Copyright The New Yorker
This is an extract from a David Remnick piece that appeared in The New Yorker on Nov. 7, 2005.
One of the forbidden lights of Russian literature during the Soviet era was Vladimir Nabokov. None of his books, not the early Russian-language novels written in France and Germany or the later works, written in English when he lived in the United States and Switzerland, were approved by the authorities. He was considered dangerously “anti-Soviet” and banned outright. Even his translation of “Eugene Onegin”-with its three accompanying volumes of commentary (notes so Nabokovian, so joyful, intricate, and erudite, that they seem like the apparatus to one of his novels, like the “commentary” of “Pale Fire”)-even this was impossible to find in the pre-Gorbachev Soviet Union except in illegal, smuggled editions.
Pevear and Volokhonsky told me that they considered Nabokov’s “Onegin” one of the great triumphs of translation, even though it is nothing like their own work. Nabokov, who regarded “The Gift” and “Lolita” as his best novels, thought that his “Onegin” was perhaps the most important project of his life and, at the same time, like all translation, innately futile. In 1955, just as he was setting out on the project, he published a poem in this magazine on the impossibility, the insult, of translation:
What is translation? On a platter A poet’s pale and glaring head, A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter, And profanation of the dead. The parasites you were so hard on Are pardoned if I have your pardon, O Pushkin, for my stratagem. I travelled down your secret stem, And reached the root, and fed upon it; Then, in a language newly learned, I grew another stalk and turned Your stanza, patterned on a sonnet, Into my honest roadside prose- All thorn, but cousin to your rose.
The poem, which is written in Pushkin’s signature stanza form-fourteen lines, a hundred and eighteen syllables in iambic tetrameter, with a regular scheme of feminine and masculine rhymes-is both tribute and apology, to Russian and to Pushkin.
Nabokov worked on “Onegin” for nearly a decade. His intention, as he makes clear in the introduction, is not to provide a traditional “poetic” rendering, a pleasurable English “Onegin,” like Avrahm Yarmolinsky’s, James Falen’s, or Charles Johnston’s noble attempts. Such efforts, he felt, had necessarily ended in failure. Not long before publishing his own “Onegin,” Nabokov took to the pages of The New York Review of Books and, like the lepidopterist he was, picked the wings off a translation by Walter Arndt-which, to his rage, went on to win the Bollingen Prize. Nabokov could not bear Arndt’s “Germanisms,” his freewheeling sacrifice of semantic accuracy for rhythmic “beauty.” Of all the sins of a translator, he would later write, “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.”
For his part, Nabokov intended to provide the reader with a literal-minded “crib, a pony,” as he once told an interviewer. “And to the fidelity of transposal I have sacrificed everything: elegance, euphony, clarity, good taste, modern usage, and even grammar.” He had no hope for “Onegin” as an English poem. His purpose was singular and clear. Just as Dante wrote the Divine Comedy to move a reader toward Scripture (or so he said), Nabokov wrote his translation to inspire his reader to know the poem in Russian:
It is hoped that my readers will be moved to learn Pushkin’s language and go through EO again without this crib. In art as in science there is no delight without the detail, and it is on details that I have tried to fix the reader’s attention. Let me repeat that unless these are thoroughly understood and remembered, all “general ideas” (so easily acquired, so profitably resold) must necessarily remain but worn passports allowing their bearers short cuts from one area of ignorance to another.
Despite the stubbornly eccentric and unlovely texture of Nabokov’s “Onegin,” the work was generally well reviewed, especially by those who understood and accepted his intention and did not go looking for an English poem. The most notable exception was Edmund Wilson, who decided in July, 1965, to wage battle against the translation in the pages of The New York Review.
