I’ve been rereading Evgenii Onegin and appreciating more than ever the line-by-line brilliance of the poetry. When I was young and foolish and first studying Russian, I thought of Pushkin as a romantic; the first poem of his I read, the anthology piece “Я вас любил” (“I loved you [once]; perhaps love has not entirely been extinguished in my heart…”), seemed to me (a hormone-soaked adolescent) a passionate declaration, and it sank instantly into my long-term memory. I still love the poem, but I realize now that it’s not romantic at all. Pushkin, despite being born into a generation that was besotted with Anne Radcliffe, August Lafontaine, and other conjurers of dank vaults, far-off lands, and improbably chaste romances, was at heart as much a classicist as Walter Savage Landor, and “I loved you” is quite comparable to Landor’s own anthology piece “Rose Aylmer.” Both take a powerful human emotion and distill it into eight perfectly balanced lines, unforgettable compounds of vowels, consonants, and rhythms. Note that the point is not to “express” the emotion (which is what we’re all desperate to do as hormone-soaked adolescents writing terrible poetry) but to distill it, to extract from it an essence that will power the engine of a great poem. Pushkin, of course, is a far greater poet than Landor, and he is not only a classicist; his Mozartean combination of classical expression and frequently romantic sensibility can be found in English poetry only in Coleridge. What Nabokov calls “the extraordinary lines, among his greatest, that Pushkin added in 1824, four years after its publication, to the beginning of Ruslan i Lyudmila” (‘By a sea-cove [stands] a green oak,/ on that oak a golden chain,/ and day and night a learned tomcat/ walks on the chain around [the oak]…’) is the only thing in any language I know that can be set beside Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.”

What I would like to do is to take a stanza from Chapter 2 of Evgenii Onegin (I will provide Cyrillic, transliteration, and literal translation) and try to explain how it works in terms that would not offend the easily offended Nabokov, and then to take a bit of Nabokov (in Russian) and show that it works in a similar fashion; hopefully we’ll all learn something in the process. Here is the stanza (II.28):

Она любила на балконе
Предупреждать зари восход,
Когда на бледном небосклоне
Звезд исчезает хоровод,
И тихо край земли светлеет,
И вестник утра, ветер веет,
И всходит постепенно день.
Зимой, когда ночная тень
Полмиром доле обладает
И доле в праздной тишине,
При отуманенной луне,
Восток ленивый почивает,
В привычный час пробуждена,
Вставала при свечах она.

Here’s a transliteration; stress is on the penult unless marked:

Oná lyubila na balkone
Preduprezhdát’ zarí voskhód,
Kogdá na blednom nebosklone
Zvyózd ischezaet khorovód,
I tikho krai zemlí svetleet,
I vestnik utra, veter veet,
I vskhodit postepenno den’.
Zimói, kogdá nochnaya ten’
Polmirom dole obladaet
I dole v prazdnoi tishiné,
Pri otumánnenoi luné,
Vostók lenivyi pochivaet,
V privychnyi chas probuzhdená,
Vstavala pri svechákh oná.

And a literal translation:

She loved on the balcony
to anticipate the rising of the dawn,
when on the pale (sky above the) horizon
the stars’ ring-dance disappears,
and quietly the edge of the earth brightens,
and the herald of morning, the wind, blows,
and gradually rises the day.
In winter, when the night’s shadow
possesses half the world longer,
and longer in idle silence
by (the light of) the misted moon
the lazy East sleeps,
awakened at the accustomed hour
she would get up by (the light of) candles.

The first thing to note is that the wonderfully flexible “Onegin stanza” of fourteen lines (ababccddeffegg) is here, unusually, divided in half, with a strong break after line 7 (the more common break is after line 8, so that rhymes are kept together). In fact, when you get to line 8 it almost seems that a separate poem is beginning; after the stately description of the sunrise in the first seven lines (oddly reminiscent of the mood and rhythm of MacLeish’s “You, Andrew Marvell“: “To feel the always coming on/ The always rising of the night… And strange at Ecbatan the trees…”) comes the abrupt “Zimói…” [‘In winter…’], which turns out to introduce another perspective on her early rising. The whole thing is as circular as the khorovód (which Nabokov uncharacteristically mistranslates “choral dance”); it starts and ends with the word oná ‘she,’ and she gets up in the last line to go out to the balcony of the first (“A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun”).

