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on June 20, 2004
There is an old, politically-incorrect adage regarding the translation of a literary work from one language to another. A translation is like a woman: if it's beautiful, it's not faithul; if it's faithful, it's not beautiful. This saw kept buzzing through my brain while I was reading Vladimir Nabokov's 1964 English translation of Alexander Pushkin's novel-in-verse "Eugene Onegin". The poem has a unique place in Russian literature, required reading in schools -- required memorization, from what I understand. It seems an odd choice for school rooms, being an ironic love story with a sardonic edge; but then American students are required to read "Silas Marner", George Eliot's tale of greed and redemption. Nabokov, the author of the dazzling "Pale Fire", was born in Old Russia in 1899 and became a master of his native language as well as English. His version of Pushkin's masterpiece doesn't attempt to maintain the meter or rhyming scheme of the original, thereby leading to the danger of "piped-in background music", but presents a literal translation of "humble fidelity". There have been several English translations, and Nabokov sternly appraises them all. (Tchaikovsky's opera is dismissed as "slapdash".) He even goes so far as to compare his work with that of other translators. Thus, Onegin's flirtation with a serf in Book Four is translated by Nabokov as: "sometimes a white-skinned, dark-eyed girl's young and fresh kiss". In his notes Nabokov is amused by an earlier translator's "And, if a black-eyed girl permitted, sometimes a kiss as fresh as she" and is positively aghast at this rendering: "A kiss at times from some fair maiden, dark-eyed, with bright and youthful looks". Now, to an English-only reader, these don't really sound that ridiculous; but Nabokov, in his bilingual security, can be a caustic critic. (As evidently are some of his admirers: I've noticed in Amazon.com that "Eugene Onegin" causes some emotional responses.) By the way, the notes alone are worth the price of admission. Ferociously erudite, Nabokov can also be extremely witty, as when he is discussing Byronic heroes: "Judged by a number of early-nineteenth-century English and French novels that I have perused, the four main outlets or cures for ennui found by the characters suffering from it were: (1) making a nuisance of oneself; (2) committing suicide; (3) joining some well-organized religious group; and (4) quietly submitting to the situation." So, you've been alerted. Get out your dictionary (you'll need it), dust off your French (there's lots of it), and settle down to what might be called Nabokov's labor of tough love.
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on January 2, 2004
Ignorant Heersink ignobly writes, besides other trite nonsense, "But Nabokov's Pushkin is too literal to be any good. James Falen's trans. is far superior, ... Falen, while also literal, also is metered and rhymes. Nabokov's thuds."
In reply, I quote Nabokov from his Foreword, "Literal: rendering, as closely as the associative and syntactical capacities of another language allow, the exact contextual meaning of the original. Only this is true translation."
Later, Nabokov asks: "can a rhymed poem Like Eugene Onegin Be truly translated with the retention of its rhymes? The answer, of course, is no. To reproduce the rhymes and yet translate the entire poem literally is mathematically impossible. But in losing its rhyme the poem loses its bloom, which neither marginal description nor the alchemy of a scholium can replace. Should one then content oneself with an exact rendering of the subject matter and forget all about form? Or should one still excuse an imitation of the poem's structure to which only twisted bits of sense stick here and there, by convincing oneself and one's public that in mutilating its meaning for the sake of a pleasure-measure rhyme one has the opportunity of prettifying or skipping the dry and difficult passages? I have been always amused by the stereotyped compliment that a reviewer pays the author of a "new translation." He says: "It reads smoothly." In other words, the hack who has never read the original, and does not know its language, praises an imitation as readable because easy platitudes have replaced in it the intricacies of which he is unaware. "Readable," indeed! A schoolboy's boner mocks the ancient masterpiece less than does its commercial poetization, and it is when the translator sets out to render the "spirit," and not the mere sense of the text, that he begins to traduce his author."
If you, like me, agree only with Heersink's sentiment that "it's worth while to read the very best Pushkin", I wholeheartedly endorse Nabokov's sublime Eugene Onegin, but on condition you find the original 4 volume set (vol. 1 Introduction Translation, vol. 2 Commentary One to Five, vol. 3 Commentary Six to End, vol. 4 1837 Russian Text). Nabokov's Commentaries are like the blood to the heart that is his translation, it "thuds" for a reason!
EO is the counterpoint: completing a simplified stylistic publishing triptych of Nabokov the writer, the lepidopterist, the scholar.
* Nabokov writes "Russians have, or had, a special name for smug philistinism -poshlust." From Essay 'Philistines and Philistinism'.
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on February 21, 2012
There is an old, politically-incorrect adage regarding the translation of a literary work from one language to another. A translation is like a woman: if it's beautiful, it's not faithul; if it's faithful, it's not beautiful. This saw kept buzzing through my brain while I was reading Vladimir Nabokov's 1964 English translation of Alexander Pushkin's novel-in-verse "Eugene Onegin". The poem has a unique place in Russian literature, required reading in schools -- required memorization, from what I understand. It seems an odd choice for school rooms, being an ironic love story with a sardonic edge; but then American students are required to read "Silas Marner", George Eliot's tale of greed and redemption. Nabokov, the author of the dazzling "Pale Fire", was born in Old Russia in 1899 and became a master of his native language as well as English. His version of Pushkin's masterpiece doesn't attempt to maintain the meter or rhyming scheme of the original, thereby leading to the danger of "piped-in background music", but presents a literal translation of "humble fidelity". There have been several English translations, and Nabokov sternly appraises them all. (Tchaikovsky's opera is dismissed as "slapdash".) He even goes so far as to compare his work with that of other translators. Thus, Onegin's flirtation with a serf in Book Four is translated by Nabokov as: "sometimes a white-skinned, dark-eyed girl's young and fresh kiss". In his notes Nabokov is amused by an earlier translator's "And, if a black-eyed girl permitted, sometimes a kiss as fresh as she" and is positively aghast at this rendering: "A kiss at times from some fair maiden, dark-eyed, with bright and youthful looks". Now, to an English-only reader, these don't really sound that ridiculous; but Nabokov, in his bilingual security, can be a caustic critic. (As evidently are some of his admirers: I've noticed in Amazon.com that "Eugene Onegin" causes some emotional responses.) By the way, the notes alone are worth the price of admission. Ferociously erudite, Nabokov can also be extremely witty, as when he is discussing Byronic heroes: "Judged by a number of early-nineteenth-century English and French novels that I have perused, the four main outlets or cures for ennui found by the characters suffering from it were: (1) making a nuisance of oneself; (2) committing suicide; (3) joining some well-organized religious group; and (4) quietly submitting to the situation." So, you've been alerted. Get out your dictionary (you'll need it), dust off your French (there's lots of it), and settle down to what might be called Nabokov's labor of tough love.
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on August 24, 2010
Nabokov's translation seems to arouse some heat.

