Translating what one person says in the same language in which they said it can be difficult enough. One language to another can be very tricky; crossing languages with poetry can be outright criminal.
One of our favorites, Vladimir Nabokov, published a translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin into English in 1964 (later revised, 1975). The publication literally ended his long friendship with the great Edmund Wilson, who took the great novelist to task in the pages of the New York Review of Books, a deed Nabokov never forgave.
As great as such literary skirmishes can be (as well how far away they can seem, as though from a misty past on some faraway planet), the challenge itself of translation stands rude, even obdurate. Here is Nabokov’s translation of the first stanza of chapter one of Pushkin’s novel in verse, Onegin:
“My uncle has most honest principles:
when taken ill in earnest,
he has made one respect him
and nothing better could invent.
To others his example is a lesson;
but, good God, what a bore
to sit by a sick man both day and night,
without moving a step away!
What base perfidiousness
the half-alive one to amuse,
adjust for him the pillows,
sadly present the medicine,
sigh — and think inwardly
when will the devil take you?”
Now here’s another translation of the same section by Walter Arendt:
“Now that he is in grave condition,
My uncle, decorous old dunce,
Has won respectful recognition;
And done the perfect thing for once.
His action be a guide to others;
But what a bore, I ask you, brothers,
To tend a patient night and day
And venture not a step away:
Is there hypocracy more glaring
Than to amuse one all but dead,
Shake up the pillow for his head,
Dose him with melancholy bearing,
And think behind a public sigh:
‘Duce take you, step on it and die!'”
Words for thought, nourishment for the hungry. And you can still buy Nabokov’s translation. So take that, Mr. W.
Image: Portrait of Aleksander Pushkin by Orest Admovich Kiprensky. Oil on canvas, 1827.