Review: Pushkin Threefold

Pushkin Threefold: Narrative, Lyric, Polemic and Ribald Verse.
Walter W. Arndt

Click here to purchase on Amazon: Pushkin Threefold: Narrative, Lyric, Polemic and Ribald Verse. The Originals with Linear and Metric Translations

Pushkin Threefold, by the versatile polymath Walter Arndt, has by now become a mainstay of Anglophone Pushkin-lovers everywhere, and rightly so. It is a useful, respectable and often enjoyable work, albeit somewhat irritating and disappointing.

In his long introduction, Arndt makes the case for verse-translation as a necessity and suggests that different readers require different translations. In a rather interesting discussion, he gives an account of the relative degree of ornateness expected by readers of English poetry in comparison with readers of Pushkin-era Russian1. Translation-theorists of today (such as Lawrence Venuti) are likely to take issue with a great many of his claims, such as his notion that a translation should not read like a translation and that the translator's goal ought to be "a poem in the target language, which should simulate, as near as may be, the total effect produced by the original on the contemporary reader." In the subsequent sentence he states that to him total effect means "both what the poem imparts to the mind and how it strikes the senses; cognitive as well as aesthetic". Though translators who have experienced the impossibility of such an endeavor in working from such media as Arabic may find this somewhat hard to swallow, it is not as problematic as may seem when working with such culturally kindred languages as English and Russian.

The selection of poems included is somewhat curious. This volume includes almost none of Pushkin's dramatic verse, and leaves out a great many of his most famous pieces. Even more peculiarly, many of Pushkin's most famous short lyrics (i.e. Exegi monumentum, The Prophet, Demons, Winter morning) are strangely absent from this collection. Naturally, any anthology which hopes to be representative will always leave some critic dissatisfied, but I still think that any collection which leaves out poems which are always included in Russian-language anthologies of comparable length ought to at least account for this. It may be that Arndt felt certain poems to be beyond his ability- an admission in which there would, of course, be no shame given the task at hand.

The linear, "literal" translations provided in the second half of the book are, naturally, of greatest use to English speakers who need a literal crutch to help them get through the Russian. They are firmly in the tradition of the schoolboy's Latin crib and are necessarily and understandably devoid of literary merit. Though I personally may quibble with the peculiarly large proportion of rare words in these renderings (forthwith, pendent etc.) they are by and large quite serviceable. Still, I have noticed a few errors in these renderings. For example, the word "рощь" is rendered as "wold" when it should in fact be "grove," and "звучно" as "tunefully" rather than "resoundingly." And, as I was not reading for such errors, there may be more. Still, I would comfortably recommend these literal versions (more than any other) to any intermediate Russian student (or intermediate Russian class) when confronting Pushkin in Russian.

The first section, however, is a far more ambitious and, in my view, only partially successful attempt to create form-true verse translations of Pushkin's work in English. As mentioned above, Arndt's goal here is to create translations that are faithful to the original in both content and aesthetic effect.

In his attempt to achieve this end, he makes a severe blunder in producing thousands of lines of English verse with regularly alternating masculine and feminine rhymes, mainly because most classical Russian poetry, in imitation of French models, rhymes just like that (to such a degree that to write a poem with only masculine rhymes would seem rather odd.) However, in English, a language where stress usually falls on the first syllable of a word, this leaves Arndt with no choice but to render feminine rhymes time and again using repetitive derivational morphemes such as -ly, -ing, -ation and the like. The effect of this is rather monotonous, to say nothing of the fact that feminine rhymes in English in general usually have a quite different effect from their Russian (or German or Modern Greek) counterparts. Given the mission Arndt sets for himself, it strikes me as particularly odd that he would neglect/ignore this.

Likewise, Arndt's insistence on rendering the Russian iambic hexameters with corresponding hexameters in English is quite questionable. The Russian hexameter (modeled off of the French alexandrin) has a long history and, for various linguistic reasons, works just as well as iambic pentameter. By contrast, in English, the iambic hexameter comes off as clunky, verbose and unnecessarily long. No doubt this is partly because we're so used to pentameters in English, but it's also probably because English words, by and large, are somewhat shorter than their Russian or French equivalents, requiring Arndt to insert a fair amount of padding to make his English hexameters match the Russian. And it shows. One has only to look at such couplets as these

Близ ложа моего печальная свеча
Горит; мои стихи, сливаясь и журча,
Текут, ручьи любви, текут, полны тобою.
Во тьме твои глаза блистают предо мною,

and then the bad verse into which Arndt mutilates them:

Beside the couch whereon I drowsing lie there glows
A fretful candle, and my verse wells up and flows
Till purling streams of love, full-charged with thee run through me.
Then shimmering through the dusk, thy lustrous eyes turn to me.


