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Translation comparison: The Little Tragedies and (again) Eugene Onegin

December 16, 2014

Physical pages do beat the internet sometimes: I grabbed a copy of SEEJ to use as a hard surface to write on, opened it at random, and found a five-year-old piece by Robert Chandler that I’ve added to the translation comparison page. It’s on Pushkin, and he compares a few translations of Eugene Onegin (Nabokov, Johnston, Falen, Mitchell, Hofstadter) and three of the Little Tragedies (Falen, Wood, Mulrine; I think Alan Shaw’s translation hadn’t yet come out). He also reviews Antony Wood’s translations of some works that are not translated so frequently that they demand comparison, like Count Nulin (Граф Нулин, 1825):

Wood’s outstanding achievement, however, is his Count Nulin. In his introduction he quotes Andrei Sinyavsky: “Lightness is the first thing we get out of [Pushkin’s] works […]. Before Pushkin there was almost no light verse [in Russia…]. And suddenly, out of the blue, there appeared curtsies and turns comparable to nothing and no one, speed, onslaught, bounciness, the ability to prance, to gallop, to take hurdles, to do splits.” In his Count Nulin, Wood reproduces this lightness. There is nothing in English poetry quite like this; in comparison, even Byron’s Don Juan seems heavy-footed:

Tarquin, in hope of sweet reward,
Once more sets forth to seek Lucretia,
Resolved to go through fire to reach her.

Thus you may see a cunning tom,
The mincing darling of the house,
Slip from the stove to stalk a mouse,
Creep stealthily and lowly on
Towards his victim, grow slit-eyed
And wave his tail from side to side,
Coil to a ball, extend his claws
And snap! The wretch is in his paws. (648)

I also liked this: “The more humor and realistic detail in a poem of Pushkin’s, the easier that poem is to translate. ‘Autumn,’ for example, evokes Pushkin’s everyday life in Boldino in considerable detail — and the poem holds its interest even in the plainest of prose translations. ‘Ia vas liubil,’ in contrast, is both more serious and more abstract, and it sounds banal in all the hundred or so translations I have seen — including twenty or thirty attempts of my own” (648).

See Robert Chandler, “Some Recent Translations of Pushkin,” Slavic and East European Journal 53.4 (2009): 645-50. It’s easy to tell that Chandler likes some of his fellow translators’ efforts better than others, and why. But as usual with him, he manages to spend most of his time on the positive aspects of the things he likes, without being vague.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. kaggsysbookishramblings permalink
    December 16, 2014 8:39 am

    I always find Chandler a very fair commentator with a balance viewpoint – unlike others I could mention! (P/V!)

    • December 16, 2014 9:46 am

      I’ve heard this before about Pevear and Volokhonsky, and maybe I just haven’t read the right things of theirs, but I think they get a bad rap. I enjoy reading their fierce defenses of their own work against their critics, and I haven’t seen much evidence of them disparaging other translators unfairly.

      • kaggsysbookishramblings permalink
        December 16, 2014 9:50 am

        I have, but I can’t recall where unfortunately – which is a bit irritating. They were dissing other people’s versions of things and saying theirs were the best ever – but I think there’s room for lots of other versions, and I always try to find the one I’m comfortable with.

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