Since 1940, just after Nabokov’s arrival in the United States, Wilson and Nabokov enjoyed a warm friendship, a constant Dear Volodya-Dear Bunny correspondence full of mutual instruction, jocular competition, oneupmanship, and traded enthusiasms. They were well matched: both were self-confident, supremely intelligent, and well trained in the art of polemics. Wilson had been extraordinarily kind to Nabokov, making introductions for him that led to teaching jobs, a Guggenheim fellowship, contracts with book publishers, and publication in The New Yorker and The New Republic. And yet there was an uncommon, almost frightening honesty in the relationship. Wilson did not hesitate to tell Nabokov that he did not like “Bend Sinister,” “Lolita,” “Ada,” and other major works. (He never bothered to read “The Gift.”) Nabokov, despite his debts to Wilson, treated him, especially on Russian matters, with a breezy condescension: “Dear Bunny, I am going to steal an hour from Gogol and thrash out this matter of Russian versification, because you are as wrong as can be.” Wilson was bemused by many of Nabokov’s literary judgments, his disdain for Mann’s “asinine” “Death in Venice,” Pasternak’s “vilely written” “Dr. Zhivago,” Faulkner’s “corncobby chronicles”-anything that smacked of journalese, local color, big ideas, or political propaganda. And yet, for a quarter century, despite any friction or jealousies, the friendship seemed to thrive on its directness. “I like you very much,” Nabokov told Wilson in 1945, to which Wilson replied, “Our conversations have been among the few consolations of my literary life through these last years-when my old friends have been dying, petering out or getting more and more neurotic.” In the end, however, the relationship could not survive Wilson’s attack on Nabokov’s “Onegin.” The assault was too fierce, too presumptuous, and Nabokov’s amour propre was never quite restored.
Despite his imperfect, book-learned Russian, Wilson betrayed no doubt that he was capable of taking on Nabokov. In the course of his career, he learned several languages in order to “work up” his projects: Russian and German to write on Marx and Lenin in “To the Finland Station,” Hebrew for “The Dead Sea Scrolls,” Hungarian to read Endre Ady and other poets. He was especially earnest about his Russian, consulting grammars, Dahl’s dictionary (a more antiquarian sort of Russian O.E.D.), and, quite often, his emigre friend.
When it came to Russian literature, the correspondence between Nabokov and Wilson was rather like that between an amused, patient teacher and an eager, overreaching student. Wilson’s publication of “The Strange Case of Pushkin and Nabokov,” in The New York Review of Books, was an assault from the back of the class:
This production, though in certain ways valuable, is something of a disappointment; and the reviewer, though a personal friend of Mr. Nabokov-for whom he feels a warm affection sometimes chilled by exasperation-and an admirer of much of his work, does not propose to mask his disappointment. Since Mr. Nabokov is in the habit of introducing any job of this kind which he undertakes by an announcement that he is unique and incomparable and that everybody else who has attempted it is an oaf and an ignoramus, incompetent as a linguist and scholar, usually with the implication that he is also a low-class person and a ridiculous personality, Nabokov ought not to complain if the reviewer, though trying not to imitate his bad literary manners, does not hesitate to underline his weaknesses.
Wilson not only disapproved of Nabokov’s “bald and awkward language”; he also discerned in his friend a desire to “torture both the reader and himself” by “flattening out” Pushkin. In “The Wound and the Bow,” Wilson found the key to imaginative art in the injuries and humiliations suffered by a writer in his youth-in Nabokov’s case, the humiliation of being stripped of his homeland, of being forced to wander the world far from his home and his language. Nabokov’s revenge, he feels, is “sado-masochistic,” and it expresses itself in an infuriating perversion of Pushkin:
Aside from this desire to suffer and make suffer-so important an element in his fiction-the only characteristic Nabokov trait that one recognizes in this uneven and sometimes banal translation is the addiction to rare and unfamiliar words, which, in view of his declared intention to stick so close to the text that his version may be used as a trot, are entirely inappropriate here. . . . He gives us, for example, rememorating, producement, curvate, habitude, rummers, familistic, gloam, dit, shippon and scrab.