If you're trying, as I did, to pick a translation to read, try sampling.

Here, for example is a stanza from Nabokov, not untypical in mood. It describes our hero's attitude to affairs of the heart at a certain stage in his life.

With belles no longer did he fall in love,
but dangled after them just anyhow;
when they refused, he solaced in a twinkle;
when they betrayed, was glad to rest.
He would seek them without intoxication,
while he left them without regret,
hardly remembering their love and spite.
Exactly thus does an indifferent guest
drive up for evening whist;
sits down; then, once the game is over,
he drives off from the place,
at home falls peacefully asleep,
and in the morning does not know himself
where he will drive to in the evening.
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on November 2, 2006
I completely agree with D.S. Heersink's assessment of Nabokov's Onegin translation. While undoubtedly accurate to the nth degree, it is tedious to read, to say the least. If you are studying Russian, perhaps the Nabokov translation might be appropriate; however, if you expect to derive pleasure from reading Eugene Onegin, by all means go with Falen.

Someone else commented on the fact that poetry cannot be translated. That is pure nonsense, though reading Nabokov's English version of Eugene Onegin, one would indeed come to the conclusion that a translation of the work from the Russian is impossible. To quickly correct that erroneous impression, pick up the James Falen translation.

Those interested in translation issues of all kinds should not miss Douglas Hofstadter's "Le ton beau de Marot" (which, incidentally, has much to say about Nabokov in general and his Eugene Onegin in particular). Come to think of it, you might want to read Hofstadter's own translation of Eugene Onegin. It's a little more playful and jazzy than Falen's. Which of the two is better is a matter of personal preference.

Eugene Onegin is a novel in verse. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to read it without rhyme or meter. A student of Russian might glean some insight from Nabokov's literal translation, but lovers of poetry and beauty in language will not get much from it.

