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The Name -- Alexander Pushkin

Guest poem submitted by Nick Grundy:
(Poem #760) The Name
 What is my name to you? 'T will die:
 a wave that has but rolled to reach
 with a lone splash a distant beach;
 or in the timbered night a cry ...

 'T will leave a lifeless trace among
 names on your tablets: the design
 of an entangled gravestone line
 in an unfathomable tongue.

 What is it then? A long-dead past,
 lost in the rush of madder dreams,
 upon your soul it will not cast
 Mnemosyne's pure tender beams.

 But if some sorrow comes to you,
 utter my name with sighs, and tell
 the silence: "Memory is true -
 there beats a heart wherein I dwell."
-- Alexander Pushkin
Translation by Vladimir Nabokov.

---------------
Infuriatingly, I can't find any online resources which carry parts of
Nabokov's translation of "Eugene Onegin" - but "The Name" is at least a
translation of Pushkin...  The obvious advantage those translating from
their native tongue have is that they can retain the feel of the original -
there's something peculiarly Russian about this, and "timbered night" is a
lovely phrase.  You can almost smell them, or hear them rustling!

Nabokov is, predictably, amusingly nasty about people whose methods of
translation he disagrees with.  I've appended (an abbreviated) part of a
longer essay which you can read at
[broken link] http://magazines.enews.com/classic/nabokov080441.html
- always assuming you aren't irritated by his style - it's worth it, though,
as some of the examples he uses are worryingly believable, and when he
describes reading a translation of Gogol's short story "Overcoat" as leaving
him "with the impression that I am witnessing a murder and can do nothing to
prevent it", you rather know what he means.

Then, of course, you remember that another translator of Pushkin - Walter
Arndt - called Nabokov's version of "Onegin": "...the sad ritual murder
performed for the purposes of an ever more insatiable lexical necrophilia."
Perhaps you start to think that it's a strange business, translation.

There's also a poem called "On Translation) which he wrote in tetrameter
sonnets (like those in Eugene Onegin) to defend his decision to translate
the work in free verse.  It's at http://www.tetrameter.com/nabokov.htm

Nick.

[Nabokov on Translation]

Three grades of evil can be discerned in the queer world of verbal
transmigration. The first, and lesser one, comprises obvious errors due to
ignorance or misguided knowledge. This is mere human frailty and thus
excusable. The next step to Hell is taken by the translator who
intentionally skips words or passages that he does not bother to understand
or that might seem obscure or obscene to vaguely imagined readers; he
accepts the blank look that his dictionary gives him without any qualms; or
subjects scholarship to primness: he is as ready to know less than the
author as he is to think he knows better. The third, and worst, degree of
turpitude is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a
shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and
prejudices of a given public. This is a crime, to be punished by the stocks
as plagiarists were in the shoebuckle days.

The second, and much more serious, sin of leaving out tricky passages is
still excusable when the translator is baffled by them himself; but how
contemptible is the smug person who, although quite understanding the sense,
fears it might stump a dunce or debauch a dauphin! Instead of nestling in
the arms of the great writer, he keeps worrying about the little reader
playing in a corner with something dangerous or unclean. Perhaps the most
charming example of Victorian modesty that has ever come my way was in an
early English translation of "Anna Karenina." Vronsky had asked Anna what
was the matter with her. "I am beremenna" (the translator's italics),
replied Anna, making the foreign reader wonder what strange and awful
Oriental disease that was; all because the translator thought that "I am
pregnant" might shock some pure soul, and that a good idea would be to leave
the Russian just as it stood.

But masking and toning down seem petty sins in comparison with those of the
third category; for here he comes strutting and shooting out his bejeweled
cuffs, the slick translator who arranges Scheherazade's boudoir according to
his own taste and with professional elegance tries to improve the looks of
his victims.

     -- [broken link] http://magazines.enews.com/classic/nabokov080441.html

16 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

gskur said...