But it’s the complicated machine made of words nestled within this framework that kept me going back to the stanza until I had it memorized. The first line is almost ostentatiously bland: “She loved upon the balcony” could perfectly well be followed by a description of having tea and looking at the garden, or reading the kind of romantic novels mentioned in the following stanza. (Side note: there’s a funny story here about a teacher who wanted to declaim the opening of this stanza to his tenth-grade class, got as far as “Oná lyubila na balkone”—and couldn’t come up with the second line, leaving an image that aroused the hilarity of his students.) But then we hit the mouth-filling and unexpected verb preduprezhdát’, which now usually means ‘warn’ or ‘notify’—Nabokov translates it “prevene,” saying “I chose to use this obsolete verb in order to stress that the Russian word (a translation of the French prévenir or devancer) is obsolete, too”—and the phrase ‘rising of the dawn,’ which seems to have religious connotations in Russian as it does in English (Genesis 32:24 “And Jacob remained alone; and a man wrestled with him until the rising of the dawn” = “И остался Яаков один, и боролся человек с ним до восхода зари”), and we realize something special is going on.

Notice the pattern of consonants in the first line: n-l-b-l-n-b-l-k-n; without the interruption of the voiceless k (a crunchy crouton), there would be an exact repetition of the b-l-n sequence. Now look at the end of the third line: na blednom nebosklone, n-bl-d-n-m-n-b-sk-ln. This is the kind of detail you don’t intellectually notice without the kind of close analysis I’m doing here, but the ear (if you have an ear for poetry) notices, and it makes you want to say the lines over and over. Meanwhile, the third and fourth lines each end with similarly constructed, unusual, resonant words, nebosklón (‘sky-slope’) and khorovód, which produce a sort of quasi-rhyme.

Next come the three lines that remind me of MacLeish:

I tikho krai zemlí svetleet,
I vestnik utra, veter veet,
I vskhodit postepenno den’.

Notice, surrounding the showy alliteration of the middle line (vest- ut- vet- veet), the subtler interweaving of t’s, kh’s, v’s, and s’s in the outer lines, all bound together with the repeated initial I… I… I ‘and… and… and’; the rhythm of the third line, with the “scud” (Nabokov’s term for a stressless foot, with its “expressive delaying note”) in the third foot adding to the impression of finality I mentioned above.

I will mention also the judicious sprinkling of obsolete meanings (preduprezhdát’), words (pochivaet), and forms (dole ‘longer,’ now dol’she); the leisurely, delaying syntax of lines 8-12; and the irresistible sonic puzzle of line 13, which sounds almost like two long words, fprivychnyichás probuzhdená, with a repetition of pr…á and a matching up of the teasingly similar sounds v/b, y/u, ch/zh that make the whole thing into a verbal worry bead you can mutter as a kind of mantra.

Now notice that the entire stanza, to the kind of person who reads for plot, reduces to “She liked to get up early.” This is not the kind of reader Pushkin is writing for, and that goes double for Nabokov, who probably never wrote a sentence he did not roll around in his mouth several times to make sure it produced the effect he wanted. I take, pretty much at random, a fragment of a long sentence from the fourth paragraph of Drugie berega (the Russian equivalent of Speak, Memory): “судя по густоте солнечного света, тотчас заливающего мою память, по лапчатому его очерку, явно зависящему от переслоений и колебаний лопастных дубовых листьев, промеж которых он падает на песок” [‘judging by the thickness of the sunlight, immediately flooding my memory, by its palmate outline, manifestly dependent on the interlayings and vibrations of the laciniate oak leaves between which it falls onto the sand’]. Here’s a transliteration (again, penultimate stresses are unmarked, and I’ve added a few y’s to aid pronunciation):
sudyá po gustoté sólnechnovo sveta, totchas zaliváyushchevo moyú pamyat’, po lápchatomu yevó ócherku, yavno zavísyashchemu ot peresloyénii i kolebánii lópastnykh dubóvykh list’yev, promézh kotorykh on pádayet na pesók…

