For me, it's fun in particular with canonical heavyweights -- if only because lots of translations of them tend to exist. In times past, I've collected translations of, in particular, Goethe's Faust, but also (to a lesser extent) of the Odyssey, the Bible, and Dante's Divine Comedy.
And Eugene Onegin.
Onegin is particularly fun for a number of reasons. Above all, it's form is so ridiculously confining that -- even knowing, as I do, not a word of the original language -- it look like it ought to be impossible to translate. And, indeed, Vladimir Nabokov -- one of my personal favorite authors, a giant of both 20th-century English and 20th-century Russian literature -- specifically declared that doing a rhymed translation was impossible (indeed, mathematically so; op. cit.). And his furious attacks on the attempts of Walter Arndt to prove him wrong created the biggest literary spat of the 1960's, including the rupture of his famous friendship with critic Edmund Wilson, who rose to Arndt's defense. Despite Nabokov's mathematics, a number of translators have attempted Onegin while preserving its rhymes.*
A word about the Onegin stanza. It's a cousin to a sonnet, although with some key differences. First of all, it's in tetrameter, not pentameter (four beats per line not five). Secondly, as opposed to either the traditional Petrarchian (ABBAABBACDECDE) or Shakespearean (ABABCDCDEFEFGG) rhyme schemes, the Onegin stanza uses one of its own (ABABCCDDEFFEGG) -- one which deliberately goes through the three possible variations on a rhymed quatrain (ABAB, CCDD, EFFE) with an additional couplet to close it off (GG). Finally, Pushkin alternates masculine and feminine rhymes (the former are rhymes which rhyme only one syllable -- head, dead -- and the latter are ones which rhyme more than one -- platter, clatter).
Some English-language poetry has been written directly in Onegin stanzas, so you can get an idea of what it's like. First and foremost, Vikram Seth's absolutely delightful verse novel, The Golden Gate, is written entirely in Onegin stanzas, in a direct homage to Eugene Onegin (actually, to its 1977 translation by Charles Johnston); you can read some sample stanzas from it here, but they only give a taste -- you really ought to go read the whole thing. Then there's Nabokov's two-stanza poem "On Translating Eugene Onegin", also written directly in English in Onegin stanzas.
Anyway, the point here is that it's a tight, tough little form. Hard to do.
I had heard of Onegin before -- I'd taken a whole college class on Nabokov back in the day -- but what really turned me on to the existing English translations was reading Douglas Hofstadter's delightful (if often infuriating) book Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language. He devotes two chapters two Onegin. One he devotes to praising and comparing four rhymed translations -- those of Oliver Elton (1937, later rev. by A. D. P. Briggs), Walter Arendt (1963, rev. 1978), Charles Johnston (1977), and above all that of James Falen (1990); the other he devotes to attacking the "vile non-verse" of Nabokov's deliberately ugly translation. And, much to my surprise as a self-identified Nabokov fan, Hofstadter won me over.** I began collecting Onegin translations when I saw them.
One of those eventually included that of Douglas Hofstadter himself (1999), who taught himself enough Russian to go at the task, so enamoured was he of the poem after his two-chapter gear-up in his earlier book. In the introduction he talks about all of the above-cited translations as well as his own, and also about the translation of Babette Deutsch (1936, rev. 1964) which he had read since the completion of his earlier book. In the first book, he gives four stanzas in each of the five translations (counting Nabokov) that he highlights; in the introduction to his own translation, he gives an additional stanza in seven (counting his own).
Hofstadter, by the way, is still at it. If you scroll way down in this online talk of his (or simply search for the word "Deutsch") you'll find eight versions of Chapter 2, Stanza 38 (the original Russian and seven translations of it), which he quotes and discusses.
But yesterday, while I was
Since I happened to have on hand the first stanza of all of Hofstadter's seven translations -- plus a literal one Arndt did for a book called Pushkin Threefold, plus the Russian (of which I did not understand a word), I dug up the first stanzas of the Beck and Mitchell two, and thus had a complete set of ten versions to compare.
Rather than hide the fruits of my obsession, I decided to post all ten here. (I put them on a separate web page to hide them from all this blather, and generally for easier reference.) As I say in the sidebar, I may add more when I have
Anyway, once again, here's a link to Nine different versions of a Eugene Onegin stanza in English (with a bonus couplet from another stanza tucked in at the end). I hope that at least some of you may find them half as fascinating as I do. I think that reading them can tell you a lot about translation, poetry, rich dying relatives, and other noteworthy things.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I might have some papers to grade. Or something.
Update: At the suggestion of several readers, I've added the 1881 translation of Henry Spalding (that link goes to the complete text on Project Gutenberg) -- not one of my favorites, but for completion's sake it's now there.
* Which doesn't by itself prove Nabokov wrong, since he only said it was impossible to translate Onegin faithfully with rhymes preserved.
** For a good argument on the Nabokov side of the debate, see Brian Boyd's comparison of the Deutsch, Arndt, Johnston and Nabokov translations in the Onegin chapter of his biography Vladimir Nabokov: the American Years.