Until I finished reading the poem and got to the author’s name "-- Alexander Pushkin," I had no idea what I was reading here! Sorry to disappoint you, friends! It is NOT an "at least a translation of Pushkin..."-—it is, at best, JUST a translation of Pushkin, and a bad one, at that. It reeks of Nabokov, and there is not a whiff of Pushkin here! Attributing this English verse to the great Russian poet is very misguided.

There might be "something peculiarly Russian about this..." writing (not to my ear, though), and I do agree that "'timbered night' is a lovely phrase..." etc., indeed, but it is all just Nabokov’s fantasy! There is no such thing in Pushkin’s writing.

It is true that "...the obvious advantage those translating from their native tongue have is that they can retain the feel of the original..." That is, if the translator knows how to do it! Nabokov proved himself incapable of that. It is also true, however, that the obvious disadvantage those reading translations from their native tongue have is that they can easily tell a fake... Here you have it, my friends.

On a good note, the above mentioned link
[broken link] http://magazines.enews.com/classic/nabokov080441.html
has a brilliantly written article by Nabokov. Well, when he is good, he is very, very...

Gene

Gene Skuratovsky said...

Re: My jumbled note above -- sorry for that! Here it is again:

Until I finished reading the poem and got to the author's name
"-- Alexander Pushkin," I had no idea what I was reading here!
Sorry to disappoint you, friends! It is NOT an "at least a translation
of Pushkin"--it is, at best, JUST a translation of Pushkin, and a bad
one, at that! It reeks of Nabokov, and there is not a whiff of Pushkin
here! Attributing this English verse to the great Russian poet is very
misguided!

There might be "something peculiarly Russian about this" writing (not
to my ear, though), and I do agree that "'timbered night' is a lovely
phrase" indeed, but it is all just Nabokov's fantasy! There is no such
thing in Pushkin's writing.

It is true that "the obvious advantage those translating from their
native tongue have is that they can retain the feel of the original."
That is, if the translator knows how to do it! Nabokov proved himself
incapable of doing that well.

It is also true, however, that the obvious disadvantage those reading
translations from their native tongue have is that they can easily
tell a fake. Here you have it, my friends!

On a good note, the above mentioned link has a brilliantly written
article by Nabokov. Well, when he is good, he is very, very...

Gene

Andrey Frizyuk said...

This bagatelle is not the best in Pushkin's ouevre
(far from it) and yet there is an interesting story
behind it. The poem was written impromptu for the
album of mysterious Katarzyna Sobanska as a last
farewell before the poet's marriage. Very little is
known about Katarzyna - that she was 10 years
Pushkin's senior, that she belonged to the cream of
Polish nobility and that she was brought up in the
house of her aunt, the legendary Princess Lubomirska
(of the French Revolution fame). Rather tall and plump
and married for a third time, she was adored by Adam
Mizkiewicz and many other notable persons, but her
relationship with Pushkin is particularly intriguing.
By all appearances quite indifferent to both Pushkin
and Mickiewicz, she was hired by the police chef Count
von Benckendorff to spy upon both suspect poets. Her
correspondence with Pushkin doesn't servive except the
only letter, written shortly before the marriage, in
which the poet hints that he could break his
engagement with his future wife at Katarzyna's first
command. There is no evidence that the letter was ever
sent. The extant draft is perhaps the only true love
letter in a sizable corpus of Pushkin's
correspondence. Anna Akhmatova maintained that
Katarzyna was the only real love of Pushkin; and that
it was her who inspired with her sultry looks his
greatest novel, Eugene Onegin. Later in life Katarzyna
grew jealous of her younger sister Eveline Hanska for
having married Honore de Balzac; she settled in Paris
in the 1840s and almost had the eminent critic
Sainte-Beuve marry her. Her last years were spent in
extreme reticence; she changed her name and severed
all relations with her brother Count Rzewusski (a
Tsar's minister and one of the richest people in
Russia). By the time (1885) when she died in one of
the poorest quarters of Paris, nobody could recall
that she had been the brightest star of Odessa society
in the late 1810s and early 1820s.

With best wishes for your marvellous site,
Andrei in Russia

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