Very similar things are going on here, though of course without the framework of rhyme and meter. The fragment starts and ends with simple, everyday language (“judging by the thickness of the sunlight … between which it falls onto the sand”); in between, it takes detours through the poetic (zaliváyushchevo moyú pamyat’ ‘flooding my memory’), the archaic (ócherk in the sense ‘outline’ rather than today’s ‘sketch, study’), and the scientific (lápchaty ‘palmate,’ peresloyénie ‘interlaying, interstratification,’ kolebánie ‘vibration, oscillation,’ lópastnyi ‘laciniate’ [OED: “Cut into deep and narrow irregular segments; jagged, slashed”]), all of which are hallmarks of Nabokov’s style in English as well. Note the interplay of sounds: the s’s in sudyá po gustoté sólnechnovo sveta, totchas, the z-shch- in zaliváyushchevo and zavísyashchemu, the l’s in lápchatomu … peresloyénii i kolebánii lópastnykh … list’yev,, the p’s in promézh kotorykh on pádayet na pesók… I could go on, but I hope the point is clear. If you find this kind of verbal play enjoyable, you will get much more out of Nabokov than if you don’t.

For comparison, here is the same fragment in Speak, Memory: “Judging by the strong sunlight that, when I think of that revelation, immediately invades my memory with lobed sun flecks through overlapping patterns of greenery…”


  1. mollymooly says

    Longtemps elle se levait de bonne heure…

  2. Hi,it’s my first time to comment on the Languagehut, i read sometimes the site
    i tried to translate Pushkin’s poem you cited
    i’m not a translator, just translate to learn English, so there could be mistakes
    I loved you and perhaps still
    This love hasn’t faded in my soul.
    It wouldn’t trouble you again:
    I don’t want sadden you by anything.
    I loved you so silently, so hopelessly
    Languished by shyness or by jealousy.
    I loved you so sincerely, so tenderly
    Like God make you be loved by the other.
    What do you think? I’d love to hear your opinion

  3. Beautiful post, Hat. It reminds me that when I first read Евгений Онегин about five years ago, I swore to myself I’d try to read it again every year or so, because it bears reading and re-reading (and re-reading…) And yet I haven’t done that. So I think I need to pick it up this summer. (And finally check out Hofstadter’s translation, too.)
    I do need to rag on N. a bit, though — I’m constantly depressed by his attitude about translation. His translation of A Hero of Our Time is disappointing, because he seems to have no interest in conveying the “plain folks'” speech of some of Lermontov’s characters. But his incredible, lyrical translation of the first few paragraphs of “Taman'” are proof that, had he tried, he could have done fantastic things with a poetic rendering of E.O. He preserves all the sounds of the ocean crashing against the shore in Taman’, the constant refrain of k, sh, ts, shch, all throughout that first paragraph.
    Makes me sad to think what could have been. I know as a translator I don’t have any right to come *near* E.O., because I’m just not capable.

  4. I’m constantly depressed by his attitude about translation.
    You and me both. And it’s not like he made a virtue of necessity; as you say, he was capable of exquisite translation (some rhymed versions he did in his youth are astonishing if you know only his crabbed literalist avatar). I really don’t understand it. But I urge everyone to avoid his nearly unreadable version of Onegin; read someone else’s and follow along in his separate volume of annotations (if, of course, you like annotations).
    And I think of myself as a pretty decent translator, but I can’t make it work with Onegin (or, indeed, most of Pushkin). It really is as close to untranslatable as poetry gets.

