What's Gained in Translation

Byline: By Douglas Hofstadter
Lead: Sadly, 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. Seth extols as ''Pushkin's masterpiece / In Johnston's luminous translation.''


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. 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. These ''Onegin stanzas'' have a rigid rhyming pattern: ABAB; CCDD; EFFEGG. One can group the final six lines according to two quite different logics: either EFF/EGG or EFFE/GG. Sometimes the semantics fits one of these, sometimes the other -- and quite often, neither. Occasionally there is a final GG couplet that stands apart and has a definite zing to it; however, it is just as frequent for 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. That's always fun. In any case, both the tetrameter and the rhyming pattern are adhered to strictly throughout. The final strict defining feature of Onegin stanzas is an interesting distribution of so-called masculine rhymes (''miss'' / ''bliss'') and feminine rhymes (''mister'' / ''blister''). The pattern runs as follows: FMFM; FFMM; FMMFMM. 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.

I now turn from the musical side of the experience to the more cerebral side. There was great magic in the act of jumping back and forth between two translations of each sonnet. Had there been just one, I would simply have had to take the translator's word that this is more or less what Pushkin wrote, having no idea how many liberties had actually been taken. But with two translations side by side, each had the effect of keeping the other honest. If they deviated from each other in any significant way, it was obvious that somebody had changed something, though it was not clear who or what. Interestingly, this happened very seldom. One always sensed how the two English texts, different as they might be on the surface, were mirroring one and the same hidden Russian text.

Indeed, the two English texts taken together gave a powerful impression of what the underlying Russian had to be like. I compare this to the nautical notion of triangulation, in which having two different landmarks to sight on a coast allows you to pinpoint just where at sea you are, whereas having just one is too little information. Scaled down, this is essentially the parallax effect that we also exploit in binocular vision, allowing us to see a third dimension despite having only two-dimensional images on our retinas. And so, as I glimpsed Pushkin's poetry through a kind of intellectual stereopsis, I was having a ball at several different levels, getting to know Onegin and his crowd and their times, gaining a strong and clear feeling for the brilliance of the original Russian poetry as well as for Pushkin himself, and even coming to sense the highly distinctive personalities and creativities of Charles Johnston and James Falen. It was, by the way, this type of slow and systematic line-by-line triangulation that gradually gave me the chutzpah I referred to in my opening paragraph.

Once under the spell of ''Eugene Onegin,'' I started seeking more versions. Eventually, I discovered and purchased two more English-language translations still in print -- one completed in 1963 by Walter Arndt, the distinguished linguist and scholar of Slavic and German, and the other published in 1937 by Oliver Elton, who I believe was a professor of Russian at Oxford, and recently revised by A. D. P. Briggs, a professor of Russian at the University of Birmingham, England. Actually, there is a fifth English version still in print, this one done by Vladimir Nabokov in 1964 -- but for his own strange reasons, he chose to do a literal translation that dropped all rhyme and meter, a decision so catastrophic that I won't deal further with the Nabokov ''Onegin'' here.

Instead I wish to share with you the sheer verbal joy of the four English versions mentioned earlier. From the 400-some sonnets I have selected just two, one from the novel's opening and the other from its closing chapter. The first (Chapter I, Sonnet 6) tells you a little about Onegin himself, while the second (Chapter VIII, Sonnet 20) in effect encapsulates the novel's main plot line: in it is the key moment when Onegin, having early on repudiated the humble country girl Tatyana's innocently proffered declaration of love, years later encounters her as a dignified married woman with high standing in St. Petersburg social circles; as they meet again, Tatyana gives Onegin the cold shoulder, leaving him reeling in pain and disbelief.

So take a look (the four versions are shown on the preceding page in a ''random'' order).

Though I have great respect for each of these poets, I am not indifferent. I have my preferences! But first let me reveal the poets' hidden identities. Upper left: Elton/Briggs. Upper right: Johnston. Lower left: Falen. Lower right: Arndt.

Johnston is good but so are his rivals. Take, for instance, Oliver Elton's ''pat in'' as a rhyme for ''Latin'' or Walter Arndt's ''in Russian'' as a rhyme for ''discussion'': what lovely finds, totally faithful to Pushkin's meaning while simultaneously getting across that fantastic, brilliant snap of his style.

But now I leap to sing the praises of my favorite. The James Falen version, for me, is consistently clear as a bell, not only in meaning but also in ease of reading aloud. Effortlessly, one hears each line's accents and makes sense of the ideas. In the other versions, despite wonderful moments of brilliance, there are too many spots where the rhythm goes momentarily awry; where words are used with murk, sloppiness or phonetic imprecision; where sentences are so twisted around that they become hard to parse; even times where it's hard to be sure just who or what is being referred to. This is the price occasionally paid for a lofty poetic tone. Mr. Falen, by contrast, is nearly unfailingly graceful and limpid; time after time, he finds simple ways of saying things with zip and panache, as in his ending of I.6: ''But knew by heart a fine collection / Of anecdotes of ages past: / From Romulus to Tuesday last.'' Taken together, these qualities mark his effort off, for me, as topmost.