Was there really any need to point out to the reader that "lustrous eyes" at night would also be "shimmering?" That streams would be "purling?"

***

Moreover, in focusing on the way formal features of a poem influence what the poem is saying, Arndt ignores the fact that often the language's syntax and morphology have just as much, if not more, of an impact. This does him a particular disservice when the subtleties of syntax are what make the poem worth reading, as they are, for example, in what is arguably the most famous love poem in Russian:

Я вас любил: любовь еще, быть может,
В душе моей угасла не совсем;
Но пусть она вас больше не тревожит;
Я не хочу печалить вас ничем.
Я вас любил безмолвно, безнадежно,
То робостью, то ревностью томим;
Я вас любил так искренно, так нежно,
Как дай вам бог любимой быть другим.

(I loved you: love still, perhaps, may not have petered out entirely within my soul; but do not let it trouble you any longer. I do not want to sadden you with anything. I loved you speechlessly, hopelessly, now in throes of shyness, now of jealousy; I loved you as tenderly, as sincerely, as may god grant you to be loved by another.)

In versifying these lines of Pushkin's, Arndt gives us:

I loved you: and the feeling, why deceive you,
May not be quite extinct within me yet;
But do not let it any longer grieve you;
I would not ever have you grieve or fret.
I loved you not with words or hope, but merely
By turns with bashful and with jealous pain;
I loved you as devotedly, as dearly
As God may grant you to be loved again.


Leaving aside the already-addressed issue of feminine rhymes not having the same effect in English as they do in Russian, this English concoction fails so badly that it probably couldn't even be saved by a surprise team-up between Superman and Gandalf the Grey. The very features of the original that made it worth reading -unusual word order, dependent clauses split off by line-breaks from the main clauses, sparseness of imagery- are in Arndt's (per)version nothing but liabilities. It is trite metrical clip-clop. It is, in fact, much like the clip-clop at the beginning of Monty Python and the Holy Grail which the viewer mistakes for horse hooves, only to realize that it's just a pair of coconuts banging together. One can only think this is poetry if one doesn't think about the words too hard. "Why deceive you" is about as obvious as rhyme-filler gets. "Grieve or fret"? Really? Are these two emotions so distinct from one another that the reader needs to have both of them laid out lexically before him like a pair of underage hookers in a Thai brothel? (Say it with me: Re-dun-dant.) What native English-speaker on this earth thinks that extinct is an adjective used mainly for fire rather than, say, dinosaurs? Did Arndt not even read this translation once and realize that "extinct within" could be easily revised to "extinguished in", thereby making the English sound a bit more like a native speaker (which Arnt isn't, by the way) without so much as harming the meter? The beautiful syntactic suggestiveness of the first two lines is completely ruined. The ambiguous tak of the penultimate line has been flattened out into the single meaning of "as."

Let's be honest. These 8 lines are utter crap. What's even worse is that they're being passed off as an English equivalent of one of the greatest love-lyrics in the Russian language. This makes me actually angry, so I'd better move onto another topic before I do something to my laptop I'll regret.

***

On another note, Arndt's reluctance to stray too far from the sense of the text in producing his rhymed translations results in sometimes rather odd (or, at worst, unintelligible) word-choice and phrasing for the sake of rhyme and meter as in the following two lines:

Сквозь волнистые туманы
Пробирается луна
(Through the quavering mists, the moon breaks through)

Which he renders as

Brightly from its watery swathing
Sallies forth the lunar horn


Or the following:

Но жду его- он за тобой
(But I await it- it is a debt you owe)

Which he renders as:

But I shall claim them, comes my turn

Such odd flourishes and archaisms, Arndt's argument about the relative ornateness of English and Russian verse notwithstanding, are in no way a 20th century English equivalent of Pushkin's 19th century Russian. And I cannot shake the feeling that Arndt was forced into these uncomfortable verbal snafus because of the formal restrictions which he set for himself (i.e. alternating masculine and feminine rhyme) and because of a discomfort with Modernism and the disruption of the English poetic tradition it brought on. The fact that this is not 20th century English, but 19th century English, does him a particular disservice when it causes him to slip into triteness when he rhymes "breath" with the übercliché "death" or translates "Petersburg ladies" as "the gentlewomen of St. Pete")

***

By the same token, this weakness of Arndt's is also one of his greatest strengths as a translator. Pushkin is not a modern poet, and Arndt, by refusing to use fully modern diction, has unwittingly hammered home this point in English. Because the language of his translations reflects the English poetic diction at its fullest development before modernists like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats took a proverbial axe to it, the best pieces in this book read like the more eloquent verse of Housman or De La Mare. For example, the first stanza of Pushkin's Upas Tree

