Translating the untranslatable: Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin

Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin is probably one of the most under-appreciated works of Russian literature outside of Russia. This is mostly because the finer details of this masterpiece get lost in translation and because the countless references often are unintelligible for the modern reader, especially for those with a non-Russian background. In fact, Eugene Onegin is often said by Russians to be ‘untranslatable’.

How to translate the untranslatable?

A translation is always an interpretation, and if you translate a novel in verse, you inevitably have to make compromises. As Eugene Onegin’s most famous translator Vladimir Nabokov said, it is mathematically impossible to translate the entire poem literally and reproduce the rhymes also. 

A good translation makes a difference

Depending on the approach of the translator, it can be as if you’re reading completely different books. A mediocre translation can leave you wondering what all the fuss is about, whereas a good one can be read again and again, revealing new delights with each read.

It involves more than linguistic skills

Google translate can give a fairly accurate translation, but if you’re going to translate Eugene Onegin, you also need to know a lot, and I mean a lot, about Pushkin’s life, Russian culture and many other things. As I concluded earlier, Eugene Onegin is not so much an encyclopaedia of Russian life, but more an encyclopaedia of Pushkin’s brain. This is where Nabokov really did well; he wrote more that a thousand pages of notes for Eugene Onegin. You can certainly enjoy Eugene Onegin without the help of Nabokov, but a good translation should definitely include notes.

Nabokov

Which brings us to Nabokov’s translation, which is fairly controversial. Nabokov went for a very literal translation, as true to the original text as possible, in his own words “the only true translation.” The result was something that has been called unreadable. But to call his translation readable would have been an insult to Nabokov! Readability implies to him that ‘intricacies’ have been replaced by ‘easy platitudes’. Where he couldn’t find an English equivalent, Nabokov made up his own, like ‘decayless’, which does not improve readability.

Roger Clarke

Roger Clarke’s aim was to make Eugene Onegin better understood. He set out to make an accurate reproduction of Pushkin’s meaning in clear and fluent English, like Pushkin’s Russian. He succeeded; his translation is natural and free of unusual words (I dare not say ‘readable’, fearing the wrath of Nabokov;-)). Although he kept the twelve strophe structure, he sacrificed the rhyme, agreeing that keeping it would compromise the clarity of the text. Still, Pushkin’s cheerful intonation shines through. Finally, Clarke’s notes are a really valuable addition to the text. 

James Falen

James Falen is said by many to have done the impossible. He manages to capture the verve, sparkle and wit of Pushkin. He maintained the rhyme scheme of the Onegin stanza and achieved a result that dances on the pages and is just as witty as the original. You really feel the spirit of Pushkin here. Did he then compromise the clarity of the text? No, although it’s a paraphrastic translation, he nevertheless manages to avoid ‘easy platitudes’ and to remain true to the original text.

Which translation is right for you?

These three all have their merits, and there are more translations available. The right one for you is the one that resonates the most with you. If your aim is to have a solid understanding of the text, then I recommend a combination of Nabokov and one of the others.

Toska

“No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, lovesickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom, skuka.”

Vladimir Nabokov

A small example of the different translations

Письмо Татяны предо мною; 

Его я свято берегу, 

Читаю с тайною тоскую, 

И начитаться не могу.

Alexander Pushkin

Tatyana’s letter is in front of me;  

I cherish it sacredly, 

I read it with a secret longing, 

And I can’t get enough of it.

Google translate

Tatiana’s letter is before me;

Religiously I keep it;

I read it with a secret heartache

And cannot get my fill of reading it.

Vladimir Nabokov

Tatyana’s letter lies before me.

I’ve guarded it religiously.

To read it fills me with inner sadness,

But I can never read it enough.

Roger Clarke

Tatyana’s letter lies beside me,

And reverently I guard it still; 

I read it with an ache inside me

And cannot ever read my fill.

James Falen

*****

I recently had the pleasure and honour to talk about the different translations of Eugene Onegin for the F M Dostoyevsky Book Club of the India-Russia Friendship Society of Western India. My gratitude goes out to them for inspiring me to write this blog post.