Of course, my preference is somewhat subjective. I surmise, for example, that I relate more easily to the Falen since Mr. Falen's English is more American; however, this is not the whole story. (Indeed, ''Tuesday last'' sounds British to me, not American.) There is, simply, something objective about clarity, directness, unforced grace, ease of scansion and so on. But I won't press this point, first because I respect all four versions a great deal, and second because what is displayed in this essay is too small a sample for readers to be able to make a confident judgment on their own.

To savor the lucid and lilting English-language ''Onegin'' stanzas of Mr. Falen and his peers is to become addicted to a marvelously fresh new way of phrasing things, even of perceiving the world, by breaking it up into a regular series of crystalline chunks -- a vision Vikram Seth conveyed in his effusion over Johnston's Pushkin and even more effectively through his own masterly borrowing of Pushkin's medium.

To some, this discussion may bring to mind a warning Robert Frost once issued -- namely, that poetry is ''what gets lost in translation.'' In my opinion, though, the exquisite artistic re-creations of Pushkin by James Falen, Walter Arndt, Charles Johnston and the Elton/Briggs duo put the Frosty sound bite completely to the lie. Yes, poetry translation is damned hard, but it can be carried out with stunning success.

Four Translators, Four Visions

''Eugene Onegin,''

Chapter I, Sonnet 6

'Tis out of fashion now, is Latin;

And yet, in truth, it was no doubt

A language he was rather pat in,

A motto he could puzzle out;

Could prate of Juvenal; none better

Could with a Vale end a letter;

Yes, could two lines of Virgil say

With several blunders on the way.

Onegin had no sort of longing

To rummage in the dust of dates

Or chronicles of ancient states;

But to his memory came thronging

Full many a hoary anecdote

From Romulus till now, to quote.

The Latin vogue today is waning,

And yet I'll say on his behalf,

To gloss a common epigraph,

Cite Juvenal in conversation,

Put vale in a salutation;

And he recalled, at least in part,

A line or two of Virgil's art.

He lacked, it's true, all predilection

For rooting in the ancient dust

Of history's annals full of must,

But knew by heart a fine collection

Of anecdotes of ages past:

From Romulus to Tuesday last.

Now Latin's gone quite out of favor;

yet, truthfully and not in chaff,

Onegin knew enough to savor

the meaning of an epigraph,

make Juvenal his text, or better

add vale when he signed a letter;

stumblingly call to mind he did

two verses of the Aeneid.

He lacked the slightest predilection

for raking up historic dust

or stirring annalistic must;

but groomed an anecdote-collection

that stretched from Romulus in his


across the years to our own time.

The Latin vogue has now receded,

And I must own that, not to brag,

He had what knowledge may be needed

To puzzle out a Latin tag,

Flaunt Juvenal in a discussion,

Add ''Vale'' to a note in Russian;

Of the Aeneid, too, he knew,

With some mistakes, a line or two.

To burrow in the dusty pages

Of Clio's chronologic waste

Was hardly to our hero's taste;

But anecdotes of bygone ages,

From Romulus to days just past,

To these his memory clung fast.

''Eugene Onegin,''

Chapter VIII, Sonnet 20

Was this Tatyana -- who'd believe

it? --

Whom once, when our romance began,

In that remote, dull spot -- conceive

it! --

Long since, alone with her, the man,

Full of the blessed glow of preaching,

Had been admonishing and teaching?

She, in whose letter, cherished still,

Her heart had spoken, of free will,

With utter frankness? was he


That ungrown girl -- could this be she,

Whom, in her modest station, he

Had in those days been disesteeming?

Had she encountered him, just now,

With that indifferent, fearless brow?

Was this the Tanya he once scolded

In that forsaken, distant place

Where first our novel's plot unfolded?

The one to whom, when face to face,

In such a burst of moral fire,

He'd lectured gravely on desire?

The girl whose letter he still kept --

In which a maiden heart had wept;

Where all was shown . . . all


Was this that girl . . . or did he dream?

That little girl whose warm esteem

And humble lot he'd once rejected?. . .

And could she now have been so bold,

So unconcerned with him . . . so cold?

Was she the Tanya he'd exhorted

in solitude, as at the start

of this our novel we reported,

in the far backwoods' deepest heart,

to whom, in a fine flow of preaching,

he had conveyed some moral teaching,

from whom he'd kept a letter, where

her heart had spoken, free as air,

untouched by trace of inhibition,

could it be she . . . or had he dreamed?

the girl he'd scorned in what he


the modesty of her condition,

could it be she, who just had turned

away, so cool, so unconcerned?

The girl whom he had gently scolded

Once, far away and tete-a-tete

(Before our tale had quite unfolded),

Whom, like a prim old magistrate,

He had presumed to read a lecture . . .

Who would have ventured to


That she, who penned in tender youth

That note, all candor and all truth,

Which he still kept, a declaration . . .

That same Tatyana -- had he dreamed

All this? -- to whom it must have


That he disdained her age and station,

Could face him now without a qualm,

So blandly self-assured and calm?

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