Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 20, 2016

Yevgeny Onegin, by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Anthony Briggs

Yevgeny OneginI know this is going to invite howls of disapproval from the cognoscenti, but I wasn’t much impressed by this new translation of Pushkin’s verse novel Yevgeny Onegin (more commonly titled Eugene Onegin).  Anthony Briggs is apparently a world-renowned expert on Pushkin and he’s translated War and Peace so maybe I should keep my opinion to myself, but it seems to me that some of his Yevgeny Onegin is rather clumsy.

I didn’t need to go to Russia in 2012 to know that Pushkin is Russia’s greatest poet, but it was interesting to find that he is revered there as Shakespeare is in English-speaking countries.  Perhaps more so: shopgirls asked me if I had read any of the great Russian writers and were pleased when I said I’d read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Chekhov.  But they nodded sagely when I confessed to having read only a short story by Pushkin because, they said, his poetry was ‘impossible to translate’.  Well, my knowledge of Russian is confined to a few handy tourist phrases and a passing acquaintance with their alphabet, so if it is said that Yevgeny Onegin is notoriously difficult to translate, I think it’s probably true.  But surely most poetry is difficult to translate?  I bet Shakespeare loses something in translation too, and sometimes even just when transposed to a different hemisphere: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (Sonnet 18) doesn’t quite work in places where summer is stinking hot and humid…

While I wasn’t very keen on the style of this translation, I did like the introduction and translator’s notes.  Briggs explains why Pushkin is such a Big Deal in Russia: it’s because he reformed his national language.

This bold claim is no exaggeration.  As he grew up the young Pushkin was presented with at least three different linguistic forces existing as separate entities in his large country.  Posh people spoke French, ignoring or despising ordinary Russian, though Pushkin heard a good deal of this tongue from the local lads and also from his dear old nanny  […] In addition, he was continually subjected in church and at school to the rich sonorities of Old Church Slavonic.  By some miracle, almost without thinking about it, he created modern Russian simply by using it, choosing at will between elegant Gallicisms, vernacular Russian and his nation’s equivalent of our King James Bible and Book of Common Prayer, with a sensitivity to sound, style and meaning that gives him an elevated place in the annals of linguistic reform. The newly expressive modern language was snapped up immediately by writers such as Lermontov and Gogol, and gratefully assimilated by all the (now legendary) Russian authors who followed on so soon. (p.12)

I should explain that the Onegin story itself is of mild interest if, like me, you’re fond of Russian classics.  Pushkin’s character Onegin is the source of the Russian literary concept of the ‘Superfluous Man‘.  Like his successor Oblomov Onegin is an idle young man living in wealth and privilege, but he has no regard for social values, is pathologically lazy, and suffers from existential boredom.  Eventually he becomes friends with his neighbour Lensky, who is engaged to a rather ditzy young Olga.  Olga’s sister Tatyana falls for Onegin and writes him a passionate letter, but, ho hum, Onegin is too bored to be bothered.  Lensky subsequently annoys Onegin by inviting him to what is supposed to be a quiet celebration for Tatyana’s Name Day, but it turns out to be a crass country imitation of a St Petersburg society ball instead.  In payback, Onegin flirts with Olga, and Olga responds.  Lensky’s honour is outraged and there is a fatal duel.  Onegin lives on to find himself frustrated by unrequited love, but it’s hard to have much sympathy for him, and IMO we’re not meant to.  (BTW Duels figure prominently in Pushkin’s life and work: see also my review of The Shot.)

But many people know all this anyway, because of Tchaikovsky’s opera.   Still, you can have some fun disentangling everybody’s motives; morality and the lack of it; social influences that led to the prevalence of superfluous men; the characterisation of Lensky and the women; and you can even argue about whether Onegin is just misunderstood.  After all, in a world where an American child shot another an argument over a puppy, perhaps you can justify Onegin by noting that at least Lensky had a chance.

