Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0015841, Sun, 30 Dec 2007 12:01:46 -0500

Spalding’s translation of Pushkin’s most famous work , Eugene Onegin ...


Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Art of Text Digitization

Recently I completed the digitization of Eugene Oneguine [Onegin]: A Romance of Russian Life in Verse by Aleksandr Pushkin, translated into English by Henry Spalding, published in 1881. This text version of Spalding’s translation is now available on the Project Gutenberg site.Spalding’s translation of Pushkin’s most famous work, Eugene Onegin, was the first published in English and beat all other attempts by about half a century. It’s not considered a great translation, but then neither are most of the others. Pushkin's poetry presents many problems for translators.

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In Vladimir Nabokov’s commentary to his own English translation of Onegin (1964), he calls Spalding “bluff Spalding” and “Matter-of-fact Lt.-Col. Spalding.” It was the controversy surrounding Nabokov’s translation that first interested me in the poem many years ago. Nabokov decided that absolute literalness could not be retained alongside Pushkin’s rhyme and melody, so he translated Onegin with a rigorous literal exactness and jettisoned the rhyme. This led to Nabokov’s friend Edmund Wilson writing a scathing review of the translation in the New York Review of Books, although given his limited knowledge of Russian, Wilson was in no position to criticize Nabokov. The two exchanged rebuttals and were never friends again. Many believe Wilson became jealous over the success of Nabokov’s book Lolita, while his own Memoirs of Hecate County went virtually unnoticed.
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Digitization initiatives such as Project Gutenberg, Internet Archive, Google Books, and Microsoft’s Live Search Books have sprung to life many thousands of books hidden away in the catacombs of a few libraries. Once digitized, these books become available to the entire world. Spalding’s Onegin, basically lost to the greater world of scholars for over a century, is now available to all on the internet in a digitized version. It’s something like the way we’ve been losing and finding ancient works after many years—Archimedes’ Palimpsest, for example, although these books were never lost, but were not widely available until right now.

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