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Vlad the Impaler

Verses and Versions: Three Centuries of Russian Poetry

Translated by Vladimir Nabokov

Edited by Brian Boyd and Stanislav Shvabrin

(Harcourt, 441 pp., $40)


Vladimir Nabokov, who throughout his career cultivated his reputation as the most famous literary exile since Ovid, was recognized in his lifetime not only for his novels but also for his authority on Russian cultural and aesthetic matters. He gave packed lectures extolling Tolstoy and annihilating Dostoevsky, and published dozens of translations of Russian verse. This new collection contains translations of lyric and narrative poetry from just after his arrival in America in 1940, when he was most in need of money, through his years of teaching Russian and European literature at Wellesley and Cornell, to his last years in Montreux, where he settled with his family in 1961 after the unexpectedly great success of Lolita. Nearly twenty poets are represented, including all the major poets who made up the first great period of Russian verse in the nineteenth century--Pushkin, Lermontov, Tyutchev, Fet--reaching back to the mid-eighteenth century polymath Mikhail Lomonosov, the "godfather of the iambic tetrameter," and forward to the Soviet-era Georgian bard Bulat Okudzhava, who died in Paris in 1997.

In an essay on translating Russian poetry, a famous scholar of Slavic literature once deplored the fashion for translations that retain the meter and the rhyme of the original at the expense of complete semantic fidelity. "As a result," he wrote, "the canned music of rhymed versions is enthusiastically advertised, and accepted, and the sacrifice of textual precision applauded as something rather heroic, whereas only suspicion and bloodhounds await the gaunt, graceless literalist groping around in despair for the obscure word that would satisfy impassioned fidelity and accumulating in the process a wealth of information which only makes the advocates of pretty camouflage tremble or sneer." The scholar's comments present a remarkable indictment of many of Nabokov's translations in Verses and Versions, which is full of limply rhymed quatrains and baffling torsions of sense. But the scholar who wrote that article, in 1965, was Vladimir Nabokov.

At a certain point during his career as a translator, Nabokov underwent a violent shift in sensibility--from formal translations in which the meter and the rhyme of the original are preserved but not the exact sense, to literal translations based on word-for-word fidelity. Verses and Versions is in part the story of that shift. Owing to the editorial choices, however, the book fails to illustrate vividly what was for Nabokov a momentous renunciation, which put him at odds with much of the literary establishment, and pegged him as an eccentric in the grip of a nostalgic obsession, and set off a bitter and remarkably enduring literary feud between himself and the man who was arguably his closest literary companion.

Nabokov's translations can be divided roughly into two groups: formal translations up to about 1950, and literal translations after 1950. The shift took place while Nabokov was in the process of translating Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, the novel in verse considered to be the greatest poetic accomplishment in the Russian language. Nabokov, fed up with the misleading and inelegant versions of the book he saw all around him, began translating Onegin as early as 1945. At first he intended to adhere to the trademark "Onegin Stanza" form (fourteen lines of iambic tetrameter with a specific order of masculine and feminine rhymes) that Pushkin invented, and in which he composed the entire work. But having rendered several stanzas in accordance with the original form, but with multiple additions and flourishes not in the original (the way he had been translating poetry for years before), Nabokov concluded that only a truly literal version would not "traduce the author."

Over the course of the next two decades, during which he published, among other works, Lolita and Pnin, Nabokov worked intermittently on a scrupulously word-for-word version. He finally published it in 1964, accompanied by a second volume containing five hundred pages of extensive and fastidious notes on everything from the dishes consumed by Pushkin's characters to the dance steps to the exact locations of their strolls (which, Nabokov is careful to note, were some of his own favorite spots as a child). And it was Nabokov's genius to recognize in his own obsessive project the structure for his funniest and most tragic book, Pale Fire, told in the form of a long poem by the invented poet John Shade, followed by hundreds of pages of deranged footnotes to the poem by the scholar Charles Kinbote, who believes himself to be the exiled king of a tiny Eastern European state called Zembla.

About half of Verses and Versions, a piecemeal chimera of a book, is composed of translations of lyrics by Pushkin and his contemporaries that can be found among the five hundred pages of commentary to Nabokov's translation of Onegin. Then there are the slim volumes of nineteenth-century verse that he prepared for New Directions and Lindsay Drummond; and the excerpts from Strong Opinions, his collection of interviews and articles; and the liner notes to an album of arias sung by his son Dmitri. What is new here is a handful of unpublished iambic scraps salvaged from the far-flung Nabokov archives, many of them only a few lines long. Certainly an argument can be made for thoroughness, but must we include everything found in the archives? When the boxes of Isaac Bashevis Singer's archives were opened, half a pastrami sandwich fell out.

