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On Translation

Document: Nabokov’s Notes

February 29, 2012 | by

When Vladimir Nabokov started teaching Russian literature at Wellesley College in 1944, he was frustrated by the lack of an adequate literal translation of Eugene Onegin, which he referred to as “the first and fundamental Russian novel.” He prepared his own extracts for class use and invited Edmund Wilson to work with him on a full translation.

Wilson had nurtured Nabokov’s early career in the States, and Nabokov had reciprocated with many generous hours of patient tutorial—often via letter—on the finer points of Russian literature, history, politics, and scansion. The two had grown to be great friends but never collaborated on a full-length work. The 1964 publication of Nabokov’s solo translation of Onegin effectively ended their friendship and sparked one of the best-known intellectual debates of the last century.

The project began promisingly enough for Nabokov, though Wilson had misgivings from the get-go. When Nabokov first decided to prepare a prose translation of Onegin, “with notes giving associations and other explanations for every line,” Wilson and Nabokov had been exchanging letters about Russian poetics for a decade, often with barely masked stridency on both sides. In 1950 Wilson expressed fatigue: “I am getting rather tired of all these topics and think we ought to start something new.” When he learned that Nabokov has decided to devote his Guggenheim Fellowship—achieved, in part, through Wilson’s recommendation—to the Onegin project, he complained: “I wish you had given them some other project—it seems to me a pity for you to spend a lot of time on Onegin when you ought to be writing your own books.” Nabokov, however, wasn’t worried: in his application he wrote that it would take “a year or so,” and told Wilson the work could be “quite smoothly combined with other pleasures.”

A year later he wrote how much more arduous a project it had turned out to be: “I was … on the verge of a breakdown and not fit for company. For two months in Cambridge I did nothing (from 9 A.M. to 2 A.M.) but work on my commentaries to EO.” Still later, it seemed he had met his whale. He wrote to Katharine White, his friend and New Yorker editor, that the “monster” had “grown far beyond whatever I planned originally.” He told Wilson, “I have at last discovered the right way to translate Onegin. This is the fifth or sixth complete version I have made.” At the end of the summer of 1957 he admitted more confidentially to his sister, “I hope that I can finally, finally finish my monstrous Pushkin … I am tired of this ‘bookish exploit’.”

His translation was published, at last, in 1964, in the four-volume edition pictured here and including Nabokov’s word-by-word literal translation, his commentary (explaining content, context, and impact), two appendices (including a discussion of Russian prosody), an index, and a facsimile reproduction of the 1837 second edition (which was the final text Pushkin saw through the press).

You’d think that after planning and working on the project on and off for more than twenty years, Nabokov would have been pleased with the result. Why, then, did he overwrite so much of the text in this copy, further revising his translation? Why are there annotations here stretching into the early 1970s? His new alterations were in response to Wilson’s damning review in The New York Review of Books—and they were designed to play up the aspects of the translation Wilson hated most.

Nabokov’s publisher, Bollingen, had been eager to send the work, before publication, to Wilson, then a perceived authority, to allow him ample time to compose a strong review. Nabokov warned them that Wilson was an “envious ass,” and that his Russian was “primitive, and his knowledge of Russian literature gappy and grotesque”—and all this was before they parted ways.

Wilson, predictably, shattered whatever relief Nabokov experienced at publication with his caustic review in the July 15, 1965, issue of The New York Review of Books. In “The Strange Case of Pushkin and Nabokov,” he wrote that the translation

produced a bald and awkward language which has nothing in common with Pushkin or with the usual writing of Nabokov. One knows Mr. Nabokov’s virtuosity in juggling with the English language, the prettiness and wit of his verbal inventions. One knows also the perversity of his tricks to startle or stick pins in the reader; and one suspects that his perversity here has been exercised in curbing his brilliance; that—with his sado-masochistic Dostoevskian tendencies so acutely noted by Sartre—he seeks to torture both the reader and himself by flattening Pushkin out … It would be more to the point for the student to look up the Russian word than to have to have recourse to the OED for an English word he has never seen and which he will never have occasion to use. To inflict on the reader such words is not really to translate at all, for it is not to write idiomatic and recognizable English.

