Poetry: Language and Love
Vladimir Nabokov, Brian Boyd, Stanislav Shvabrin, eds., Verses and Versions: Three Centuries of Russian Poetry
Love for Vladimir Nabokov was hardly a matter of the heart. He once suggested that a writer should work with “the imagination of a scientist,” and even his finest prose—probably Lolita and Speak, Memory—is more distinguished for a lapidary concern with the nuance of language than the humanistic and religious grappling of the great Russian novelists who proceeded him. Lolita may be a coquette, but it is the boundless possibility of English that is the true object of Humbert Humbert’s lust. An exemplary polymath, Nabokov found himself enthralled more by the near-infinite cornucopia afforded by words; the lives drawn by them sometimes seem secondary.
It is unsurprising that Nabokov was a prolific translator, and that his translations are a battleground for the concerns that inform the rest of his writing. Perhaps as compensation for having left Russia as a young man, he was an assiduous promoter of the verses of not only Aleksandr Pushkin, but lesser-known acolytes such as Derzhavin, Nekrasov, and Lermontov, the latter long overdue in recognition from the West. His version of Eugene Onegin, written in a difficult verse scheme tailored far better for Russian than English, nearly doubled the size of Pushkin’s masterpiece, but, as always, Nabokov sacrificed readability (and certainly brevity) on the altar of language.
Verses and Versions is the anthology of Russian verse that Nabokov never saw published in his lifetime. Capably edited by Brian Boyd and Stanislav Shvabrin, this edition places Nabokov’s versions next to the Russian originals in an effort to lay bare (for those readers lucky enough to be fluent in both languages) the concerns with which he struggled. And the concerns were myriad: as Boyd writes in his largely illuminating introduction, the tome is “a master class in the possibilities and problems of literary translation.” It shows Nabokov moving away from the relative lyricism of his earlier verses to the arguably bloated Onegin of 1951 when, as Boyd writes, he succumbed to “total fidelity to sense even at the cost of style.” Though Pushkin understandably receives prime billing, Verses and Versions is notable for the attention it lavishes on the likes of Nikolay Karamzin (“charming, graceful” in Nabokov’s commentary, which precedes each poet’s selection), Afanasiy Fet (“a butterfly fanning its wings”) and Osip Mandelstam, one of the great poets of the early Soviet Union to succumb to Stalin’s purges.
Fidelity and fluidity do not always correspond in these pages, and Nabokov must occasionally content himself with clunky versions. For example, in Kyuhelbeker’s “Destiny of Russian Poets,” he laments the crowd’s neglect of the prophetic poet “whose winged course, ablaze with thunderbolts, / might drench in radiance the motherland.” The original has the simplicity of a prophecy, or perhaps a popular dirge; the scientific Nabokov is simply too verbose, and the poem loses the force of meaning.
But it should also be said that nobody understood the travails of translation better than Nabokov himself. In an excerpt of a revealing essay on translation, he laments the translator because: “the greater his individual talent, the more apt he will be to drown the foreign masterpiece under the sparkling ripples of his own personal style.” He is markedly more humble in approaching the titanic figure of Pushkin in a gem of a poem entitled “On Translating ‘Eugene Onegin’”:
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.
Perhaps a sizable portion of the readership for Verses and Versions will be interested in just how successful Nabokov is in fusing Pushkin’s legacy with his own, especially since the editors have capably parsed down his voluminous Pushkin translations into a mere hundred-some pages. But this book is just as notable for the minor poets it uncovers, those who rarely make it out of Russia. In that sense Verses and Versions is an unqualified success, even as it reveals Nabokov’s struggles with translation.
Alex Nazaryan is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn.