Lost in translation essay

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Clay Pipe by Marcel M. I could never claim to be a speaker of Russian. True, I once studied it for a short while, but I’ve never held a conversation or read a book in Russian. Given this, what would give me the chutzpah to write about, let alone think I could judge, various English translations of “Eugene Onegin,” that exemplary Russian novel in verse by that most Russian of Russian poets, Aleksandr Pushkin?

I first became interested in “Eugene Onegin” through reading a far more recent novel in verse: “The Golden Gate,” written in the mid-1980’s by the Indian poet and novelist Vikram Seth. The latter, which enchanted me from the moment it appeared, owes its genesis, indeed its entire stanzaic structure, to the former, a debt that Mr. Seth explicitly acknowledges, devoting several lines of verse to the work that sparked his own, namely the English version of “Onegin” by Sir Charles Johnston, a British diplomat and poet, which came out in 1977 and which Mr. I immediately bought the Johnston translation, but it somehow sat neglected on my shelf while seven years passed. Then one day I ran across another English version of “Onegin,” a brand-new one by James E. Falen, a professor of Russian at the University of Tennessee.

Surely, I thought, quite swayed by Mr. Seth, Pushkin’s tale had found its definitive Anglicizer in Charles Johnston. Who would dare to risk the inevitably humiliating comparison with Johnston’s tour de force? But this very idea aroused my curiosity, so I bought the Falen, took it home and shelved it next to its “luminous” rival. At first, I feared this purchase had lowered my chances of ever reading “Onegin. Yet having two versions produced the opposite effect.

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My lifelong fascination with translation galvanized me to tackle them in parallel, comparing them stanza by stanza, line by line. A word about the poetic units out of which “Eugene Onegin” is constructed. The novel consists of roughly 400 14-line sonnetlike stanzas written in iambic tetrameter. Sometimes the semantics fits one of these, sometimes the other — and quite often, neither. Pushkin’s semantic chunks to pay little heed to the boundaries of rhyming units, and once in a while an incomplete sentence will sassily leap across a few blank lines to find its conclusion in the next sonnet.

In any case, both the tetrameter and the rhyming pattern are adhered to strictly throughout. Of course, both Charles Johnston and James Falen respected all these strict structural criteria, for to do otherwise would have been to mock the book’s essence. As one reads, one quickly grows very used to and fond of the special lilt and sway of Onegin stanzas. I can speak only of my sensual pleasure at reading them in English, but I am sure that at this essentially musical level, the experience in Russian is similar. The raw sounds are of course different — by definition one can do nothing about that — but at a higher level of abstraction, all the key relationships among sounds are preserved isomorphically.

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