Title: On Contemplating Stars: New and Timely Translations of Alexander Pushkin
Essay on The Star of Dazzling Ecstasy: 79 Poems by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Philip NikolayevA&B Publishers and Tiptop Street, 2021
PART 1: On Reading Pushkin in the Present
Alexander Pushkin is widely considered Russia’s greatest poet. In terms of Russia’s literature, its poetic canon, and language, Pushkin could reasonably be equated with Shakespeare. Such a comparison wouldn’t startle anyone who is native to Russia, or anyone who has made a study of the Russian language and its literature. Yet even those who have struggled to learn Russian and have grappled with Pushkin’s work in the original may not be fully aware of Pushkin’s cultural significance, the remarkable fact that despite his untimely death at the age of 37 (in January, 1837), his oeuvre shaped, and continues to influence the composition of poetry — not just in terms of meter, rhyme schemes, and originality, but as a set of principles concerning how poetry operates: its range for conveying ideas and emotions, and the aesthetic and ethical values it should espouse, or alternatively, rebuke. This is why those who have read Pushkin generally consider him a representative of Russian culture. They view him as a poet, artist, and, importantly, thinker and social critic, who wrote with an awareness that poetry and literature in general should do more than charm with beauty and wit; Pushkin intended to affect attitudes, and cause readers to question or challenge the status quo.
Pushkin’s artistic legacy is monumental, yet one that nonnatives have had limited opportunity to appreciate. His masterpiece novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, has been translated several times (the first translation appeared in 1881), but many other works have been confined to Russian. Simon Franklin was on the mark when he said, “Non-Russian-speakers know that Pushkin was Russia’s greatest writer only because Russians tell them so.”[i] Charles Johnston, whose book of translations, Eugene Onegin and Other Poems, was published in 1999, gave this eloquent formulation of the barriers to translating Onegin: “It’s as if a sound proof wall separated Pushkin’s poetic novel from the English-reading world. There is a whole magic which goes by default: the touching lyrical beauty, the cynical wit of the poem, the psychological insight, the devious narrative skill, the thrilling, compulsive grip of the novel, the tremendous gusto and swing and panache of the whole performance.” This is helpful, but only for starters. Those fortunate enough to have read Pushkin in Russian would undoubtedly argue that any statement on the difficulties involved in translating him into another language invariably fails to convey their full measure.
The art of translation certainly deserves notice in and of itself wherever it is practiced. Yet an occasion that involves translation of Pushkin’s poetry is one that should elicit special interest. A masterful translation, suggesting something like the diminution of Johnston’s sound-proof wall, is certainly cause for excitement. The Star of Dazzling Ecstasy, a book that presents seventy-nine of Pushkin’s poems in Russian placed alongside their English versions, is that kind of occasion. We have the translator, Philip Nikolayev, to thank for it. Importantly, a great translation of Pushkin, beyond providing precious access to material that is, put simply, sublime, also shines light on the giftedness of their translator.
Ilya Bernshteyn states in his Publisher’s Preface, “The elegance, precision, and apparent effortlessness of Pushkin’s verse require a translator of comparable virtuosity.” That in brief is the mountain-sized undertaking that confronts any would-be Pushkin translator. Yet Nikolayev has scaled this particular peak — with grace and authority, I might add.
The quality of Nikolayev’s work is addressed farther down. In fact, more needs to be said because to do Pushkin justice in translation what’s needed is an array of exceptional skills. This is unequivocally the case. Moreover, judging by what already exists in translation, one can easily argue that only those who are superb poets in their own right are equipped to essay it (as an aside, this might account for Vladimir Nabokov’s several unsuccessful attempts to translate Onegin[ii]). I’ll set the matter of translation aside for the moment. Instead, I’ll highlight the publishers’ intentions. These appear to reference the broader present-day cultural, social, and political context, which strikes me as highly relevant in light of certain prevailing discourses.
The Star of Dazzling Ecstasy was published by A&B Publishers (Moscow) and Tiptop Street (NYC). It’s part of a cooperative bilingual project. The publishers’ stated aim is to make Pushkin’s work “accessible to a broader humanity.” Clearly, then, their goal is to satisfy more than one community of readers. More precisely, Russian literature per se isn’t the only thing at stake. That a more solemn purpose underpins this project can also be sussed out from “Becoming Alexander Pushkin,” a foreword contributed by William Mills Todd III, Harry Tuchman Levin Professor of Literature at Harvard University. The foreword serves as an informative overview of Pushkin’s stellar career, and the impact of his work on those who followed in his wake. Above all, this pithy essay highlights Pushkin’s artistic, intellectual, and moral engagements with the Russia of his day. Here’s an example: “[Pushkin’s] texts serve as arenas in which succeeding generations might debate their unresolved differences on central cultural issues, issues such as Russia and the West, elite and popular culture, liberty and constraint” (9). Also on point: “Pushkin’s literary explorations have often had a cognitive, social and moral function in his homeland” (11). These and other aspects of the foreword help establish a frame of reference for appreciating Pushkin’s importance; or rather, the foreword clarifies the historical development of Russian literature in relation to Pushkin. It also adds pertinence to the digression below concerning said current-day discourses.
