Sunday, March 01, 2009

Eugene Onegin in English: Comparing Translations

One of my more neglected hobbies is comparing poetry translations. Because poetic translation is so over-constrained -- so that, in the words of Vladimir Nabokov, a rhymed translation that also "translate[s] the entire poem literally is mathematically impossible" -- any attempt to put it into a new tongue is going to involve contentious aesthetic choices. For that matter, the same is hardly less true of translation of unrhymed poetry: since poetry, practically by definition, involves playing with the specifics of its original language ("poetry is what's lost in translation" opines Robert Frost from off under his apple tree). So it's fun to see the different ways that people do it. Watching others attempt the impossible is always entertaining, which is why people go to circuses.

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 procrastinating on grading the papers I need to grade engaged in deep intellectual questing, I discovered that there are two new rhymed translations since Hofstadter's discussions were published: that of Tom Beck (2004) who, like Hofstadter, taught himself Russian for the task (sample stanzas here), and that of Stanley Mitchell (2008), which seems to be the most recent (chapter two is online in its entirety here).

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 another set of papers to get through the time. (I don't know if I should post the stanzas that Hofstdater reprints -- which might be nice to have online, and with the Beck and Mitchell added -- or if I should try to add others, whether my favorites or simply ones that have gotten some attention from other people (e.g. the one Boyd compares in his Nabokov biography, or perhaps "the great/Fourth stanza of... Canto Eight"). Any thoughts?)

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.


Anonymous said...

Here's another one from 1881 year translation by a Lieut.-Col. Spalding printed by R.&R. Clark, Edinburgh, for Macmillan&Co in London.

My uncle's goodness is extreme,
If seriously he hath disease;
He hath acquired the world's esteem
And nothing more important sees;
A paragon of virtue he!
But what a nuisance it will be,
Chained to his bedside night and day
Without a chance to slip away.
Ye need dissimulation base
A dying man with art to soothe,
Beneath his head the pillow smooth,
And physic bring with mournful face,
To sigh and meditate alone:
When will the devil take his own!

tar-ba-gan said...

Thanks for the wonderful collection of the 1st stanza. I hope this is interesting for you: the _really_ original (originally printed) text is at

I guess at times the "old orthography" really matters in poetry, not that Pushkin's Onegin gets any worse or better when we change the orthography standard.

Onegin said...

For the last 18 month I'm translating
"Evgeny Onegin". Here is my version of the first stanza:

“My uncle, of most fair persuasion,
When taken seriously ill,
Enforced respect on the occasion -
His best idea, if you will.*
A deed, for others worth exploring,
But goodness me, it is so boring
To nurse the poor wretch day and night
And not to dare to leave his sight!
It's mean to offer dedication
To entertain the almost dead,
To shake his pillow, make his bed,
To bring with care his medication,
To heave a sigh, to wish him well,
And think: “When will you go to hell?”

Anonymous said...

There are a lot of typos in these verses! Better check them......

Anonymous said...

Stanley Mitchel's translation is the best in my opinion. I am originally from Russia and still struggling to learn English, but I felt that it is the closest to the original. Nobokov's translation was one of the worst even though he was Russian.

G. Pritsker said...

James Falen's translation is best as far as keeping up with the original's sparkle and wit, not to mention natural language.

I'm a Russian-born, bilingual literary translator.

A.Z. Foreman said...

Here, try the 1st stanza of mine which I've been working on off and on for a while

My uncle's in the grand tradition:
By getting seriously sick
He's wrung himself some recognition
And could devise no shrewder trick.
He's an example worth recalling
But God almighty is it galling
To tend a patient night and day
And never stir a step away...
There's just no worse dissimulation
Toward one so veritably dead,
Than to fluff pillows for his head,
Morosely fetch his medication
And think behind a makeshift sigh
"Get on with it. Just frickin' die!"

alex t. G. said...

My uncle was a man of virture,
When he became quite old and sick,
He sought respect and tried to teach me,
His only heir, verte and weak.
He had the fun, I had the sore,
But grecious goodness! what a bore!
To sit by bedplace day and night,
Not doing even step aside,
And what a cheep and cunning thing
To entertain the sad,
To serve around, make his bed,
To fetch the pills, to mourn and grim,
To sigh outloud, think along:
`God damn old man, why ain't you gone?'

Alex G. said...