But when all’s said and done, Pushkin’s verse poem isn’t read for the rather soppy plot, even if it does make great opera. No, Pushkin’s verse poem is read for the elegance and cleverness of the poetry, and along the way, the playful commentary on aspects of Russian life and society.  In Russian, apparently, it’s wonderful, like Proust is wonderful, like A Dance to the Music of Time is wonderful.  But I found myself taken aback by some of the allusions.  Russian pancakes at Shrovetide or folk yawning through Thanksgiving?   (p.98) Shrovetide??  Thanksgiving?? Were these part of the Russian calendar in Pushkin’s era? Is Briggs having us on?  I don’t know, there needs to be a review of this book by someone who knows what’s what…

[Update, about an hour after posting this review:

Thanks to Olga@Gherchik : She tells me via Twitter that Shrovetide = maslenitsa, the last week before Great (Easter) Lent, and that Thanksgiving = Trinity Sunday.

Isn’t that wonderful!  Thank you Olga!]

Somebody like Steven Fry: see here (scroll down), but it doesn’t mention this Briggs translation presumably because it’s too new.  You can also download a free audiobook of Fry reading the 1990 James E Falen translation from that site: it’s so good it made me wonder if I might like Briggs’ translation if he had somebody like Fry to read it for him.

Briggs also explains the unusual form of Pushkin’s stanzas (which is interesting if you studied English poetry at university and discovered the mysteries of sonnet forms, something I once knew but had forgotten) and also the difficulties caused by feminine rhymes (which is perhaps somewhat arcane for the general reader).

Now, this introduction takes up 43 of 250 pages and by the time I got to the end of it I was looking forward to reading something rather sublime.  I’m reasonably well acquainted with the sublime because I was lucky enough to read English at university before all the ism’s became de rigueur.  We read really beautiful poetry before we went on to the Moderns and we had brilliant teachers who taught us how to appreciate it.  So yes, my expectations were high….

Well, I was disappointed.  It seemed so clunky! So much so that I went hunting for some other translations… these are all versions of the first verse from Chapter One.  (I felt a bit doubtful about the Russian websites where the Falen / Oxford World’s Classics translation was, so I didn’t visit them.  They probably violate copyright).

Anthony Briggs version (2016)

“Uncle, a man of purest probity,
Has fallen ill, beyond a joke.
Respected now, and scorned by nobody,
He has achieved his masterstroke
With this exemplary Behaviour,
But it would try the Holy Saviour
To tend a sickbed night and day,
And never stir a step away,
Employing shameful histrionics
To bring a half-dead man some cheer,
Plump pillows and draw sadly near,
Indulging him with pills and tonics,
Heaving deep sighs, but thinking ‘Ooh!’
When will the devil come for you?'”

A.S. Kline’s version (2009)

‘My uncle, what a worthy man,
Falling ill like that, and dying;
It summons up respect, one can
Admire it, as if he were trying.
Let us all follow his example!
But, God, what tedium to sample
That sitting by the bed all day,
All night, barely a foot away!
And the hypocrisy, demeaning,
Of cosseting one who’s half alive;
Puffing the pillows, you contrive
To bring his medicine unsmiling,
Thinking with a mournful sigh,
“Why the devil can’t you die?”’

 

Charles Johnson’s translation (1979)

“My uncle — high ideals inspire him;
but when past joking he fell sick,
he really forced one to admire him —
and never played a shrewder trick.
Let others learn from his example!
But God, how deadly dull to sample
sickroom attendance night and day
and never stir a foot away!
And the sly baseness, fit to throttle,
of entertaining the half-dead:
one smoothes the pillows down in bed,
and glumly serves the medicine bottle,
and sighs, and asks oneself all through:
“When will the devil come for you?””

Henry Spalding’s version (1881)

“My uncle’s goodness is extreme,
If seriously he hath disease;
He hath acquired the world’s esteem
And nothing more important sees;
A paragon of virtue he!
But what a nuisance it will be,
Chained to his bedside night and day
Without a chance to slip away.
Ye need dissimulation base
A dying man with art to soothe,
Beneath his head the pillow smooth,
And physic bring with mournful face,
To sigh and meditate alone:
When will the devil take his own!”

And just for fun, here’s the original Russian, and an interpretation by Google Translate.

