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Old poetry translations: The Bakhchesarian Fountain (William D. Lewis)

April 14, 2014

For a long time I thought Russian-to-English translation started when Constance Garnett (1861-1946) introduced Dostoevskii to the English-speaking world; after that came David Magarshack (1899-1977); and after him all the translators working today. Of course it’s more complicated and began much earlier. For example, there was William David Lewis (1792-1881). In 1849 he published a volume of Russian poems, supposedly “the first collection of translations from the Russian ever made by an American,” which was favorably reviewed by Nikolai Grech, who evidently had known Lewis in Russia, in The Northern Bee (Северная пчела) on July 18, 1851.

Here is Lewis’s translation of the end of the scene in Pushkin’s The Bakhchesarian Fountain (Бахчисарайский фонтан, 1821-23) where the jealous Georgian woman Zarema (the Grusinian Zarem in his version) confronts the Polish Catholic Maria in Khan Giray’s harem (original at the end of this post):

            Throughout the harem none but thou
            Could rival beauties such as mine
                Nor make him violate his vow;
            Yet, Princess! in thy bosom cold
                The heart to mine left thus forlorn,
            The love I feel cannot be told,
                For passion, Princess, was I born.
            Yield me Giray then; with these tresses
                Oft have his wandering fingers played,
            My lips still glow with his caresses,
                Snatched as he sighed, and swore, and prayed,
            Oaths broken now so often plighted!
            Hearts mingled once now disunited!
                His treason I cannot survive;
            Thou seest I weep, I bend my knee,
                Ah! if to pity thou’rt alive,
            My former love restore to me.
                Reply not! thee I do not blame,
            Thy beauties have bewitched Giray,
                Blinded his heart to love and fame,
            Then yield him up to me, I pray,
                Or by contempt, repulse, or grief,
                Turn from thy love th’ungenerous chief!
            Swear by thy faith, for what though mine
                Conform now to the Koran’s laws,
            Acknowledged here within the harem,
            Princess, my mother’s faith was thine,
            By that faith swear to give to Zarem
                Giray unaltered, as he was!
            But listen! the sad prey to scorn
                If I must live, Princess, have care,
                A dagger still doth Zarem wear,–
            I near the Caucasus was born!”

I think this sort of old-fashioned elegance is hard for any modern translator to achieve, and not only because the conventional wisdom has shifted about how to render meter and rhyme. The last line, “I near the Caucasus was born!” is a bit unfortunate, since it sounds more like moose-and-squirrel word order than poetic inversion, but overall I think Lewis succeeds in making his text give a similar overall impression in English as Pushkin’s does in Russian. Many things change. There are 33 lines in this passage in English to 31 in Russian, but there aren’t as many out-and-out additions as you’d think. Instead, Lewis is fond of rearranging and repeating material. His line 3, “Nor make him violate his vow,” looks ahead to клятвы in line 10 of the Russian and измена in line 13 (and perhaps back to another измена 7 lines before the passage starts). Where Pushkin has вера матери моей in line 26 and the pronoun ею referring back to it in line 27, Lewis has “my mother’s faith” in line 27, “by that faith” in line 28, and an anticipatory/clarifying “by thy faith” back in line 24.

Once I argued that the narrator and Zarem(a) position themselves between East and West in this poem, while the static and silent Khan and Maria represent the pure East and the pure West. So I couldn’t help noticing that this aspect of the poet’s perspective is partly lost in translation. In the original, the poet says of the eunuch, “Воля хана/ Ему единственный закон;/ Святую заповедь Корана/ Не строже наблюдает он.” Святая ‘sacred’ is not qualified or restricted (it’s not ‘sacred to them’). Pushkin fought with the religious censors to keep it this way, but Lewis has merely “His only law his chieftain’s pleasure,/ Which as the Koran he maintained.” As far as I can tell, святая ‘sacred’ drops out altogether.

If Garnett and Magarshack were about the same age as Chekhov and Nabokov, respectively, Lewis was older than Pushkin, though he died the same year as Dostoevskii and Pisemskii. He was born in Delaware and lived in Philadelphia for part of his life. In 1814 he went to Europe as Henry Clay’s private secretary, as part of the U.S. peace commission after the War of 1812. But he soon quit and went to Russia for 10 years, apparently 1814-1824, working for at least part of that time (one source says 1818-1824)  for his brother John Delaware Lewis, a merchant based in St. Petersburg who did a great deal of trade with merchants in Philadelphia. While in St. Petersburg, William Lewis was “sued for slander by the [consul] at St. Petersburg, Leavitt Harris, and the seven year litigation [involved] eminent officials in the United States and in Russia, including John Quincy Adams and James Monroe.” In 1825 he returned to Philadelphia and started his own import business there, and he seems to have been active in business and Whig politics until he “retired to his estate near Florence, NJ” after 1853. During the Civil War he unsurprisingly supported the Union.