My uncle, man of very honest life,
When he became in earnest sick,
Forced everyone to be obliging,
And couldn't invent a better trick.
Example his - to others  is a moral;
But, oh, my God , how very boring
To sit by a sick person day and night
Without even dare to step aside!
It is the perfidy of lowest kind
To entertain a man who is half-dead,
To fix his pad ,
Bring medications ,looking sad,
To sigh and think in secret to yourself
When will the devil carry you to hell!"

David j Jones said...

here's my version:

My uncle knew his situation,
So, taking promptly to his bed,
Exacted total dedication,
And rightly too, it must be said
(A lesson there for many another);
But oh, my God, the tedious bother
Of sitting with him, night and day,
And daring not to move away!
What miserable dissimulation,
Reading to him from six till eight,
Then setting all his pillows straight,
And measuring out his medication
With long-faced sighs, while low I groan:
'The devil come and take his own!'

Stas said...
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Stas said...
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Stas said...

If you feel you can improve on my "literal" transition of this piece feel free to do so

Stas said...

I can't believe you guys it's like about 200 years have passed now and yet still you can't figure out what every Russian proverbial hedgehog figured out many years ago.

EU says that his uncle is a fucking asshole hence he is treated like shit by every one, but the stroke or cancer turns the tables for him and every one starts treating this piece of shit with reverence (Pushkin uses the word respect due to the lack of a better word in Russian, but in English we got "reverence" which fits better) and EU "has" to take care of him (for some reason) and still thinks he's an asshole who is long past his due, who would've passed away long time ago had there been any justice in the universe...

My uncle of most honest rules

(My uncle is a very anal motherfucker)

Upon getting unmirthfully ill

(unmirthfully or no fucking fun his uncle's ailment has become for our protagonist)

Upon himself the reverence brought he

(Even the worst are entitled to some dignity before they die)

He couldn't've come up with anything better, still

His act for others is to follow

But, oh my god what a tedium it is

To have to care day in and out for him

To have to be within a footstep for him
(Having to be there for him)

What an all-time low it is!

(For EUGENE ONEGIN being forced to take care of his dying uncle is an all-time low)

Having to fluff up his pillow

Having to fetch his medicine in sorrow

Having to think inwardly and sigh outload huhs

When the damn grim reaper coming for ya,huh!?

(He thinks: "When the damn grim reaper coming for ya" inwardly, but huhs he vocalizes to render his uncle none-the-wiser of his true wishes)

Russian language lacks "having to ( and many, many other idioms and words which describe things way better. I can't even start imaging what kind epic shit Pushkin could've come up with had he been English speaker)" thing ergo that is implied and every Russian native speaker knows this. Russian language lacks a word for grim reaper, by ั‡ะตั€ั‚("literal" fiend), my guess would be, Pushkin means grim reaper and if in Russian were a word for grim reaper I think he'd use it.

Also Pushkin is very funny I've tried my best to convey the irony of his words, but of course it is next to impossible to do if you want it to rhyme. My translation is as close to "literal" as I could get it to be.

Unknown said...

This is excellent! Who are you? I am a native Russian speaker and previously a Johnson translation fan.

Pavlyukhin said...

James Falen is my favorite (arndt's close second) it's very accurate and keeps the flow of the original. I'm russian by the way.
The original reads quickly and easily, most of the other translations can not recreat that.

Sporty said...

The translation done by Nabokov seems the best to me.

Unknown said...

I applaud!!! Native russian speaker with English speaker proficiency here.

Unknown said...

"just frickin' die"!!!:))) Killer!!! Seriously, love it! But the juxta with the rest of the tone and vocab))))

Domkred said...

Thanks to his talents Pushkin sounds in English great as well!

Anonymous said...

Anthony Briggs' 2016 translation:

"Uncle, a man of purest probity
Has fallen ill, beyond a joke.
Respected now, and scorned by nobody
He has achieved his masterstroke
With this exemplary behaviour,
But it would try the Holy Saviour
To tend a sickbed night and day,
And never stir a step away,
Employing shameful histrionics
To bring a half-dead man some cheer,
Plump pillows and draw sadly near,
Indulging him with pills and tonics,
Heaving deep sighs, but thinking, 'Ooh!
When will the devil come for you?'"

firezdog said...

I think it's a fools errand to translate verse as verse. I'd prefer a prose translation -- then at least I will have some idea of what the original meant.