In all, Wilson accused Nabokov of “actual errors in English,” an “unnecessarily clumsy style,” “vulgar” phrases, immodesty, inaccurate transliteration, a “lack of common sense,” a “tedious and interminable appendix,” a poor grasp of Russian prosody, an “overdone” commentary that suffers from “information which is generally quite useless,” and-“to try to get all my negatives out of the way”-“serious failures” of interpretation. The particulars take up the bulk of Wilson’s attack, though he closes with some lapidary tribute to Nabokov’s mini-essays on Pushkin’s period, cohort, and influences.
After reading Wilson’s piece at home in Montreux, Nabokov cabled the co-editor of the Review, Barbara Epstein, in New York: “Please reserve space in next issue for my thunder.” If Wilson saw his essay as simply an elaboration of an ongoing game, his target did not. Nabokov, whose sense of humor was so supreme on the page, was not at all amused, and his counterattacks, published in Encounter and The New York Review, filleted Wilson personally as well as in the philological particulars:
As Mr. Wilson so justly proclaims in the beginning of “The Strange Case of Pushkin and Nabokov,” we are indeed old friends. I fully share “the warm affection sometimes chilled by exasperation” that he says he feels for me. In the 1940s, during my first decade in America, he was most kind to me in various matters, not necessarily pertaining to his profession. I have always been grateful to him for the tact he showed in refraining from reviewing any of my novels. We have had many exhilarating talks, have exchanged many frank letters. A patient confidant of his long and hopeless infatuation with the Russian language, I have always done my best to explain to him his mistakes of pronunciation, grammar, and interpretation. As late as 1957, at one of our last meetings, we both realized with amused dismay that despite my frequent comments on Russian prosody, he still could not scan Russian verse. Upon being challenged to read Eugene Onegin aloud, he started to do this with great gusto, garbling every second word and turning Pushkin’s iambic line into a kind of spastic anapest with a lot of jaw-twisting haws and rather endearing little barks that utterly jumbled the rhythm and soon had us both in stitches.
Like an admiral commanding a flotilla that his underfunded opponent cannot hope to match, Nabokov lords his superior command of Russian language and prosody over his opponent. After a while, his methodical counterattack seems unfair:
In translating slushat’ shum morskoy (Eight:IV:11) I chose the archaic and poetic transitive turn “to listen the sound of the sea” because the relevant passage has in Pushkin a stylized archaic tone. Mr. Wilson may not care for this turn-I do not much care for it either-but it is silly of him to assume that I lapsed into a naive Russianism not being really aware that, as he tells me, “in English you have to listen to something.” First, it is Mr. Wilson who is not aware that there exists an analogous construction in Russian, prislushivat’sya k zvuku, “to listen close to the sound”-which, of course, makes nonsense of the exclusive Russianism imagined by him, and secondly, had he happened to leaf through a certain canto of Don Juan, written in the year Pushkin was beginning his poem, or a certain Ode to Memory, written when Pushkin’s poem was being finished, my learned friend would have concluded that Byron (“Listening debates not very wise or witty”) and Tennyson (“Listening the lordly music”) must have had quite as much Russian blood as Pushkin and I.
Wilson never relented in his argument that Nabokov’s translation was nearly unreadable as a poem (and here he was right), but, with time, he seemed to regret the affair. On rereading his original article, Wilson admitted that he had sounded “more damaging” than he had intended. But it was too late. The correspondence with Nabokov, once so robust and warm, now dwindled and ceased. Wilson felt the loss acutely. There were a few last desul-tory letters in the years left to them, but Nabokov could never fully forgive the “Onegin” affair and other slights, including a wounding passage about his wife, Vera, in Wilson’s memoir “Upstate.” A quarter century of intense friendship ended. In a letter to the Times Book Review in November, 1971, Nabokov wrote, “I am aware that my former friend is in poor health but in the struggle between the dictates of compassion and those of personal honor the latter wins.” Wilson died in June, 1972. Pevear and Volokhonsky may be the premier Russian-to-English translators of the era. They are certainly the most versatile and industrious and the only such team in which one member, Richard Pevear, does not really speak the language. Pevear told me that he has not even spent much time in Russia-just one three-week trip to St. Petersburg to meet his wife’s old friends and family.