The supreme poet of the Russian language, Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin has had a checkered existence in English. His prose
, to be sure, has presented his translators with a less formidable set of hurdles. But Pushkin composed his masterpiece, Eugene Onegin
, in a 14-line stanza of his own invention, with a slippery rhyme scheme and treacherously foursquare meter (i.e., iambic tetrameter, which tends to sound slightly singsong to English speakers). This has forced most of his translators--from Walter Arndt to James Falen
to Charles Johnston
--to shortchange form in favor of content. Vladimir Nabokov probably pushed this tendency as far as it could go, transforming Pushkin's poetry into perversely lumpy paragraphs
(and enveloping the slim pickings of his translation in a jumbo-sized commentary
). But nobody has managed to produce even a halfway-definitive version of Eugene Onegin
Now Douglas Hofstadter, who's best known for Gödel, Escher, Bach, has taken a shot at it. Certainly he's no stranger to translation theory--his 1997 book, Le Ton Beau de Marot, was a brilliant and unbuttoned meditation on the translator's art, with numerous detours into the hinterlands of cognitive science. Theory and practice are two different matters, however, as Hofstadter is quick to admit: "The thought seemed quite ridiculous: me, with such sparse knowledge of Russian, hoping to clamber up this formidable Everest of translation, a book often said to be next to untranslatable, and square at the center of the inner circle of Russian literature!" Clamber he did, however--and the result is a charming if uneven version of the poem, more beholden to Cole Porter and Ogden Nash than the poet's 19th-century peers. Several of Hofstadter's slangier couplets might have Nabokov spinning in his grave: "Did thus our party boy exhaust / Himself at games, at zero cost?" Still, he manages some of Pushkin's loop-the-loops very nicely:
The air grew warm as days went flying,
And winter knew to call it quits.
Eugene gave up his versifying,
But not the ghost, and not his wits.
He's lent new life by buds aborning,
And first thing on some clear spring morning
He leaves his cloistered, small château
Where, marmot-like, he'd braved the snow.
Clearly Hofstadter's take on the poem goes heavy on the sizzle and fails to capture much of Pushkin's elegant gravity. Still, it's a welcome addition to the ranks, a handsome present to the poet on the occasion of his 200th birthday--and, rather winningly, a linguistic labor of love. --William Davies
The first, most famous, and greatest novel in verse is the best known--by Russians--work in Russian literature, Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.
Englished many times in this century, here it is again by the author of the 1979 intellectual best-seller Godel Escher Bach,
who prefaces his handiwork with a delightful explanation of the novel's verse form, how he came to translate it, his procedure as a basically non-Russian-speaking translator, and his travels, thanks to an American descendant of Pushkin, to the poet's St. Petersburg apartment, in which he translated the novel's last stanza. Pushkin's story of a rich, bored young man who rather offhandedly destroys his chance at love by killing a friend in a duel and alienating his would-be beloved is equally delightful in Hofstadter's sparkling, breezy version that catches the novel's combination of wry, Austenish provincial romance and Byronic irony, digressiveness, and satire. Comedy doesn't come more ultimately tragic, nor tragedy more bitterly comic. Many thanks to Hofstadter for a job well done, just in time for the Pushkin bicentennial. Ray Olson