*****

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2022

44 thoughts on “Translating the untranslatable: Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin

  1. Elisabeth, a fascinating look at translators/translations and the differences between them. I read the Falen translation after you recommended “Eugene Onegin,” and thought it was magnificent (the translation and the book). Nabokov was undoubtedly talented in many ways, but rather obnoxious. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I love the rhyme in James Falen’s translation. I believe that a big part of the beauty of Eugene Onegin is actually the rhyme – that singing tone, that catchy tune, so I would prefer that one. It may not be the literal, word-for-word translation, but it definitely conveyed the meaning, and I think I will find it quite painful to read any literal translation of Onegin without any rhyme (I also want to note that, as you probably know, unlike other world literature and poetry, rhyme is of utmost importance in Russian poetry).

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Hi, Elisabeth … one quick thought … I rely on Google Translate as a “crutch,” to get me started, when translating. … but with literature, especially poetry, it is, needless to say, pretty inadequate ….. as an experiment once, I tried using Google Translate to translate the first few pages of a Balzac novel … the result was pretty unreadable … all sorts of idioms, figures of speech, etc. get totally mistranslated

    Liked by 3 people

  4. The Nabokov is good, particularly in combination with another translation. It’s interesting to compare. By the way, I like the Clarke a lot, and his notes are very good!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Thank you, Dave! I highly recommend the Falen translation, it really is magnificent. As for Nabokov; as you say, not the easiest person in the world, but you have to admire his dedication to Pushkin 😉

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I couldn’t agree more, Diana! The Falen translation captures all the brilliance of Pushkin’s original. Rhyme is very important in Russian poetry, as you say, but translators of poetry can sometimes come up with strange solutions in order to make the translation rhyme. It’s not an easy task!

    Liked by 4 people

  7. Hi Roger! Yes, Google translate is very handy in many cases, but translating literature is not one of those. That was an interesting experiment, though! I read that nowadays novels are sometimes translated by Google and then edited by an editor, as a cheap solution…

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Many thanks, Elisabeth, for your helpful information concerning Eugene Onegin. I loved Vladimir Nabokov’s translation best. Maybe it has to do with the fact that my mother tongue is not English!
    Today I have just finished reading The Captain’s Daughter by Pushkin and I very much appreciated what he tells us about history.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Thank you, Martina, for stopping by. The Nabokov translation definitely has its merits! Such a nice coincidence that you were reading psh today. The Captain’s Daughter is a great story!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. “Eugene Onegin is probably one of the most under-appreciated works of Russian literature outside of Russia.”

    A very interesting comment, Elisabeth. Rings true. It is surprising to me that well read/knowledgeable people of my acquaintance know little about Eugene Onegin or Pushkin.

    “This is mostly because the finer details of this masterpiece get lost in translation and because the countless references often are unintelligible for the modern reader, especially for those with a non-Russian background.”

    This seems to be correct. A really interesting and valuable post, Elisabeth.

    Liked by 4 people

  11. A thought. Maybe the difficulty of capturing Pushkin’s genius in translation, the musicality and rhymes, is like translating Shakespeare. Impossible to fully appreciate their genius in translation.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. How wonderful to see your post come up in my reader, Elisabeth. Many thanks for introducing me to Eugene Onegin and to the profound beauty and emotion depth of Russian Literature. As you know, I read the James Falen translation and was amazed by his ability to translate Puskin’s brilliance (as you say, sparkle and wit). Don and I listened to the audio version as we read the written format. While we use words to communicate, you have reminded me that there is so much more involved within a language – every languages is nuanced with symbolism and cultural memory. I love your posts and conversations.

    Liked by 4 people

  13. Hello Elizabeth, Спасибо, I’ve been fascinated by the ‘untranslateability’ of Eugene Onegin ever since I read the Anthony Briggs’ version. I didn’t like it at all, so I went exploring for other translations and did a bit of musing about it on my blog. (see https://anzlitlovers.com/2016/02/20/yevgeny-onegin-by-alexander-pushkin-translated-by-anthony-briggs/)
    I looked at Spalding’s, Kline’s and Johnson’s and I also used Google Translate, not to translate it, but to use its ‘read aloud’ function so that I could hear the rhythm of the original Russian.
    There seems to be no solution to the problem except to plod on slowly with learning Russian!