(If you’d like to hear how it sounds, go to translate.google.com, copy and paste the Russian into the LHS and select ‘detect language’.  It will detect Russian and then you can use the speaker icon in the bottom of the box to read the text to you.  Even a horrible computer reading has a bit of rhythm and IMO gets the rhyme right. )

“Мой дядя самых честных правил,
Когда не в шутку занемог,
Он уважать себя заставил
И лучше выдумать не мог.
Его пример другим наука;
Но, боже мой, какая скука
С больным сидеть и день и ночь,
Не отходя ни шагу прочь!
Какое низкое коварство
Полу-живого забавлять,
Ему подушки поправлять,
Печально подносить лекарство,
Вздыхать и думать про себя:
Когда же чорт возьмет тебя!”
My uncle most fair rules,
When not in jest was sick,
He got to respect yourself
And better could not invent.
His example to other science;
But, my God, what a bore
With the patient sitting and day and night,
Do not leave a single step away!
How low cunning
Semi-live to amuse,
He was correct pillow,
Sadly bring medicine
Sigh and think to yourself:
When the devil take you!

 

To be fair to Anthony Briggs, (if indeed he knew of the existence of an obscure Australian blogger) he could be justified in taking umbrage at this ‘review’.   Translating Pushkin looks like a thankless task to me: people who can read the original Russian are unlikely to be impressed, and English speakers are going to be disappointed that it doesn’t seem like good English poetry.  It’s a let-down because expectations are high.

Author: Alexander Pushkin
Title: Yevgeny Onegin
Translated from the Russian by Anthony Briggs
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781782271918
Source: Personal library.

Availability
Fishpond: Yevgeny Onegin (but – I hate to say this because I like to support Australian – it’s infinitely cheaper at the Book Depository, which used to be A Good Thing but is now really Amazon.)


Responses

  1. Lisa, Liked the article on Pushkin, Onegin, and Russian writers in general. No mentiion was made of the Classic Film made in 1997/98
    called Onegin, with Ralph Fiennes in the leading role.. Fiennes’ sister Martha directed the film, and it is a masterpiece. As you say what can one write about a sufferer existential boredom? Fiennes has it down pat.
    It is not a powerful film, but it’s beauty holds the attention right to the end.

    • Well, that sounds excellent. I wonder if I can get it through Quickflix….

      • It is available in Australia. I do not know Quickfix, but I’d
        love to hear how you managed in your Search.

        • Quickflix don’t have it, and neither do JB HiFi… I’m still hunting around. (LOL a search at Readings brings up the Onedin Line TV series!)
          (later) I found it at Veoh, and to my surprise it seems to have downloaded the whole film but I think this is a pirate site so I’ve closed it down.

          • Amazon have it….just make sure the Region you want is available.
            It is not expensive.

            • You’re right… I looked at Amazon.au which doesn’t have it, but Amazon.com does…

  2. Fascinating.

    I’m amazed at the différences between the translations and in the end, find the Google translate version useful. It seems that the idea of “joke” present in two of the translations of the second verse was present in the original.
    I wish I had time to explore things like this.

    I would have had the same reaction as you to reading “Thanksgiving” in a Russian 19thC text, especially with my experience with older French translations. For example, in the 1950s French translation of On the Road, there is a Prisunic. That’s like a 7/11, but French. But now, this brand doesn’t exist anymore. The irony is that a 20 years old French reader would know what a 7/11 is but not a Prisunic!!

    If I understand Olga correctly “Thanksgiving” actually refers to something in the Russian calendar. In any case, the translator should go down from the pile of knowledge he has of the Russian culture and come live with us simple folks and guess that our Americanized minds would think of something else when reading Thanksgiving. In such cases, I’d rather read the Russian word and a footnote.

    Romain Gary, who was a Russian native and learnt French a second (third ? fourth?) language, used to say that the Russian syntax was a lot more flexible than the French. He said he used some of it in his French and that it gave a special ring to his French. I can imagine that this flexibility is a fantastic tool for a poet and that it doesn’t help translators.

    PS: I clicked on the link and discovered that feminine rhymes doesn’t mean the same thing in English and in French. *sigh* It reminds me of my experience with Keats. I’m not reading any English poetry until I have time to read a bit about its form.

    • Well, I was coming from the same place as you with ‘Thanksgiving’ and with Shrovetide. Assuming that Pushkin was in some way referencing the Russian Orthodox Church, well, the English Shrovetide and what I thought was the American Thanksgiving just seemed peculiar and completely out of context.
      I found the differing translations fascinating too. It’s not like comparing different translations of Zola: doing that I’ve found differences of tone and vocabulary, choosing this synonym rather than that one, but not getting different meanings as these translators have with ‘tending a sickbed’; ‘sitting by a sickbed’ ‘never stirring a step away’ and ‘chained to his bedside’. ‘Tending’ implies something quite different from being ‘chained to’ IMO. And where does Briggs get that ‘it would try a Holy Saviour’ from when the others have nothing like it??
      It’s bizarre!

