On Nabokov “On Translating ‘Eugene Onegin'”

A friend sent me a picture of a page from an old New Yorker; on this page are printed two poems by one Vladimir Nabokov, both illuminating his feelings on translating Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Before I go on, however, I’ll just let you read them.

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The poems are quite lovely and are vintage Nabokov.[1] They also employ the modified sonnet that Pushkin invented for his novel in verse, and so demonstrate the difficulties inherent in following Pushkin’s idiosyncratic meter and rhyme scheme.[2]

The most notable thing is that he keeps the meter the whole way through , and yet neither poem sounds sing-songy. That it hard to do when writing a Pushkin sonnet in English.[3] Kudos. As for rhymes, there are only two off rhymes in the whole poem (“pardon/hard on” in the first and “alliterations/patience” in the second).

In terms of the classical sonnet structure,[4] the first poem gets the basics right. He literally asks a question (“what is translation?”), expands a bit on the idea, and then answers that question by advancing a metaphor (he goes to the root of Pushkin’s work to grow another shoot that would have some, if not all, of Onegin’s characteristics,  a “cousin to his rose”).

Nabokov doesn’t match the specific rigors of the form as well. In the first of these poems, sentences end and begin in the middle of couplets, and the poem’s turn comes a line too early.[5] The clauses in the second poem match the rhyming structure but not the traditional places where themes shift: the first quatrain drops the promising metaphor of the poem/rose in favor of the translation/reflection metaphor, the next seven lines drop that metaphor in order to talk about Nabokov’s perseverance as a translator, before wrapping things up in the last three lines.

But that’s okay. Aside from the fact that this isn’t meant as serious poetry, most the translations I’ve read of Eugene Onegin (and while I’m hardly an expert I’ll be that most people haven’t read more than one) don’t much pay attention to the rule of one clause to one quatrain/trecet/couplet. It’s much easier to keep that ratio of one clause to one group of lines when you’re only writing one sonnet—Pushkin’s got to keep the reader interested in an ongoing narrative, so I’ll let him (and his, ahem, humble translator) off the hook for the occasional departure from poetic tradition.


[1] For one thing they’re imbued with the self conscious idolatry that crops up in his lectures on literature. He shows an Olympian disdain for translations and criticisms (“the shadow of [Pushkin’s] monument”), and one senses that he’s only condescending  to translate Pushkin because no one else is up to the task. He is nevertheless humbling himself next to Pushkin, which is at least more believable than his claims to speak English poorly; “In a language newly learned”—really? Nabokov learned English at a governess’s knee and could write it before he could write Russian. He published his translation of Onegin at the age of 65. He’d been speaking English for 60 fucking years. If I could go back in time and say just one thing to the man it would not come in the form of a question, but a desperate imperative to cut the shit and ditch the false modesty.


[2]Pushkin wrote his own form of sonnets. Without getting into too many specifics, the rhyme scheme is:

AbAbCCddEffEgg, wherein the capital letters represent feminine rhymes.


As for masculine and feminine rhymes, I like the example given by Stanley Mitchell, another of Pushkin’s translators:


Feminine: The boy stood on the burning vessel.

Masculine: The boy stood on the burning boat.


See the difference? There’s an extra unstressed syllable in a feminine rhyme.

[3] The meter (iambic tetrameter) is short and the couplets make everything sound like a limerick or something you’d hear at a Renaissance fair.

[4] Generally speaking the first part of a sonnet poses a question and second answers that question.

[5] Usually a clause corresponds to a couplet/tercet/quatrain; as for the turn, the shift between asking the question and answering it comes after the second quatrain.

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