  5. Hi read,
    I don’t know Russian, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of your translation. There a few fine points of English diction I can point out:
    “perhaps still
    This love hasn’t faded” still is not in a natural position in the sentence, and the sentence is too emphatic for the contraction hasn’t. Maybe something like …and this love has not yet faded in my soul.
    “It wouldn’t trouble you again” there’s nothing hypothetical, so “It won’t trouble you again.”
    “sadden you by anything” sounds odd. “sadden you in any way” sounds better, but is probably further from the Russian. The idiomatic English phrasing to express this idea would be “I don’t want to do anything to make you sad.”
    “Languished by shyness” sounds odd. I suppose the original Russian has a word meaning “debilitated”, so maybe “overcome by shyness” or, using a very literary word, “wracked by shyness”.
    I don’t understand the last line at all. Does it mean “I loved you just as much as another lover, through divine intervention, now loves you”?

  6. thank you, Gary, for your corrections
    i think i need to read more of the Languagehut before commenting

  7. In my own experience, unfortunate but true, detailed analyses of language and translation that pore over each individual feature seem to excite more interest among the author than the reader…. 🙁

  8. “Excite more interest among the author”! Is it something to do with Monday morning? Perhaps “is more exciting for the author than the reader” would be better.

  9. rootlesscosmo says

    Gary and read, here’s a translation of the Pushkin poem by Emily Ezust, on her absolutely indispensable Lieder and Art Song Texts
    I loved you: and perhaps this love
    in my soul has not yet died out;
    But I do not wish it to trouble you any more:
    I do not want to grieve you with anything.
    I loved you silently, hopelessly,
    now timid, now jealous;
    May God grant that another someday will love you
    as sincerely, as tenderly as I did.

    There’s a setting for voice and piano by Nikolai Karlovich Medtner that’s very beautiful.

  10. May I try? 🙂
    I used to love you: I admit that this love
    May smolder still and glimmer in my soul;
    But it must not distress you any longer;
    For least of all I want it to afflict.
    I used to love you hopelessly, and, voiceless,
    I pined of jealousy and diffidence;
    I used to love with candour and endearment
    Which may God send to he who loves you next.
    The translation is neither rhymed nor literal, but, I hope, it might reflect the spirit of the original 🙂

  11. In my own experience, unfortunate but true, detailed analyses of language and translation that pore over each individual feature seem to excite more interest among the author than the reader
    Well, to each his own. That kind of detailed analysis has always been my favorite; I grow impatient when people go on about “beauty” and “truth” and other generalities. I want the brass tacks.

  12. And thanks for those brass tacks! I thoroughly enjoyed your posting. Both Pushkin’s prose and poetry have that kind of structural underpinning — in sound, in structure, in word use. Take a look at Robert Chandler’s translation of The Captain’s Daughter and his introduction. You see that Pushkin used the same sort of khorovod in lengthy prose that he used in this stanza.
    Pushkin is so hard to translate because in English you have to choose between meaning (or meanings), sound, structure and rhyme – which Pushkin combines to make a single whole. In your stanza, it’s hard to see how you could end where he begins (with “she”) and convey that sense of time turning. My guess is that translations into a non-analytical language would be easier.
    I heard, however, that someone has been working for 20 years on a rhymed EO – so maybe there is hope for non Russian speakers, who get tired of being told “he’s great – but untranslatable.”

  13. someone has been working for 20 years on a rhymed EO
    People have been doing rhymed translations of EO for the last couple of centuries; they’ve been uniformly awful (“A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter,/ And profanation of the dead“) and I don’t see any reason to hope this will be better. If I went mad and decided to try it myself, I’d preserve the rhythm as best I could and maybe toss in assonances and off-rhymes as they made themselves available, but to try to reproduce the rhyme scheme pretty much guarantees a disaster. Of course, I’d be delighted to be proved wrong.

