Melody drained from the muse
VLADIMIR Nabokov, who throughout his career cultivated his reputation as the most famous literary exile since Ovid, was recognised in his lifetime not only for his novels but also for his authority on Russian cultural matters. He gave packed lectures extolling Tolstoy and annihilating Dostoevsky, and published dozens of translations of Russian verse.
This new collection contains translations of lyric and narrative poetry from just after his arrival in the US in 1940, when he was most in need of money, through his years of teaching Russian and European literature at Wellesley and Cornell, to his last years in Montreux, where he settled with his family in 1961 after the unexpectedly great success of Lolita .
Nearly 20 poets are represented, including all the significant poets who made up the first great period of Russian verse in the 19th century — Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Fyodor Tyutchev, Afanasy Fet — reaching back to the mid-18th century polymath Mikhail Lomonosov, the ‘‘ godfather of the iambic tetrameter’’, and forward to the Soviet-era Georgian bard Bulat Okudzhava, who died in Paris in 1997.
A famous scholar of Slavic literature once deplored the fashion for translations that retained the meter and the rhyme of the original at the expense of complete semantic fidelity. ‘‘ As a result,’’ he wrote, ‘‘ the canned music of rhymed versions is enthusiastically advertised, and accepted, and the sacrifice of textual precision applauded as something rather heroic.’’
These comments present a remarkable indictment of many of Nabokov’s translations in Verses and Versions , which is full of limply rhymed quatrains and baffling torsions of sense. Yet the scholar who wrote that article, in 1965, was Nabokov.
At a certain point during his career as a translator, Nabokov underwent a violent shift in sensibility: from formal translations in which the meter and the rhyme, but not the exact sense, of the original are preserved to literal translations based on word-for-word fidelity. Verses and Versions is in part the story of that shift.
Owing to the editorial choices, however, the book fails to illustrate vividly what was for Nabokov a momentous renunciation, one that put him at odds with much of the literary establishment and pegged him as an eccentric in the grip of a nostalgic obsession. It set off a bitter and remarkably enduring literary feud between Nabokov and the man who was arguably his closest literary companion.
Nabokov’s translations can be divided roughly into two groups: formal translations up to about 1950 and literal translations after 1950. The shift took place while Nabokov was in the process of translating Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin , the verse novel considered the greatest poetic accomplishment in the Russian language.
Nabokov, fed up with misleading and inelegant versions of the book, began translating Onegin as early as 1945.
In the next two decades, during which he published, among other works, Lolita and Pnin , Nabokov worked intermittently on a scrupulously word-for-word version. He finally published it in 1964, accompanied by a second volume containing 500 pages of extensive notes on everything from the dishes consumed by Pushkin’s characters to the dance steps and the exact locations of their strolls ( which, Nabokov is careful to note, were some of his own favourite spots as a child). I CAN imagine three sets of readers for Verses and Versions : people interested in Nabokov, people interested in Russian literature and — these may be hit the hardest — people interested in poetry. The first group, presumably coming to the book because of their admiration for Nabokov’s prose, will be dismayed to encounter pages of dull constructions and lacklustre diction. Nabokov’s novels, enjoyed for their linguistic virtuosity, induce at their best the sensation of being taken in by the work of a rare illusionist.
Verses and Versions , by contrast, produces the discomfiting feeling of watching a Houdini