Язык и коммуникации

Nabokov’s translation of Eugene Onegin by Pushkin as an extreme form of literalism

What is translation? On a platter

A poets pale and glaring head,

A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter,

And profanation of the dead. […]

Vladimir Nabokov. On translating «Eugene Onegin»

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was a man of many and varied talents. Aside from his nonliterary talents such as entomology, he was a writer who wrote with equal fluency in both Russian and English.

As a translator, he translated many of his own works from one of those languages into the other. And he translated two very famous works by other writers – Lewis Carroll’s «Alice in Wonderland» and Aleksandr Pushkin’s «Eugene Onegin». Both of these works present many thorny problems for a would-be translator.

In 1955, in an essay named «Problems of translation», Nabokov formulates his definition of «literary translation». The only translator’s aim has to be «to produce with absolute exactitude the whole text, and nothing but the text». «The term «literal translation» is tautological, since anything but that is not truly a translation but an imitation, an adaptation or a parody» [3].

Nabokov believes that generally speaking translators are inaccurate and embellish and insert their own material without any justification. Moreover, they don’t know «Russian life of the 1820s» [4]. The time indication is evidently aimed at the translators of Pushkin and Lermontov.

In 1958 Nabokov prepared an English version of Lermontov’s classic «A Hero of Our Time». His Foreword is an opportunity to state his view of translation.

«In the first place, we must dismiss, once and for all, the conventional notion that a translation ‘should read smoothly’, and ‘should not sound like a translation’ (to quote the would-be compliments, addressed to vague versions, by genteel reviewers who never have and never will read the original texts). In point of fact, any translation that does not sound like a translation is bound to be inexact upon inspection; while, on the other hand, the only virtue of a good translation is faithfulness and completeness. Whether it reads smoothly or not depends on the model, not on the mimic» [2].

From this statement the radical new conception of the author-reader relationship is clear: if the standard reader is not enough equipped to digest a literary text, that’s not a good reason to feed him on homogenized food with a «literary flavour» [4]. On the contrary, the translator has to help him taste the real thing thanks to copious footnotes and explanations.

The translation or we’d better say the edition, for which Nabokov hoped to be remembered is Pushkin’s «Eugene Onegin». It was hard work, lasting from 1958 to 1964. Even in this case the foreword is a precious theoretical document. The fatal question whether poetry can be translated is prosed, and answered, stating that there are three types of versions: paraphrastic versions, unusable to scholars; lexical or constructional versions, useful as a parallel text; and literal versions, consisting in «rendering, as closely as the associative and syntactical capacities of another language allow, the exact contextual meaning of the original. Only this is true translation» [2]

When Nabokov wonders whether it is possible retain rhymes while translating poetry, «The answer, of course, is no. To reproduce the rhymes and yet translate the entire poem literally is mathematically impossible» [4]. The translator’s role is humble, he can’t dare to correct, embellish, edit anything. «Pushkin has likened translators to horses changed at the post houses of civilization. The greatest reward I can think of is that students may use my work as a pony» [4].

Aleksandr Pushkin was a writer who enjoyed playing with his language. The work that he produced is masterpiece that can be read at a number of different levels simultaneously, with each level of reading providing a valuable literary experience.

In translating «Eugene Onegin» into English, Nabokov placed first priority on preserving the integrity of the text, and used copious notes to seek to explain at least some of the effects that Pushkin was creating in the Russian original.

He did not expect for his intended readers to read his translation simply as literature for its own enjoyment. He intended it as a guide to the Russian original for those who were not sufficiently proficient in Russian to read the original alone, but instead needed some form of help in understanding it. His translation of «Eugene Onegin» was intended for scholars who would want to be able to puzzle over every little aspect of the text, at once having a literal translation of the text and a guide to the background of the text.

Certainly he did treat «Eugene Onegin» with a great deal of respect, even to seeking out words which would have as near as possible an effect upon the English reader as the original Russian words would have on a Russian reader. When the Russian uses an archaic word, Nabokov does not hesitate to find an equally archaic word in the appropriate English dictionary, or embedded in the text of an old English or French poem.

For the students of Russian, Nabokov’s literal translation, together with his voluminous notes, comments, allusions, development of theorems related to poetry and rhythm are suggestive and fascinating. One can learn something from every line.

In Nabokov we had an ideal translator, who has clamed that «when a literal translation does not convey the desired original spirit, something wrong with the original» [1].

There have been several English translations of «Eugene Onegin», and Nabokov sternly upraises all of them. He even goes so far as to compare his work with that of other translators. But the real problem of translation is not to show the weaknesses of other translators in specific places; it is, rather, to produce a superior solution of the some difficulty in the particular place. Nabokov has done this without peer or rival in his commentaries, but he has not done it for the English reader in his translation. His English translation of «Eugene Onegin» has, of course, given a brilliant demonstration of his theory of literal translation.

Е.В. Ощепкова


  1. Appel A., Jr. Nabokov. Criticism, reminiscences, translations and tributes. – Weiddenfeld and Nicolson 5 Winsley Street. London W1, 1971. – P. 281.
  2. Osimo B. Nabokov’s selftranslations: interpretation problems and solutions in Lolita’s. Russian version // Sign Systems Studies. – 1999. – Vol. 27. – P. 17.
  3. Wilson E. The Strange case of Pushkin and Nabokov // The New York Review of Books. – 1965. – Vol. 4. – P. 18.
  4. Philips R., Funke S. The life and works of Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov as Translator. – New York, 2005. – P. 19.