Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
Russians looks on Pushkin much as we look on Shakespeare; his position as their greatest writer is unchallenged. His position is perhaps even closer to that of Goethe in German literature. Not only is he Russia’s greatest poet; he is also the author of the first major works in a variety of genres. As well as his masterpieces -- the verse novel Eugene Onegin and the narrative poem The Bronze Horseman -- Pushkin wrote one of the first important Russian dramas, Boris Godunov, the first great Russian historical novel, The Captain’s Daughter, and perhaps the greatest of all Russian short stories, The Queen of Spades.
If Pushkin is less read outside Russia than Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or even Chekhov, this is mainly because of the problem of translation. I have never yet seen an adequate translation of any of his short lyrics, and even his prose demands a great deal of a translator. A Russian friend, hearing I was translating The Queen of Spades for an anthology of Russian short stories, said to me not long ago: ‘That must be very difficult. You can’t afford to change a single comma’. I soon learned how right she was; every smallest detail of vocabulary, syntax and rhythm in the story is perfectly judged.
Not a great deal happens in Eugene Onegin; there are really only three events of importance. First, the pseudo-sophisticated and Byronic hero, Eugene Onegin, rejects the love of Tatyana, a young girl brought up in the provinces; then he kills his friend Lensky in a duel he does not want to be fighting; then, some years later, he is himself rejected by the now-married and more sophisticated Tatyana. The story’s greatness lies in the way it is told – in Pushkin’s extraordinary grace, verve and wit. These are precisely the qualities that are most difficult to convey in translation, and the first English translations are indeed painful to read. More recently, however, English readers have been lucky; there are now three good translations to choose from – and there will soon be four. There is also Nabokov’s accurate-but-unreadable version, together with its three volumes of encyclopaedic and intermittently brilliant commentary.
The earliest competent translation is Charles Johnston’s, first published in 1977 and still available from Penguin Classics. Johnston captures much of Pushkin’s energy and humour, but he does not always write clearly and it is sometimes all too obvious that he is struggling to find a rhyme. Here is Johnston’s description of Onegin at the opera house:
The house is packed out; scintillating,
the boxes; boiling, pits and stalls;
the gallery claps – it’s bored with waiting –
and up the rustling curtain crawls.
Applause. Onegin enters – passes
across the public’s toes; he steers
straight to his stall, then turns his glasses
on unknown ladies in the tiers;
he’s viewed the boxes without passion,
he’s seen it all; with looks and fashion
he’s dreadfully dissatisfied.
When they are caught up in the story, readers may be able to take this in their stride. The first two lines, however, are obscure: I think I know what Johnston means when he says that the boxes are ‘scintillating’, but this is not a moment when the reader should be required to stop to puzzle things out. And the fourth line is especially unfortunate; the over-literary inversion – ‘up (…) the curtain crawls’ instead of ‘the curtain crawls up’ – makes room for all kinds of distracting possibilities. Is the curtain crawling with fleas? Are we about to be told that some reptile is crawling up it?
James Falen’s 1990 translation, available from Oxford World Classics, is simpler, clearer and wittier:
The theatre’s full, the boxes glitter;
The restless gallery claps and roars;
The stalls and pit are all ajitter;
The curtain rustles as it soars.
As all applaud, Onegin enters –
And treads on toes to reach his seat;
His double glass he calmly centres
On ladies he has yet to meet.
He takes a single glance to measure
These clothes and faces with displeasure.
To translate ten lines as elegantly as this is an achievement; what is remarkable is that almost every stanza is this good.
The latest complete translation of Onegin is by Tom Beck. An introductory note tell us that Beck ‘trained as a musician (…) Inspired by a new German translation of Eugene Onegin he learnt Russian so that he could translate Eugene Onegin into English.’ This sounds promising, and you need only read a page to sense that Beck has a good ear. Whether his translation is better than Falen’s – which he oddly omits to mention in his introduction – I find hard to say. Beck’s version of the first four lines about the opera seems awkward in comparison with Falen’s:
The house is full, the boxes shining,
the audience impatiently
is seething. Now the curtain’s rising,
there’s clapping in the gallery.
Much of his translation, however, is a pleasure to read, and I am relieved that there is no obligation – on me or on anyone else – to choose between these two translations. Far from it – Eugene Onegin is a work that repays any number of re-readings, and a good translation will always illuminate some facets of the original that are revealed less clearly by other translations.
I would like to end by mentioning a still incomplete translation by Stanley Mitchell. Here is his version of the whole of the first stanza about the opera house:
The house is full; the boxes brilliant;
Parterre and stalls - all seethes and roars;
Up in the gods they clap, ebullient,
And, with a swish, the curtain soars.
Semi-ethereal and resplendent,
To the enchanting bow obedient,
Ringed round by nymphs, Istomina
Is still; one foot supporting her,
She circles slowly with the other,
And lo! she leaps, and lo! she flies,
Like fluff she flies across the skies
Blown by Aeolus, god of weather;
She twists, untwists; her little feet
Swiftly against each other beat.
Astonishingly, Mitchell captures all of Pushkin’s elegance, wit and charm; these lines are in no way inferior to the original. Mitchell has been working on his translation for at least fifteen years. When he completes it, it will be published by Penguin Classics. If you are as captivated by the stanza above as I am, however, you may wish to seek out the journal Poetry in Translation. Three of the eight chapters have already been published, in issues 11, 15 and 18.