Portraying Pushkin

March 28, 2009

A couple of days ago, the London Times published Rachel Polonsky’s review of two new books of Pushkin — one, a new translation of Eugene Onegin by Stanley Mitchell, and the other Andrew Kahn’s study of Pushkin through analysis of his library, and thus his interactions with the intellectual developments of his day. While Polonsky seems not to know about Douglas Hofstadter’s cheeky post-Falen translation (it must not have made it to the UK), she writes in depth about how Onegin has been translated. Some space is of course given to the critical scuffle between Wilson and Nabokov over Nabokov’s “unreadable” translation, but she also discusses the different aspects of Pushkin’s novel-in-verse that are preserved or abandoned in different translations — generally, euphony vs. nuance of meaning. “In any given instance,” she says, “a translator’s gain is paid for with loss.” Thus, Polonsky suggests, only multiple versions can provide a more or less complete translation:

A translation is a portrait; it hints at the essence of an original. The more likenesses the better, then, for, as Wilhelm von Humboldt said, “many translations result . . . in a cumulative approximation”.

While I prefer to think in terms not of losses but of emphases, I recognize that there may be no really meaningful distinction. Still, for more on the topic of multiple translations, see an earlier post here.