Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0001579, Sun, 29 Dec 1996 22:05:30 -0800

On Onegin and Translation
In today's NYT Book Review there are interesting responses to Richard
Hofstadter's essay on translating Pushkin which appeared on Dec. 8 and
where he called VN's translation "catastrophic."

The first letter (by Edward L. Killham, Washington DC) does not
mention Nabokov by name but curiously expresses opinions that never
failed to stir him to wrath. Thus it praises Babette Deutsch's translation
of EO as that of "landmark importance" and, adding insult to injury (as
far as Nabokov was concerned), compares her "excellent" translation to
Pasternak's rendition of Shakespeare: "they both raise the sometimes
humdrum level of translation into genuine creativity." Besides this
coupling of two people VN didn't care for, the whole idea that "genuine
creativity" is good for translations was always of particular
distaste to him since it implied that a translator's own creativity
could somehow legitimately rival that of Pushkin or Shakespeare.

The second letter, written by Richard Gregg (Poughkeepsie, NY), is
directly about Nabokov's translation of EO -- and I am therefore
reproducing it here in its totality:

To the Editor:
I much enjoyed Richard Hofstadter's essay on the first and,
arguably, the greatest of all Russian novels. The translations of Messrs.
Elton, Arndt, Johnston and Falen fully deserve the high marks awarded. As
for Mr. Hofstadter's dismissal of Vladimir Nabokov's curious experiment in
cacophony, it is, I fear, exactly what he says it is, "catastrophic."
For the sake of accuracy and complete fairness, however, allow me
to make these points:
1. Nabokov explicitly stated that the aim of his translation was
not to produce a mellifluous rendition of EUGENE ONEGIN but a
word-for-word "trot." This he did, and trots, after all, have their uses.
For the first time the non-Russian reader can find out what exactly
Pushkin wrote. No translation using the original strophic scheme can
possibly do that.
2. It is inaccurate to say that Nabokov jettisoned both rhyme and
meter. Hos translation is composed of 14-line iambic tetrameter stanzas.
They are awful-sounding iambs, I agree. But iambs they are.
3. No critic has taken full and fair measure of Nabokov's
four-volume edition of EUGENE ONEGIN unless he acknowledges the stylistic
brilliance, perspicacity and erudition of the monumental (900-page)
commentary with which it is provided. Whatever the sins of Nabokov the
translator may have been, Nabokov the commentator and critic amply made up
for them.
4. Finally, the title given to the essay, "What's Gained in
Translation," implying the superiority of the English versions to the
Russian original, is, to say the least, unfortunate. As all four
translators, alive or deceased, would, I am sure, agree, there is
scarcely a line in Pushkin's masterpiece that can be matched by the
confections, however felicitous, of the periphrast.