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.
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 Readability implies to him that ‘intricacies’ have been replaced by ‘easy platitudes’.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’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 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.
“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