There’s a compliment in there somewhere, but you have to dig for it. This commentary engendered a series of rebuttals, qualified retractions, and counterattacks that effectively terminated the quarter-century friendship. Rather than collaborate, Wilson had critiqued, and in August 1965 the NYRB printed Nabokov’s first response (in the form of a letter), in which he noted seven errors in Wilson’s review and asserted that “Wilson’s didactic purpose is defeated by the presence of such errors (and there are many more to be listed later) as it is also by the strange tone of his article. Its mixture of pompous aplomb and peevish ignorance is certainly not conducive to a sensible discussion of Pushkin’s language and mine.”

In “Reply to My Critics,” published in the February 1966 issue of Encounter, Nabokov singled Wilson out for writing “the longest, most ambitious, most captious, and, alas, most reckless, article.” He began somewhat gently: “Unlike my novels, EO possesses an ethical side, moral and human elements. It reflects the compiler’s honesty or dishonesty, skill or sloppiness. If told I am a bad poet, I smile; but if told I am a poor scholar, I reach for my heaviest dictionary.” He then launched a frontal attack:

The mistakes and misstatements in [Wilson’s review] form an uninterrupted series so complete as to seem artistic in reverse, making one wonder if, perhaps, it had not been woven that way on purpose to be turned into something pertinent and coherent when reflected in a looking glass … A patient confidant of his long and hopeless infatuation with the Russian language and literature, I have invariably done my best to explain to him his monstrous mistakes of pronunciation, grammar, and interpretation … From our conversations and correspondence in former years I well know that, like Onegin, he is incapable of comprehending the mechanism of verse—either Russian or English … In his rejoinder to my letter of August 26, 1965, in The New York Review, Mr. Wilson says that on rereading his article he felt it sounded “more damaging” than he had meant it to be. His article, entirely consisting, as I have shown, of quibbles and blunders, can be damaging only to his own reputation—and that is the last look I shall ever take at the dismal scene.

Even as he rigorously defended his translation, Nabokov was assiduously revising it, in an attempt to bring it ever closer to the ideal form of translation he advocated in his critical writing.

Nabokov stated that he had begun work on a second, revised edition, to be “even more gloriously and monstrously literal than the first”; he felt that his first edition was “still not close enough and not ugly enough. In future editions ... I think I shall turn it entirely into utilitarian prose, with a still bumpier brand of English, rebarbative barricades of square brackets and tattered banners of reprobate words, in order to eliminate the last vestiges of bourgeois poesy and concession to rhythm. This is something to look forward to. For the moment, all I wish is merely to put on record my utter disgust with the general attitude, amoral and Philistine, towards literalism.”

Pictured above is the copy he used for the task. Nearly every page of the poem has been revised in this uncompromising spirit, with entire stanzas at times retranslated in the margins.

By the end of 1966, the new translation was almost complete—he labeled this copy Corrected 1967. In fall 1969, he wrote of the translation, “I am now through with that diabolical task forever. I feel that I have done for Pushkin at least as much as he has done for me.”

But he was not yet done; he had to wait for Princeton University Press—who had taken over Bollingen—to get their new edition out, a task that, somewhat inexplicably, took them six years. (Nabokov enumerated a few of the hold-ups including strikes and manufacturing errors.) The task expanded to fill the space he had: he kept revising. An additional note in this copy reads, “Added corrections 1971 in red to be included in proof.” Ironically, it might have been not the labor but the layout that held back Nabokov’s edition of Onegin from a place of honor. His biographer Brian Boyd writes,

Even this revised version fails to provide an interlinear, transliterated, accented Russian text. When someday Nabokov’s translation is published in this fashion, I expect every reviewer who knows Pushkin in the original and who has preferred verse translations over Nabokov’s uncompromising literalism will recant.