      • I know what you mean. It’s like translations from the Hungarian. Between the French version and the English, there can be big differences. I didn’t have time to compare many paragraphs of Krudy in each language but there were significant différences. And both translators are good.
        Whereas between different translations of a French book into English the différences are not so puzzling.

        • I guess we have to remember that a translation is a creative act by two people!

  3. Thank you so much for this enlightening blog, Lisa. :) Which is your favourite among translated works? Something that I can pick up in a couple of months? :)

    • Goodness, Deepika, that is a very hard question to answer! Right now I would probably say something French but that’s because I’ve been reading Zola and Modiano. But I liked reading the Russians when I was your age because I thought they were moody and romantic:)

      • Haha! Would you recommend a few titles for me please? :)

        • I can’t do that without knowing what kind of books you like. I’d also need to know whether you are reading just for fun, or because you want to read to expand your knowledge of world literature…

          • Thank you, Lisa. Although I am a free-range reader, I don’t enjoy romance. I am fairly certain of the kind of books that I can choose to read for fun. I would love to receive some recommendations to expand my knowledge of world literature, especially translated work.

            • Ok, well, probably your question deserves a whole blog post, but for now, I would start with some European classics: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Russia); The Outsider by Camus (France); If This is a Man by Primo Levi (Italy); and The Lost Honor of Katharine Blum by Heinrish Boll (Germany). Then from Asia, I would suggest Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang (China); Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) by Jose Rizal (Philippines) and The Girl from the Coast by Pramoeda Toer (Indonesia). From Africa (most African books I’ve read have been written in English) I would suggest The Past Ahead by Gilbert Gatore (Rwanda);Touch by Adania Shibli (Palestine); and Scenes from Village Life by Amos Oz (Israel). I don’t know what to suggest from South America because I haven’t read much from there myself. Maybe some other readers have some ideas?

              • Lisa, many, many thanks. I am going to save this list, and buy and try reading at least one every month. Thank you once again. :)

  4. Really interesting post and thank you for the comparisons. I have heard the Falen translation spoken of as a really good one, and I must admit I often do compare several versions of a work before I choose. If I’m honest, I wasn’t that keen on the new version of the paragraph you quoted – this obviously warrants a bit of checking out! 😀

    • The problem is, at least here in Australia, that there’s unlikely to be multiple translations of a work in the bookstore. So that leaves us with only the very rare reviews which compare translations, which tend to be written by academics.
      Speaking for myself, I am unlikely to read the same book in two translations, unless it’s a classic. I have done this with War and Peace, Anna Karenina and will eventually read the new translation of Germinal which I first read some time ago. But I’m not going to spend the next four weeks reading different versions of Onegin.) I have started a book in one translation and abandoned it for another, but that’s not quite the same thing as comparing the merits of the two.
      But having said all that I think it’s great that there seems to be a groundswell of interest in translated fiction, so I think things will only get better. And for me it’s a greater priority now to find translations from places like China where there’s not much available at all the moment…

  5. I love reading translation comparisons. But I’m not keen on reading translated fiction for this very reason – there’s a middle person between me and the author. I do still read some translated fiction because I want to get away from anglo cultures but it’s a worry. And, it’s particularly a worry with poetry where imagery tends to play a bigger role and imagery as we know tends to be so culture-specific. And then, there’s rhythm and sometimes, as here, rhyme. Such a minefield.

    I would imagine that it’s a rare bookshop these days, anywhere, that would hold multiple translations of books. Often older translations go out of print, although sometimes I find that a shop has a good classics section will have the new translation and perhaps an older, say, Penguin edition or two. I’d be surprised that the general English or American reader could access multiple translations in their local bookshop? (But, I may be wrong on this). For contemporary works, there is often only one translation anyhow isn’t there?

    • I think you’re right, I get the impression that it’s hard enough to get contemporary fiction translated just once, never mind multiple times.
      But, like you, I think I’m enriched by reading translated fiction: even with cultures we think we know quite well (like France) there’s always a different perspective, and with less familiar places like post-communist Russia, it’s a real eye-opener. The other plus is that translated fiction tends to be the best of the crop, it’s too much work and it’s too expensive to translate anything second-rate:)

  6. awesome, thanks for showing the different translations. This is a very difficult art, I struggle with it several hours every day, though only translating novels from English to French!