В пустыне чахлой и скупой,
На почве, зноем раскаленной,
Анчар, как грозный часовой,
Стоит - один во всей вселенной.

in Arndt's version, becomes:

On acres charred by blasts of hell,
In sere and brittle desolation,
Stands like a baleful sentinel
The Upas- lone in all creation


This translation succeeds in English by sounding rather like Housman or Swinburne. Though the "blasts of hell" might seem like overkill to someone who is used to reading Pushkin in Russian. Likewise, Arndt's versions of To The Sea, The Talisman and Liberty all benefit greatly from the Housmanian diction. And, while Arndt's sense of English semantics occasionally fails him3, I am continually astonished by the frequency with which he finds successful semantic equivalents, both in the literal versions and in the versifications. Some of these translations (such as Don't let me lose my mind and The Snowslide) are English works that any poet, translator or not, could be proud of.

And this collection would get an A- from me for that, but for the fact that a few of these versions of Arndt's (such as I loved you) are such awful English representations of such great Russian poetry that Arndt would have actually been better off leaving them out

But I must give credit where it's due and say that, in general, this fascinating book offers almost as complete a depiction of Pushkin as Arndt could have hoped to offer, given the limitations he set for himself. In fact, it is my hope that future verse-translators will have the courage and gumption to use this book's threefold format in translations of other poets and languages.

Final Grade: B

Notes:

1 While the modern reader may take Arndt to task for forgetting that Ezra Pound and his ilk introduced a more paired-down style into the English tradition, we would do well to remember that this was not quite as much of a given during the 50s, when Arndt first wrote this introduction.

2 Which makes sense, considering that Arndt is not a native English speaker. But, then, if he can't take the heat, he should stay out of the proverbial kitchen.

4 comments:

  1. I am Russian with grandfather being English (Charles Harley) I love Puskin and when I discovered Translations made by Arndt I was amused how a foreigner could exactly understand what Pushkin ment.
    Your comment shows all your envy and your vocabulary ( I quote :.."
    'Arndt would have actually been less offensive to Russia's heritage had he spared himself the trouble of translating them and simply ejaculated onto Tsar Nicholas II's portrait. " shows all your inns and outs - you are simply a rabble.
    Stop touching llterature with your dirty hands !
    George


    0 shows all your

    ReplyDelete
  2. I so love it when my hate-mailers actually post in my comment box as opposed to emailing me. It allows me to humiliate them with a very satisfying dickslap.

    Your English grandfather, whoever he may be, has clearly failed to pass down even a passable knowledge of his language via the patriarchal seed. Your grasp of English is so profoundly non-native -with missing articles, inapposite loan translations and the like- that I am amused how such a maladapted foreigner to my language could hope to have any idea of the quality of a verse-translation into it. Your comment shows all your ill-founded (yet quintessentially Russian) pomposity and your deficient vocabulary ("simply a rabble", for example, is a hilariously inept and syntactically non-native calque of the Russian "просто сволочь", since "rabble" is not normally a pejorative and cannot take an indefinite article in any native form of English. Get your head out of the dictionary!) It shows all your ins and outs- you are simply a bad babbler with access to a good dictionary.

    No one who reads Russian has any difficulty understanding what Pushkin meant in short lyrics like Я вас любил, though they may have trouble paraphrasing it. That's precisely the wonder of him- his plainspokenness balanced against his sublimity. That your instinct was to believe that somehow a "foreigner" should have difficulty understanding Pushkin's meaning bespeaks not only a literary ineptness but a vile rank chauvinism- and I mean rank in the sense of "pungent."

    Moreover, you have clearly failed in another regard: you didn't read my whole review. I gave Arndt a good deal of credit and praise where the majority of his book was felicitous enough to warrant it. My jabs were directed solely at those poems (such as Я вас любил) which he had translated exceedingly poorly.

    If you'd like me to stop touching literature with my ostensibly dirty hands, I suggest you tell Arndt (who is still alive, though on his way out probably) to stop occasionally touching literary translations with the thick jizz of his versified eructations.

    ReplyDelete
  3. His comment was not necessarily "hate mail". And neither is your language better then his. Why try to hide behind "big words" that take away from the point you are trying to get across.

    I so love it when my hate-mailers actually post in my comment box as
    opposed to emailing me. It allows me to humiliate them with a very
    satisfying dickslap.


    Man, Awful sentence.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I try to use words that say what I mean. Do you have reason to think I'm trying to "hide" as you put it, given the fact that I use such words as "dickslap"? I would argue that you do not.

    His language, unlike mine, is plangently non-native, almost comically so. Inasmuch as a subproficient command of English can be something to make fun of (and it is, when the person with said imperfect English is commenting on an English translation of Russian poetry), I don't see what you have to defend.

    ReplyDelete

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