For a man about whom John Updike would write, in his New York Times obituary, “Few who had lost so much have complained so little,” Nabokov certainly complained plenty about the public reception of his Onegin, and he lost, at least temporarily, a great friend. In 1971, upon rereading his twenty-year correspondence with Wilson, he reached out to him: “It was such a pleasure to feel again the warmth of your many kindnesses, the various thrills of our friendship, that constant excitement of art and intellectual discovery.” He added, “Please believe that I have long ceased to bear you a grudge for your incomprehensible incomprehension of Pushkin’s and Nabokov’s Onegin.” Wilson died on June 12, 1972, three years before Princeton issued Nabokov’s revised version; Nabokov himself died two years after.

Sarah Funke Butler is a literary archivist and agent at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, Inc.

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9 Comments

  1. Joe Carlson | February 29, 2012 at 9:35 am

    “…I expect every reviewer who knows Pushkin in the original and who has preferred verse translations over Nabokov’s uncompromising literalism will recant.”

    Well, yeah, but why would people who know Pushkin in the original read a translation? Do people who know French read translations of MADAME BOVARY? As much as one admires Nabokov’s noble and loving effort so ably detailed here, and relish his REPLY TO MY CRITICS, don’t most of us repair to those “verse translations” instead of Nabokov’s? VN met his whale all right. Whale won.

  2. Stanislav Shvabrin | February 29, 2012 at 6:09 pm

    Wonderful piece, thank you, Sarah (if I may, based on our brief acquaintance back in 2002)! If I may be allowed to comment on Joe Carson’s post: “why would people who know Pushkin in the original read a translation.” Here I am, a native Russian with a couple of university degrees from Russia and US, and still in dire need of Nabokov’s translation to appreciate my EO fully (no mistake here, I do mean “translation”). Time goes on, our Russian isn’t exactly the same language Pushkin spoke and wrote in (not to mention all the complexity of Pushkin’s elusive imagery), and that’s why Nabokov’s translation is, simply put, indispensable.

  3. Stanislav Shvabrin | February 29, 2012 at 6:10 pm

    I meant Joe Carlson, of course, my apologies for misspelling your last name.

  4. Antoinette Baranov | February 29, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    it occurs to me still unread Nabakov’s translation into prose that it would an excellent way to teach Russian1 Will look into that.! Antonia Baranov

  5. Joe Carlson | March 1, 2012 at 11:05 am

    Point taken, Mr. Shvabrin. I’m sure the EO of VN is enormously beneficial to you and to many others. Looked into it and found the Commentary of great interest – a work of art as well as scholarship -but the poetry a long, hard slog with no mission accomplished in sight. So, sinner that I am, settled for the Stanley Mitchell version, which I lustily recommend to other poor sinners. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

  6. Mo Ibrahim | March 4, 2012 at 7:06 pm

    “For two months in Cambridge I did nothing (from 9 A.M. to 2 A.M.) but work on my commentaries to EO.” Subhanallah, that’s extremely inspiring!

  7. Waqi | March 6, 2012 at 2:31 am

    Just give me some of the Nabokov’s novels and shut the hell up, I want that little kid, that man that abused her, and (sorry my boss came)

  8. misha firer | March 6, 2012 at 4:00 pm

    nabokoff wrote primarily (possibly only) for his own pleasure. thus he translated ‘onegin’ literally for his own pleasure of bringing two very different languages together as close as possible through his own translation. nabokoff WAS the whale.

  9. Rodger | March 7, 2012 at 8:23 am

    I remember reading some of their letters back and forth in the NY Review of Books. The substance was foreign to me, but it was a huge thrill watching an American take on a Russian’s take on the Russian language. Wilson had balls, that’s for sure. To coin a phrase, “there’ll never be another”.

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