Here are few sample stanzas from the book, the first from a humorous poem by Pushkin, translated literally:

     Of the four-foot iambus I've grown
     In it writes everyone. To boys this
     'Tis high time to abandon ...

The next example, translated similarly according to the original form, is from Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841), who lived his life in a frenzy, wrote some of the most purely melodic lines in Russian poetry, and died in the Caucasus at the age of twenty-seven in a needless duel which, in accordance with the uncanny ability of Russian poets to predict their own deaths, he had already anticipated in his novel A Hero of Our Time:

     Farewell! And be wise, do not grieve:
     our love was too short for regret,<
     and hard as we found it to part
     harder still would it be if we met.

And finally, in literal translation, a stanza from a poem addressed to Russia by Aleksandr Blok (1880-1921), the prophetic and hypnotic lyric poet who harbored mystical dreams of the Revolution and died in poverty and disillusionment:

     I know not how to pity you
     but tenderly I carry my cross;
     you may abandon your brigandish
     to any wizard you choose.

I can imagine three sets of readers for Verses and Versions: people interested in Nabokov, people interested in Russian literature, and--these may be hit the hardest--people interested in poetry. The first group, presumably coming to the book because of their admiration for Nabokov's prose, will be dismayed to encounter pages and pages of dull constructions and lackluster diction. Nabokov's novels, enjoyed for their linguistic virtuosity, induce at their best the sensation of being taken in by the work of a rare illusionist. Verses and Versions, by contrast, produces the discomfiting feeling of watching a Houdini promise to escape from an iron safe wrapped in chains and submerged in a tank of water, and then get tangled in his own chains until he barely makes it to the surface before he drowns. So this group of readers will have to make due with a few signature lines from Nabokov's brief introductions to each poet (Baron Anton Antonovich Delvig "curiously combined the classical strain and the folksy one, the amphora and the samovar ..."). For those concerned with Nabokov as a translator, this volume is a bonanza of yesterday's mashed potatoes. The best antidote for them would be to go and re-read Pale Fire.

For the second set of readers, the ones interested in Russian literature hoping for a representative selection of Russian poetry, the book is also disappointing. Nabokov's choice of what to translate was guided by the demands of specific projects or incidental concerns, and as a result the full constellation of themes and voices, so bright and unique in Russian poetry, is lost. Instead the reader is presented with a cache of bizarre, monotonous, and tepid lyrics whose relation to each other is obscure at best. This is too bad, because the tiny group of plaintive men who single-handedly created Russian poetry in the nineteenth century were remarkably linked in their themes of friendship, tears, auguries, desolation, the figure of death as a woman, visiting familiar and long-forgotten places, ghosts, hatred of the mob, hoping to be understood by the next generation, prophecy, mental illness, and everyone dying in a duel or in Baden-Baden.

If this second group of readers has not yet lost hope in Russian verse, there are alternatives: for the nineteenth century there is the collection of translations by Alan Myers called An Age Ago. (The book includes a foreword by Joseph Brodsky, one of the poet's most acute and economical essays, on the acceleration of time and the twentieth century's suspicion that everything had already been expressed by the nineteenth.) Myers's versions rhyme and scan, but they relate their sorrows and joys accompanied by at least a few chords on the piano, and sometimes by a violin. An Age Ago is also organized so that the themes echo very clearly.

Here is Nabokov's version of the first stanza from Tyutchev's "Last Love" (1852-1854) one of the eeriest poems in his "Denisieva Cycle," dedicated to a woman twenty-three years younger than the poet, with whom he carried on a desperate and illicit love affair until she died of tuberculosis:

     Love at the closing of our days
     is apprehensive and very tender.
     Glow brighter, brighter, farewell rays
     of one last love in its evening splendor.

And here is Myers's version:

     Ah, when our last years come in sight,
     How sweet, how ominous love's onset ...
     Shine on, shine on, departing light,
     As love's last gleaming fades to sunset.

Myers's version is more haunting for two details. The first is the decision to retain, after "onset," Tyutchev's distinctive ellipsis, which the poet uses throughout his work to indicate a kind of trailing-off of the melody, or a pause in which to listen for something not yet--or never meant to be--said. Sometimes Tyutchev will use the ellipsis to conclude entire poems, so that the last phrase remains vibrating. The second detail is the use of the word "ominous": the sense of the Russian is of a speaker who, late in life, is overcome by a feeling of love inextricably bound up with its own, and his own, ending, and so he loves all the more tenderly and "more superstitiously." Whereas "apprehensive" implies worry and caution, "ominous" captures the sense of impossible-to-place twilight dread, which colors the poet's lovestruck vision.