    • It’s an under-rated art, IMO. We used to use interpreters at school and it never failed to amaze me that the monolinguals among us had no idea how good those interpreters were, to be able to translate in the here and now, with no dictionaries, no time to get used to the different styles of speaking among us, and expected to be able to deal with all the different bits of jargon that teachers use all the time!
      PS Re your own translation work – if you don’t mind me asking, do you get to choose or get any say in what you translate, or do you get commissioned to do books that other people (publishers?) want translated?

      • Ah! I have done a lot of simultaneous translation, yes super hard, but also very fascinating. I loved the challenge, but it was always about a context I knew very well. You actually get into an automatic mode. If you start thinking too hard, you are lost! as basically, you translate sentence #1 while listening to the speaker who is already saying his sentence #2!
        For what I’m doing now: a few years ago, I did translate a lot of nonfiction books for a company, I could have said no to the books I was asked to translate, but well, I needed money to bring food on the table, so I said yes to what it was, though they were religious books reflecting a very different faith than my own, with simplistic views, so that was hard in conscience to help propagate something that I thought was wrong!
        But I have been approached for other religious books that I really enjoyed.
        Now, I’m translating exclusively fiction, which I had dreamed about for a long time. And they are authors who approached me, and I had the choice to say yes or no. Interestingly enough, they were books I would probably not have read if I didn’t have to, but as I translated them, I realized they had some very good qualities, for instance as for characters and dialogs, so I do enjoy it a lot! Here is a list of novels I have translated so far, 3 or 4 more will be added to that by the end of the year: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_c_0_8?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=emma+cazabonne&sprefix=emma+caz%2Caps%2C196
        Thanks for asking!

        • Your French must be very good to do this!

  7. Wonderful review, Lisa! I have been wanting to read your review slowly when I had the time and come back and post a long comment. Thanks for the honest review. These days, with respect to translated works, I see many readers, in general, rave about a new translation when compared to an older one. You have done the opposite and I loved your review for that. I don’t know about Brigg’s translation in general – I have his translation of ‘War and Peace’ and it is nice – but you have shared some interesting thoughts. The Russian version of the verse that you have posted is rhyming and beautiful. I think translating that rhyme and rhythm into English is next to impossible. The four translations that you have quoted are all so different! I read an article when the Richard Pevear / Larissa Volokhonsky translation of ‘War and Peace’ came out. The article quoted many writers / critics saying that this Pevear / Volokhonsky translation was not good and didn’t read as well as some of the earlier translations, especially, the Aylmer and Louise Maude translation and the Rosemary Edmonds translation. Pevear responded to this criticism by saying that his translation was more accurate and faithful to the original, because Tolstoy’s style in ‘War and Peace’ was clunky :) I loved this sentence from your review – “I was lucky enough to read English at university before all the ism’s became de rigueur” – it made me smile :)

    • Hello Vishy, thanks for dropping by:)
      It’s amazing how different those four translations are: it shows that the version we read is influenced by the era of the translator – which is perhaps what colours the Pevear/Volokhonsky debate too. I admit to being a fan of theirs: I don’t remember which translations I read as a teenager or as a university student, but I really liked their Anna Karenina when I re-read it recently, and I had tried twice to read W&P in two different translations and given up – but loved the P&V edition and couldn’t put it down.
      I would really like to see a review of this Pushkin translation by someone – not an academic, just an ordinary reader like me – who has read the Russian version too and has some authority to comment on how good a job he has done.

  8. There are even more translations than mentioned in the review, for which see my website

    http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~pml1/onegin/welcome.htm

    • Hello Peter, and thanks for taking the time to comment. That’s a splendid collection of translations on your site! Just looking at that first verse is an object lesson in how translations can create an entirely different impression of a work.

  9. […] her post Yevgeny Onegin, by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Anthony Briggs, February 20, 2016 (here), an excellent exposition on both the text and the problems of […]

  10. […] reading Pushkin in clumsy translation is as close as we’re going to get.  (I did not like Anthony Briggs’ version of Pushkin’s Yevgeny Onegin at all).  Kelly thinks this problem is best served by multiple translations.  Well, […]


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