's prose version of Chapter 2, Stanza 29:
Her father was a kindly fellow
who lagged in the precedent age
but saw no harm in reading books;
he, never reading,
deemed them an empty toy,
nor did he care
what secret tome his daughter had
dozing till morn under her pillow.
Any good translation needs to retain the beautiful and poignant image of Tatyana's book sleeping under her pillow; here are several other ways that it has been rendered in English:
Nor did he care what secret tome
His daughter read or kept at home
Asleep till morn beneath her pillow... (tr. Falen)

[He] never thought to bring to light
Which secret volume dreamt at night
Beneath his little daughter’s pillows. (tr. Arndt)

[He] never bothered for a moment
About the volume’s true content,
That slept beneath her pillow thus. (tr. Kline)

[He] cared not what his daughter kept
by way of secret tome that slept
until the dawn beneath her pillow. (tr. Johnston)
I'm not sure what Falen means by "read or kept at home"; it seems to imply, oddly, that Tatyana might place a book she's not reading under her pillow. Arndt introduces the nice image of a book dreaming under Tatyana's pillow, but (if we believe Nabokov) the image isn't Pushkin's: in the original the book is sleeping, not dreaming. Kline uses another awkward near-rhyme of "moment" and "content." For me, Johnston's version is both the most faithful and, yes, most readable.

And there's at least one other person who has said so in print (although it must be admitted that he wrote this praise before Falen's translation was published):
          ...[Let me] suggest
You spend some unfilled day of leisure
By that original spring of pleasure:
Sweet-watered, fluent, clear, light, blithe
(This homage merely pays a tithe
Of what in joy and inspiration
It gave me once and does not cease
To give me)—Pushkin's masterpiece
In Johnston's luminous translation:
Eugene Onegin—like champagne
Its effervescence stirs my brain.
These lines are from Vikram Seth's Golden Gate (Random House, 1986, p. 102), a novel in verse itself (as you may have already detected) written in the form of Onegin stanzas. And Seth's novel is where my train of thought next took me—with a slight sidetrack first to another work deriving from Eugene Onegin: Tchaikovsky's opera.

Next time: Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin

Last time: Speak, Memory to Eugene Onegin

Versions of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin quoted in this post:

1. Translated by Charles Johnston, revised Penguin Classics edition, 1979
2. Translated by James E. Falen, Southern Illinois University Press, 1990
3. Translated by Walter Arndt, Dutton, 1963
4. Translated by A. S. Kline, retrieved September 30, 2013 from
5. Translated with commentary by Vladimir Nabokov, second Princeton/Bollingen paperback edition, 1990, p. ix

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