As for better English impressions of twentieth-century Russian poetry, there is the terrific Stray Dog Cabaret by Paul Schmidt, not so much a collection of translations as a sequence of performances in an underworld poetry revue whose voices include, among others, Mayakovsky, Blok, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva and Akhmatova. Here is a stanza from Aleksandr Blok's famous steamy poem about wine drinkers in the version by Nabokov, who calls it "The Strange Lady":

     And her taut silks,
     her hat with its tenebrous plumes,
     her slender bejeweled hand
     waft legendary magic.

And here is the same stanza from Schmidt, who titles his version, "The Lady Nobody Knows":

     Her dress is silk, it whispers legends
     and moves in waves against her skin;
     her hat is a forest of black feathers,
     her narrow fingers glow with rings.

Schmidt embellishes, although less than one might think--all of a sudden we are in the presence of something incalculable, erotic, phantasmal, and glamorous.

Which brings us to the third set of readers: the people who love poetry. Slogging through Verses and Versions, these readers will quickly forget the distinction between Nabokov's literal translations and his formal translations, and focus instead on what both lack: music. Throughout his career Nabokov underlined his impatience with, and his intolerance for, music. In a passage from his autobiography, he notes that music affects him "merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds." And he continues: "Under certain emotional circumstances I can stand the spasms of a rich violin, but the concert piano and all wind instruments bore me in small doses and flay me in larger ones." Nowhere is this sentiment more apparent than in his translations of Russian poetry, which are for the most part drained of melody. In his prose, Nabokov often engineers a dazzling construction that produces the effect of a strange harmony, as in this example, from Pale Fire: "A remembered spread of colored sand bore the thirty-year-old patterned imprint of Oleg's shoe, as immortal as the tracks of an Egyptian child's tame gazelle made thirty centuries ago on blue Nilotic bricks drying in the sun." But alliteration is percussion, and there are other instruments. Readers in search of poetry will have to go back to rooting around in the junkyard, or waiting by the payphone for a spectral call, as before.



There is one disquieting figure whose absence from Verses and Versions, except in a brief mention in the introduction and a throwaway jibe from Nabokov, haunts the book. He is Edmund Wilson, whose fraught and generous influence played an important role in Nabokov's early career in America, and who became his antagonist in the colossal disagreement over Eugene Onegin. Nabokov met Wilson shortly after arriving in America in 1940, and, within a few months, Wilson, who was at the height of his power in the literary world, set him up reviewing books and publishing translations in The New Republic. Wilson was its literary editor at the time.

Practically every facet of Nabokov's early literary career in America reflected Wilson's influence: the books published by New Directions, the stories and poems published in Klaus Mann's magazine Decision and in The Atlantic and The New Yorker. Wilson helped Nabokov get the Guggenheim Fellowship that enabled him to work on the relentlessly literal translation of Onegin, the project which would be at the center of the surprisingly vicious and enduring feud that demolished their friendship. Their correspondence shows them fondly exchanging puns, books, and socks, arguing, meeting for lunch, reminiscing, and obsessing over feats of prestidigitation, of which Wilson was an amateur practitioner. Nabokov played a significant role in Wilson's project of learning Russian and making a study of Russian literature, which culminated in the collection of essays A Window on Russia: For the Use of Foreign Readers. The two of them even planned to collaborate on a book about Russian literature.

What they did collaborate on was a translation of Pushkin's Mozart and Salieri, a verse play on genius, poetic inspiration, and envy, based on the legend that Mozart was poisoned by Antonio Salieri, the court composer of Vienna, who could not stand his rival's effortless brilliance. The translation was published in April, 1941 in this magazine, and it is the only example of a work on which Nabokov collaborated with another writer. It stands out in Verses and Versions for its clarity. Why, then, is Wilson's contribution acknowledged nowhere in the book, particularly not in the extensive endnotes, most of which come straight from the commentary to Onegin anyway? Nabokov spoke openly about the partnership in interviews, and his early correspondence with Wilson is full of references to it. That Wilson had actually worked with Nabokov on a translation project, and that the result was a noticeable rise in lucidity, adds nuance to the frantic remonstrances of the later battle.

