Thursday, March 5, 2009

Review - Verses and Versions: Three Centuries of Russian Poetry, Translated by Vladimir Nabokov

The New Republic reviews a translation of three centuries of Russian poetry by the renowned author Vladimir Nabokov, edited by Brian Boyd and Stanislav Shvabrin. Bad title, but interesting review.
Vlad the Impaler

Post Date Wednesday, March 04, 2009

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.

Read the rest of this review.

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