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Speaking their language

When Vladimir Nabokov brought Russian poetry into English, he sought to be true to the poets.

December 21, 2008|Alexander Theroux | Theroux is the author, most recently, of "Laura Warholic: Or, The Sexual Intellectual."

Verses and Versions

Three Centuries of Russian Poetry

Selected and translated

by Vladimir Nabokov

Harcourt: 442 pp., $40

The only true translation is a literal one. Vladimir Nabokov's repetition of this truth became one of his many commandments. By literal, he means the strict rendering -- as closely as associative and syntactical capacities of the "into" language will allow -- of the poem's exact contextual meaning in the "from" language. Other means of translating poetry (both are not only lame, in Nabokov's view, but ignorant) are: the lexical, which is the attempt to render, word-for-word, the basic meanings of each word without any concession to syntax (basically this is a robotic "trot"); and then the paraphrase, which is to try to offer a free version of a poem with all attendant omissions, additions and distortions. The literal alone is true.

"Verses and Versions" collects, for the first time in one volume, Nabokov's English translations of Russian verse, with each poem presented next to Russian originals and accompanied by his own succinct, witty portraits of the 18 poets included, an aggregate highlighted (not surprisingly) by his favorite, Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin is the tutelary deity of Nabokov's last, greatest Russian novel, "The Gift." Nabokov translated into English and published Pushkin's vast masterpiece "Eugene Onegin" in 1964 (along with 1,200 pages of his commentary), indifferent to but certainly aware of the exasperated responses of any reviewer over "literality's salutary jolts." Nabokov also provides insightful notes on the trials and delights of translations; he had proposed this book, or something like it, to McGraw-Hill years before he died in 1977.

In his poem of 1954, "On Translating 'Eugene Onegin,' " Nabokov sums up in verse -- and defines -- the job:

What is translation? On a platter

A poet's pale and glaring head,

A parrot's screech, a monkey's chatter,

And profanation of the dead.

The parasites you were so hard on

Are pardoned if I have your pardon,

O, Pushkin, for my stratagem:

I traveled down your secret stem,

And reached the root, and fed upon it;

Then, in a language newly learned,

I grew another stalk and turned

Your stanza patterned on a sonnet,

Into my honest roadside prose --

All thorn, but cousin to your rose.

He concludes:

This is my task -- a poet's patience

And scholiastic passion blent:

Dove-droppings on your monument.

Nabokov bequeaths us his translations of Alexander Blok's "The Strange Lady" and "The Railroad," although he does not hesitate to criticize that poet's long verses ("which are weak") or his famous "The Twelve," which Nabokov (who rarely, if ever, passed up the chance to air one of his anti-clerical grievances -- read him on Dostoevsky) dismisses as "dreadful, self-consciously couched in a phony 'primitive' tone, with a pink cardboard Jesus Christ glued on at the end." There is a sharp translation of "For the sake of the resonant valor of ages to come," a notable poem by Osip Mandelshtam ("note the correct form of his name," adds pedantic stickler Nabokov). He whimsically includes translations of such minor poets as Konstantin Batyushkov and Vilgelm Kyuhelbeker.

I love the short lyrics he "Englished" of Fyodor Tyutchev, whose bittersweet poems he judges "belong to the greatest ever written in Russian" -- "Tears," for instance, "Last Love" and "Autumn" -- and which he had included in "Three Russian Poets," a small collection of translations he published in 1944. Nabokov seems to include the work of certain poets (Nikolay Karamzin, Anton Delvig and Vasiliy Zhukovski) simply because they all happened to be friends of Pushkin, who holds a special place in every Russian's heart. It was of this great poet that Nabokov wrote, probably realistically, that for a true appreciation "too much is required from the reader to make such readers numerous." His conventional admirers think of him mainly, observes the translator, "in terms of schoolbooks and Chaikovsky's operas."

Included here we have translations from Pushkin's "The Bronze Horseman: A Petersburg Tale"; several scenes from that indelible drama between spiteful villain and genius, "Mozart and Salieri"; various sections from "Ruslan and Lyudmila," "The Bosom Friend of Magic Ancientry," "The Gypsies" and chapter one of "Eugene Onegin," as well as many shorter poems including "To Dawe, Esqr." which goes:

Why draw with your pencil sublime

My Negro profile? Though transmitted

By you it be to future time,

It will be by Mephisto twitted.

Draw fair Olenin's features, in the glow

Of heart-engendered inspiration:

Only on youth and beauty should bestow

A genius its adoration.

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