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Translation comparisons: Eugene Onegin and The Bronze Horseman

June 6, 2014

[Update: I’ve just learned that Dr. Peter M. Lee, the mathematician who compiled and posted an impressive number of English translations of Eugene Onegin, passed away on March 10th, 2017. His personal user pages at York University no longer exist, but at least some of his work has been archived. For example, you can see his page on EO through or]

In 2009 the historian Stephen Saperstein Frug posted excerpts from translations of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (Евгений Онегин, 1823-31) by Stanley Mitchell (2008), Tom Beck (2004), Douglas Hofstadter (1999), James Falen (1990), Charles Johnston (1977), Walter Arndt (1963, 1972, 1978), Vladimir Nabokov (1964, 1975), Babette Deutsch (1936, 1964), and Henry Spalding (1881). You can see their versions of the opening stanza and the last couplet of chapter 1, stanza 60. Saperstein Frug blogs at Attempts. H/T Ian Appleby, retweeting Nick Admussen, crediting Brendan O’Kane.

There have been several new translations since SSF’s post. Henry M. Hoyt, in his translation dated 2008-2011, says there have been “at least sixteen English translations” of the novel in verse in the last 50 years, but that appears to be an undercount. Hoyt’s contribution is to lose rhyme but keep meter, in an attempt to find a happy medium between the prose/Nabokov approach and the fully rhymed approach with its inevitable changes of lexical meaning and emphasis.

It turns out that it’s not just historians comparing translations of EO on the internet! Peter M. Lee, who has written a textbook on Bayesian statistics, has an impressive bibliography of 43 English translations [archived version] (several translate only part of the text, and the figure of 43 counts multiple editions by a single translator individually), also with versions of chapter 1, stanza 1. I see 20 translations since 1990 on his list, not including 4 post-1990 revisions of pre-1990 translations. Lee has done the same thing for 24 translations of Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman [archived version] (Медный всадник, 1833) from between 1882 and 2010. There he uses lines 44-58 (Люблю тебя, Петра творенье…) as a comparison.

I bet you can guess who this translation of Какое низкое коварство Полуживого забавлять comes from:

What base perfidiousness
the half-alive one to amuse

A hint: in the second edition, he calls his own work “basically unassailable.” Using “base” for низкое in these lines goes all the way back to Spalding in 1881:

Ye need dissimulation base
A dying man with art to soothe

I prefer Babette Deutsch’s “low cunning,” adopted by Mary Hobson (2011). Hoyt opts for “What despicable calculation/ To keep a half-dead man amused.” Another version that got my attention was “What prostitution of one’s wit/ To raise a smile on lips half cold” (Clive Phillips-Wolley, 1883). Overall 7 translators on Lee’s list use “base,” about 24 avoid it, and 2 translations were so obscure Lee couldn’t find a copy. “Base” sets off my personal alarm bells as translationese (and not just mine) and I would expect to prefer translations that don’t use it, so it surprised me that the ratio is much higher in the relatively famous translations Saperstein Frug looks at (4 out of 9 translators use it). “Base” is preferred by Spalding (1881), Nabokov (1964 and 1975), Johnston (1977 and 2003), Falen (1995), Roger Clarke (2005 and 2011), Julian Henry Lowenfeld (2010), and D. M. Thomas (2011).

You can find Spalding’s translation here. He mentions chapter 2, stanza 35 as especially difficult, since it’s full of culturally specific practices (Russian text, Spalding’s translation, Spalding’s notes). The middle of the stanza, Spalding writes, “was at first deemed irreligious by the Russian censors, and consequently expunged,” but most everyone seems to reinstate the censored lines, from Spalding himself (1881) to Iurii Lotman in his commentary (1980) to the editors of various Russian editions. But not Nabokov, who uses lines of dots for half of 2.35. It looks like he’s following the last edition published during Pushkin’s life (January 1837); the notes to the 1937-1959 collected works say the lines were omitted in 1826, 1830, 1833, and 1837:



<Стихи заменены точками>

Гл1, Гл2, 33, 37

I only have Nabokov’s text, not his commentary, and he may include the missing lines there. It’s just as well I can’t check, as I’ve had as much of VN’s contempt for lesser mortals as I can take for a night, after reading his showy non-acknowledgements. Nabokov appears to have textological differences with almost everyone else when it comes to The Bronze Horseman too.

Definitely go to Lee’s site, and check out his Word file of translators’ biographies, where I learned that Clive Phillipps-Wolley (1853-1918) wrote a book called “Sport in the Crimea and Caucasus [1881], based on his time hunting in Russia,” was praised by Theodore Roosevelt for his writing on hunting, also wrote poetry (“with readership in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa”) and novels, gave up hunting for photography, and ran for office in his adopted home of British Columbia on an anti–Chinese immigration platform.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 7, 2014 8:01 am

    I wonder (and will probably always wonder) what happened to Nabokov; he once wrote gorgeous rhymed-and-metered translations, and then converted to his one-man sect of insane translational Puritanism — the more rebarbative, the better. What was his conversion experience? Did someone he respected mock an error or infelicity?

  2. June 7, 2014 1:02 pm

    I probably take the public performance of his asshole persona too seriously, but I suspect it wasn’t someone else pointing out an error of his, but him despising an error (or a completely defensible non-error) made by someone translating him. Did you ever read Michael Scammell’s “The Servile Path“? His first paragraph ends, “To impersonate such a protean stylist would have been hard for anyone and certainly exceeded the powers of a near beginner like myself, but I was young and brash and willing to try. Nabokov valued me, I now think, precisely because I was green and malleable enough to bend to his whims and listen to what he said. And when in one respect I ceased to listen, our collaboration ended.”

    It’s like Ivan IV making another man into the “real tsar” so that he, Ivan IV, could demonstrate to his people what true obedience and humility should look like. Nabokov showed how “humble” he could be as a translator of Pushkin to show that others must be equally humble if they were to be allowed to touch his, Nabokov’s, great works of art.

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