Until 1964, Wilson refrained from reviewing any of Nabokov's novels, which, after The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (one of Nabokov's best books and one of the least read), he consistently disliked. But when Nabokov published his translation of Onegin, Wilson went on the attack. Wilson may have felt that his entire project of guarding the common sense of the American idiom was at stake in the face of Nabokov's wrenched syntax and preference for obsolete diction. In his review of the translation, Wilson gives one of the dictionary-diving sequences--"rememorating, producement, curvate, habitude, rummers, familistic, gloam, dit, shippon and scrab"--which, depending on who is writing, appear in pieces on Nabokov as either lists of gems or lists of crimes. He goes on to assault Nabokov for the "bald and awkward language" of his translation; accuses him of harboring "sado-masochistic Dostoevskian tendencies" with which he "seeks to torture both the reader and himself by flattening Pushkin out and denying to his own powers the scope for their full play"; and calls him "the least modest of men," whose work suffers "mainly from a lack of common sense." The piece was so hostile and far-fetched that one reader wrote in proposing that the review had been crafted by Nabokov himself, as an appendix to Pale Fire.

Like Wilson's review, Nabokov's rejoinder was wildly sharp. He refers to himself as "a patient confidant of [Wilson's] long and hopeless infatuation with Russian," and recalls how Wilson's pronunciation when reading Onegin aloud was so full of "jaw-twisting haws and rather endearing little barks that utterly jumbled the rhythm" that it "soon had us both in stitches." He makes a brief catalog of Wilson's "ghastly blunders" and deplores his "mixture of pompous aplomb and peevish ignorance." The effects of the feud lasted for years, and the two men hardly spoke again, despite several attempts at reconciliation.

In his review of Nabokov's translation of Onegin, Wilson quotes several paragraphs whose style he considers especially stilted ("Farewell, pacific sites!/Farewell, secluded refuge!"), and comments: "Such passages sound like the products of those computers which are supposed to translate Russian into English." Was Wilson right? Here is Nabokov's translation of Chapter III, Verse XX, a night conversation between the female lead Tatiana and her nurse:

     "I am in love," whispered anew
     to the old crone with sorrow she.
     " Friend of my heart, you are not well."
     "Leave me. I am in love."
     And meantime the moon beamed
     and with dark light irradiated
     the pale charms of Tatiana
     and her loose hair,
     and drops of tears, and, on a benchlet,
     before the youthful heroine,
     a kerchief on her hoary head,
     the little crone in a long "body warmer";
     and in the stillness everything
     dozed by the inspirative moon.

And here is the text as rendered by the Yahoo Babel Fish translator online:

     "I am fallen in love," sear again
     to old lady with the misfortune it.
     Heart friend, you is unhealthy.
     "Leave me: I am fallen in love."
     And meanwhile moon shone
     And it lit up by languid light Tatianas pale [krasy],
     And the dissolved Vlasas,
     And the drop of tears, and on the bench
     Before the heroine of young,
     With the shawl on the head of grey,
     Old lady in the long padded jacket;
     And everything dozed in the silence
     With the inspiring moon.

Pushkin's raspushchennye vlasy, rendered literally as Tatiana's "loose hair" (in Russian, as in French, the word for "hair" is plural), becomes in the computerized version a group of ghostly presences all mysteriously named "Vlasa, " recalling the "'secondary' dream characters" who, as Nabokov noted in his book on Gogol, "pop out at every at every turn of the play (or novel, or story), to flaunt for a second their life-like existence," never to be seen again.

Nabokov's Onegin translation remains an emblematic mad literary project, with elements that bring to mind an Aquinascrazed scholastic in a monastery, an Anatomy of Melancholy told in footnotes, a fantasy chronicle accompanied by a gigantic companion volume explaining its legends. It is infuriating and perplexing. It may possess a certain willful brilliance, but there is something grotesque about it. Poetic translation involves a large and subtle combination of factors, and it may be that Nabokov's Onegin, with its remorseless commitment to a certain sort of precision, has that quality of unnatural humorlessness characteristic of any complex situation in which a single element is favored and emphasized to the exclusion of all the rest. This, incidentally, is the exact opposite of Pushkin's great poem, with its prodigious variety and the thrilling unexpectedness of its rhymes.

Although the introduction to Verses and Versions points to the accuracy rating of between 98 and 100 percent assigned to Nabokov by a Russian scholar (Nabokov's Onegin was begging for just such a calculation!), Nabokov's versions have the paradoxical consequence of revealing how subjective even a literal translation is. While he succeeds in adding very little that is not present in the original, the most common pitfall among formal versions, his baffling diction and his commitment to warped syntax produce an effect more of singularity than of accuracy. Literal translation, like any other kind, is asymptotic: it is always approaching the solution but never reaching it. And the gap between the original and the new version can be filled in only subjectively, depending on one's aesthetic sense of what to keep and what to give up. Beyond a certain level of rudimentary meaning, there is no proof in translation, there is only persuasion, even if one lashes together a raft of a thousand footnotes and tries to float it across.

Alexander Nemser's poems have been published in The New York Times and The Atlantic.

By Alexander Nemser