  14. My favorite lines in Onegin are the absolutely, breathtakingly perfect lines contrasting Onegin and Lenski: led i plamen’ volna i kamen’ ne stol’ raslichni mezh soboi …
    The morphological complexity of the Russian language makes it the richest language in rhyme of any that I’m familiar with (English, French, German, Italian)–the nominal case endings, the verbal inflexions, and also the word-formation suffixes. Pushkin took full advantage of the rhyming resources of Russian, as well as its resources of alliteration and assonance. English is one of the poorest languages in rhyme, which may be why blank verse appeared in English earlier than any of the other modern languages. It’s one reason why Pushkin’s verse –even something short like ya vas lyubil, let alone Onegin –can’t be successfully translated into English.
    The tyrrany of rhyme that forces poets to produce their most beautiful verses . . .

  15. Oops! should be tyranny.

  16. Yeah, Hat, I know. There are lots of bad rhyming Onegins. But I hear this version — which is maybe not rhymed, but not a Nabokovian gloss — is supposed to be quite good. We’ll see.

  17. Fran Civile says

    Thank you for this page full of beautiful language, I enjoyed your posts and the thoughtful comments very much…
    I’m bookmarking languagehut!

  18. Great post, LH.
    I don’t recall ever coming into contact with Onegin in Russian. The extent of my Pushkin education was, indeed, Я вас любил, and The Queen of Spades. I learned Russian poetry from a lovely old lady who preferred Lermontov to Pushkin, so I read Смерть поэта and Парус instead. She also was a big fan of Korney Chukovsky, and I still remember snatches of Айболит, Крокодил and Мойдодыр.
    On the topic of Pushkin. Do you know Rusalka well? I’m talking about the dramatic poem, not the short poem. I’ve just written a chapter on Chekhov’s references to Rusalka in The Seagull, and how it is as much of a parallel text for the play as Hamlet. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find an English translation, even in the university library – I am getting back into gear with my Russian but poetry is still quite beyond me.
    The same goes for a chapter I wrote about Nikolay Nekrasov, and how his poetry is out of print in the UK, and mostly untranslated into English in general. I had trouble even finding the poem Chekhov uses, as even the footnoted English translations don’t mention the title! Luckily, a Russian edition of The Seagull I have did mention the title – Тяжелый крест достался ей на долю…. Interestingly, the only translation of this poem I can find a reference of was by, who else, but Nabokov (although it is on a recording in the Harvard library).

  19. Do you know Rusalka well? I’m talking about the dramatic poem, not the short poem.
    No, I’m afraid I haven’t gotten to that yet in my life-plan of reading All Of Pushkin.

  20. Hehe, thanks for the mention. You forgot to mention that this thread was read’s first appearance at LH. Four years is a long time.
    To be honest, I wasn’t meaning to be critical of your exegesis; it was more a comment on the difficulty of pulling off a detailed nuts-and-bolts analysis of linguistic or literary texts. This is a reflection of my own failings in this area, not an aspersion on yours. It’s tough to make this sort of thing interesting, especially if the reader doesn’t know the language :). In fact you do a darned good job, I just don’t know enough Russian or Pushkin to appreciate the effort.

  21. I don’t know enough Russian or Pushkin (barely enough not to confuse him with A. Pushpin, as Hofstadter says), and I still love this sort of close reading without a Theory axe to grind, perhaps to be called “the new New Criticism”.
    By all reports Nabokov’s translation of Alice is heaven-storming. Someone must have stolen that N. and replaced him with quite a different fellow.

  22. To be honest, I wasn’t meaning to be critical of your exegesis; it was more a comment on the difficulty of pulling off a detailed nuts-and-bolts analysis of linguistic or literary texts. This is a reflection of my own failings in this area, not an aspersion on yours.
    Thanks for clarifying! And yes, of course you’re right; it’s hard for me to appreciate, say, Matt’s detailed explication of Japanese poetry over at No-sword when he gets into a lot of detail.

Speak Your Mind