    Liked by 2 people

  14. To Roger W. Smith: That’s right, but abhor is probably a word which is too strong. Rather, they may not really “get” unrhymed poetry as English-speakers, for example, would because of their lack of exposure. I am not sure about the current state of Russian poetry, but the truth is that I as millions I am sure other Russians got to know poetry in school as being in one format only – the one with a rhyme (so any other “may just not sound as good (if at all good) to Russian ears”). Whether its Lermontov or Yesenin, it is all beautiful rhyme and Russia takes pride in that. Unrhymed poetry is called in Russian a “white” poem – Бе́лый стих and though it is read and there are some notable poets, I don’t think it is as popular at all and may even be still considered avant garde.

    On related note, I know think it is easier to rhyme something in Russian than it is in English. The grammar is more complex, naturally, but that also means it is more flexible and, of course, there is no strict word order in Russian, you can do all sorts of things to ensure rhyme, and if you can do it easily – why not do it? 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  15. Such a fascinating post on the different translations of Pushkin’s novel in verse, Elisabeth. I really like Falen’s translation. Like Rebecca, I also read it while I listened to the audio version (Stephen Fry was the reader, I seem to recall). This combo helped raise my enjoyment of the novel. I might revisit it at some point in the near future.

    Liked by 3 people

  16. And of course, I can’t help making the joke (?) I make every time translation from Russian comes up: the best is to learn Russian, so you can read it in the original 😉

    Liked by 4 people

  17. Dear Elisabeth,
    So interesting to compare translations. I happen to have another English and Dutch translation. The first one by Mary Hobson and the second one by Hans Boland. They are both more than worth mentioning, also as they are both in rhyme!
    Hobson: Before me lies Tatiana’s letter,
    I hold it as a sacred trust.
    Anguished, I read to know it better
    and cannot read it as I must.

    Boland: Ik heb Tatjana’s brief hier voor me.
    Ik hoed hem als een relikwie.
    Weer las ik hem, en verloor me
    Als altijd in een rêverie.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Hey Lisa! Yes, that ‘untranslatability’ remains a thing with Eugene Onegin, as your post also clearly shows (thanks for the link, it’s a valuable addition). Learning Russian is a good solution, I learned a bit, but even so, Pushkin’s prose is a lot easier to read in Russian than Eugene Onegin, not to mention all the extra information you need to understand it. I have a lovely Russian edition with notes on the same page. Apparently modern Russians also need some help with that!

    Liked by 2 people

  19. Interesting point, Pam! I remember hearing about a Dutch translation that was translated from a French translation of Eugene Onegin. As for the Bible, I’m sure that that has been interpreted as was deemed suitable over and over.

    Liked by 3 people

  20. Thank you, Eva, for mentioning two more rhymed(!) translations. I have read the Boland, but not the Hobson. They both convey the narrator’s / Pushkin’s melancholy and sentimental feelings about the letter very well. As a translator yourself, you probably read those from a different perspective.

    Liked by 2 people

  21. Translation is not only about transfer the text from one language to another. To give the readers real feeling of the book you have to know many different things such as culture, traditions, style of life, history, behavior, people relations, geography, nature and other unlimited list of things.
    The very bright example to understand that is the Russian movie “The irony of fate…” People from Russia watching it for decades and enjoy it. However, from the foreign people it is absolutely unacceptable behavior and not understandable situation.
    I’ve read a lot of books translated from English, but only after I read them in English I found that many things were not quite the same what author means.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Oh, I think it would take me years of really serious study to be able to read anything in Russian. I’ve been learning French for ten years now, and I’m only just able to read novels now, very slowly and with a dictionary by my side. And that’s with being able to learn at a school, have exposure to French TV and radio online, and have ready access to books and materials. At the moment for reasons we won’t go into, it’s very difficult to access any Russian media at all, and even before there was any trouble, I had difficulty finding a Russian school where I could learn Russian for travel purposes.
    But I do enjoy being able to decode the alphabet even if I’m not very good at it yet!

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Oh yes, they are much easier, if for no other reason than they’re in prose! Although they’re not easy, either, of course. Well done!!

    Liked by 3 people

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