Lewis’s collection, available as a free e-book from Project Gutenberg, is so old that it uses the spelling Pooshkeen instead of Pushkin. Around half of it is The Bakhchesarian Fountain. The rest: “Amatory and Other Poems, by Various Russian Authors,” namely, in Lewis’s spelling, Pelsky (1765-1803), Dmeetrieff (1760-1837), Nelaidinsky (1752-1829), Shatroff (1765-1841), Merzliakoff (1778-1830), Derjavin (1743-1816).

Sources: the book A Critical Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors, Living and Deceased, from the Earliest Accounts to the Latter Half of the Nineteenth Century, vol. 2 (1870) and the website Social Networks and Archival Context, which draws on sources including the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and William D. Lewis’s papers at the New York Public Library.

The original Russian of the passage quoted above:

            Итак, послушай: я прекрасна;
            Во всем гареме ты одна
            Могла б еще мне быть опасна;
            Но я для страсти рождена,
            Но ты любить, как я, не можешь;
            Зачем же хладной красотой
            Ты сердце слабое тревожишь?
            Оставь Гирея мне: он мой;
            На мне горят его лобзанья,
            Он клятвы страшные мне дал,
            Давно все думы, все желанья
            Гирей с моими сочетал;
            Меня убьет его измена…
            Я плачу; видишь, я колена
            Теперь склоняю пред тобой,
            Молю, винить тебя не смея,
            Отдай мне радость и покой,
            Отдай мне прежнего Гирея…
            Не возражай мне ничего;
            Он мой; он ослеплен тобою.
            Презреньем, просьбою, тоскою,
            Чем хочешь, отврати его;
            Клянись… (хоть я для Алкорана,
            Между невольницами хана,
            Забыла веру прежних дней;
            Но вера матери моей
            Была твоя) клянись мне ею
            Зарему возвратить Гирею…
            Но слушай: если я должна
            Тебе… кинжалом я владею,
            Я близ Кавказа рождена».

5 Comments leave one →
  1. between4walls permalink
    April 14, 2014 7:13 pm

    “While in St. Petersburg, William Lewis was “sued for slander by the [consul] at St. Petersburg, Leavitt Harris, and the seven year litigation [involved] eminent officials in the United States and in Russia, including John Quincy Adams and James Monroe.””

    I was intrigued by this, and here’s the amusing incident seems to have sparked the trouble (plus there’s a duel!):

    “Unfortunately, Lewis made the mistake of losing his temper one
    day in St. Petersburg in August, 1817, and publicly insulted the
    American consul, Levitt Harris, by pulling his nose. Lewis expected
    Harris to be recalled for consular irregularities and hoped to be
    nominated to his place.44 But his treatment of a duly accredited
    American official and the publicity that accompanied a subsequent
    duel and lengthy libel case (which Lewis lost) in Philadelphia prevented
    his consideration for an appointment to a diplomatic post in
    the 1820’s and 1830*5.”

    Source here: “America’s First Student of Russian: William David Lewis of Pennsylvania” by Norman E. Saul

    • April 17, 2014 9:44 am

      Thank you for filling in more of the story! I’ll never again read the nose-pulling scene in The Devils without thinking of Americans in St. Petersburg.

  2. between4walls permalink
    April 14, 2014 7:17 pm

    And this little excerpt puts the libel case down to “accusations of consular malfeasance” and gives some idea of the size of the case. Wish I could find more about it online, though Norman Saul appears to touch on it in his book Distant Friends.

  3. April 14, 2014 7:18 pm

    You will find some fine early-XIX spellings of Russian names quoted in this LH post; although Pushkin is so spelled, his magnum opus is rendered as “Eugenius Onægin”!

    • April 17, 2014 10:15 am

      The spelling “Eugenius Onægin” is wonderful, and it’s strange and refreshing to read someone commenting on the work without quite being sure if it’s really worthy of attention.

      I hadn’t seen “Leonidas Andreiev” before either. The piece you quote on keeping the Russian “decadents’” books out of the “hands of immigrant people” is something else. I guess that must be what Carol in Main Street and Marian in The Music Man were up against in their early-20c Midwestern libraries.

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