It really depends on what you are after. Nabokov gives you a detailed recipe, Falen a delicious dessert. If you want to know what it FEELS like to read Pushkin yourself, pick up a copy of Falen's (or Hofstadter's) translation. If you want to ANALYZE in painstaking detail what exactly every word means, go with Nabokov, but in that case be aware that you won't be reading verse. You'll know exactly what's in it, but it won't "taste" good.
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on May 19, 2000
Nabokov and Pushkin are among my favorite authors, both having an excellent command of the language, the media, and the art. But Nabokov's Pushkin is too literal to be any good. James Falen's trans. is far superior, perhaps the best, and it's worth while to read the very best Pushkin. Ironically, Nabokov was fretted that anyone other than his son would ever translate his words; I think Pushkin would have felt the same if he saw Nabokov's translation of his masterpiece. Falen, while also literal, also is metered and rhymes. Nabokov's thuds. Read Nabokov's great novels (Pnin, Lolita, King Queen & Knave, Bend Sinister, Invitation to a Beheading, Despair, etc.) but leave Pushkin to Falen, not Nabokov.
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on March 29, 2008
I adore Pushkin's poetry and have admired it since my college days long ago. He has a tenderness, elegance of metaphor, eye for beauty and connection to the Russian landscape, which truly set him apart. I consider him the Wordsworth of Russia, although Pushkin admired Byron, whom he quotes in Chapter 8. Eugene Onegin had much in common with Childe Harold. That is, Onegin is a man who is overwhelmed by the simple beauty of the Russian countryside in which Pushkin loved to dwell. Yet somehow he is a misfit and outcast within a rather anti-heroic context or, as Lermontov called it, as an unwilling driver of "the axe of fate." Onegin definitely has a deeply romantic aspect to his soul, as did Pushkin. In the dual with Lenski we see Pushkin foreshadowing his own demise in much the same way that Pechorin's experience in a Hero of Our Time was prescient of the demise of Lermontov. I am intrigued by Pushkin's attempt to structure his novel with the framework of poetry. The net effect is a mini-epic or short lyrical poem, which brings to mind the style of verse of, say, Virgil or Homer but with a more contemporary structure. I bought this translation by Nabokov who is as full of himself as ever in this rendition in which he seeks to translate with a vernacular style of which I would find it hard to believe that Pushkin would approve. It's hard to imagine that Pushkin would have described the friendship of Onegin and Lenski as "pals." Nabokov becomes an intrusive figure in this rendition instead of a silent, creative partner quietly and humbly adding value to the work. In the translation we depend upon the creative gifts of the translator and my experience with Pushkin in the past leads me to wonder if Nabokov does justice to Pushkin in this version of Eugene Onegin. If so, then clearly Pushkin is a far better poet than he is a novelist. However, Pushkin does bring to the novel elegant descriptive beauty and romantic sensibility, which inform Eugene Onegin. For my money, Lermontov's Hero of Our Time is a vastly superior novel to Eugene Onegin. If you want to read a truly great Russian novel, try Lermontov, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Turgenev or Bulghakov. If you want the finest poetry ever written by a Russian, then read Pushkin's poetry. If you seek to gain insight into the fusion of poetry and fiction into a single genre, then you may be intrigued, as I was, by Eugene Onegin.
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on March 29, 2003
I'm a Russian Language and Literature major in Yonsei Univ. in Korea. Having lived in Moscow for around 3 years, I'd heard there a lot about Pushkin and read many of his famous works. The most prestigious of his, however, must be "Onegin." It's a great mixture of verse and prose in its form. If possible, try to read this in Russian, as well. This long poetical prose was written for 8 years and the ending rhyme perfectly matches for the entire line until the very end. Compared to others, it is definitely a conspicuous and brilliant one. "Onegin" can be the author himself or yourself. The love between Onegin and TaTyana is neither the cheap kind of love that often appears in any books nor the tragic one that is intended to squeze your tears. As a literature, this book covers not only love between passionate youth, but also a large range of literary works in it, which can tell us about the contemporary literature current and its atmosphere. Calling Onegin "My friend", Pushkin, the author, shows the probability and likelihood of the work. Finally, I'm just sorry that the title has been changed into English. The original name must be "Yevgeni Onegin(¬¦¬Ó¬Ô¬Ö¬ß¬Ú¬Û ¬°¬ß¬Ö¬Ô¬Ú¬ß)." If you are a literature major or intersted in it, I'd like to recommand you read this. You can't help but loving the two lovers and may reread it, especially the two correspondences through a long period of time. Only with readng this book, you'll also learn a huge area of the contemporary literature of the 19th century from the books mentioned in "Onegin" that take part as its subtext. Enjoy yourself!
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on January 19, 2014
I read this book after watching a movie on the story. One thing for sure is that James Falen did a perfect job on the translation of EUGENE ONEGIN. Much of the Russian nature of glows in this English translation, brining out the humor, wittiness, emotions, grief, sadness and vitality of the original story, which mirrored the Russian society at the time Pushkin lived.
The lessons from the story are strong. Never fight against somebody who is not out to hurt you even if you feel he hurt your pride. That was the case between Eugene and his friend and neighbor Vladimir Lensky, which ends tragically over a nonexistent rivalry over Olga Larin: Another lesson is to appreciate the genuine and selfless love of others for, especially when we are lost in life. That was the case of Olga's sister Tatiana, whom Eugene initially rejects, only to fall in love with her later at a time when she had lost faith in him and had committed herself to a man she did not love but respected. Pushkin himself could be seen in the writing. The loss of what we did not know we loved is the overriding theme in this book. In this direction, there are many lessons to learn from Russia .We can see that in UNION MOUJIK, WAR AND PEACE.I enjoyed reading this book, so if you are undecided about reading it, pick it up and do yourself a favor by knowing about this great work of art.
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on January 3, 2002
I'm so happy that I'm Russian and I could read this masterpiece in original language. This is one of the best Russian books ever written, and it is the example of all-time classics. Evgeniy Onegin is so extremely well-written, so original, so interesting, so intelligent. If you want to understand Russian people, you should live in Russia for years. But if you want just to approach to understanding them read some Russian literature. Your first authors may be Tolstoy or Dostoyevskiy, but I should recommend reading Pushkin at first because he is the most Russian of all Russian writers.
The only thing that may make your reading not so great is the fact that you will read it in translation. I have never read any but I think that if you like (or dislike) one of them you should try some others.
I know that Nabokov didn't translate it using the verses (and Pushkin's verses are so great), but I think it is the most punctual one. So maybe you should try to read exactly it (especially if you have already read some not so punctual translation but in verse form).
Anyway Evgeniy Onegin is one of the greatest books ever written!!!
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