PART 2: Defining Russian Culture
On April 22, The New York Times published a guest essay by Professor Kevin M. F. Platt. The essay is titled “The Profound Irony of Canceling Everything Russian.” Platt teaches Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and is a translator of Russian poetry. His essay is cogent, and I quickly shared the link to it on my FB page. It should be read by anyone following the war in Ukraine, and overcome, as I am, with a mixture of horror and outrage.
I agree with Platt. There is profound irony in canceling everything Russian. There is even great irony in the need for such an article — one that reminds readers that people who were born in Russia, or who speak Russian, or embody facets of Russian culture, are neither responsible for, nor support, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is not just the case that most Russian-speaking people, who live outside of Russia, identify with the cultures and politics of their adoptive countries — like, say, Canada, the USA, Germany, England, and Ukraine. What must also be kept firmly in mind is this: for the vast majority of those who left Russia, emigration has always stood for a repudiation of its politics and government.
Echoing theorists of culture, post-colonialism, literature, and linguistics, Platt explains: “The forces of migration — as well as the more destructive means of war, conquest and colonialism — have insured the mingling of people, languages and cultures throughout history.” Yet even without recourse to scholarship, it should be patently clear to any thinking person that there is no single “Russian culture” or ethnicity, much less a shared or uniform set of beliefs and loyalties. Instead, people who hail from one of the former Soviet Socialist republics or current-day Russia have a myriad ways of acknowledging their birthplace or genealogy, one of which may include the use of a language that is more than a thousand years old, and whose rich lexicon and syntactic plasticity enables users to articulate complex ideas and emotions with the acuity and elegance of a fine tipped pen.
Platt begins his article by asserting that “Russian art, music, painting and film do not ‘belong’ to the Russian state.” A little later, he states that “a spirit of resistance pulses through the work of many artists throughout the global diaspora.” Poet Dmitry Kuzmin is one such artist, Platt writes. This poet and publisher moved to Latvia in 2015 “to write Russian poetry at a safe distance from Mr. Putin and his state. His Russian culture is certainly not Mr. Putin’s.” Kuzmin’s work undeniably counts as Russian culture, Platt means to say. Perhaps he should have made this point more emphatically. He might have stressed that Russian culture is largely synonymous with its art — its literature, folk art, and music. Moreover, any student or devotee of Russian literature, especially its poetry, would know that the most admired works of the 19th and 20th centuries were stealthily, implicitly, or downright subversive; the most enduring of these — in terms of beauty, urgency, and depth — were written by dissidents who opposed the authoritarianism they saw crushing the lives of their country’s men and women, and at the same time extirpating intellectual and artistic freedoms.
Russia has a long-established and venerable culture of contesting tyrannies — be they Tsarist, Communist, or autocratic and neoimperialist, like Putin’s regime. Currently, this culture is being honoured by the Moscow Helsinki Group, which was first set up in 1976 to monitor the Soviet government’s compliance with the Helsinki Accords and make sure that human rights abuses wouldn’t go unreported.[iii] Earlier, in 1970, Andrei Sakharov, a nuclear physicist, founded the Committee on Human Rights in the USSR, with fellow physicists Valery Chalidze and Andrei Tverdokhlebov. Their activism was coterminous with the dissident writings of poet Joseph Brodsky, and novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose The Gulag Archipelago (published in the West in 1973), was a forceful indictment of the brutalities of the Soviet state under Stalin. Less than half a decade before the founding of the Committee on Human Rights, writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel were convicted of producing anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. Their work had been smuggled out of Russia for publication. Both had written fiction that was critical of life in Communist Russia. In 1966, they were sentenced to years of hard labour in the very same chain of camps that Solzhenitsyn had described in searing, condemnatory detail with his 1962 novella, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
The word Samizdat means self-publishing. The term, which denotes any rough-and-ready publication or reproduction of censored, anti-government literature, was coined by the poet Nikolay Glazkov in 1940. The ingenious Glazkov earned his stripes by cleverly parodying the Soviet regime in poems that were bad by design. In the 1960s, Samizdat aided in disseminating Anatoly Rybakov’s anti-Stalinist novel, Children of the Arbat and Mikhail Bulgakov’s philosophical, The Master and Margarita. Rybakov and Bulgakov were participants in what was by then a long-established tradition of contestation. The generation of poets who preceded them already had its iconic dissident poets in Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova,[iv] and Osip Mandelstam. They were legendary due to the formal beauty and emotional intensity of their works, but also because of the heart-wrenching ways each was made to suffer under Stalin for speaking out.[v]
There were many other activist poets and writers. They’re not listed above because the purpose here is merely to adumbrate the history of political (and hence also artistic) dissidence and investment in civil rights and freedoms among Russia’s most revered culture makers. For instance, Yevgeny Zamyatin was widely considered to be one of the earliest and most influential anti-conformist writers. His dystopian novel, We, was published in the West, where it had to be smuggled because in 1921 it became the first work banned by the still-nascent Soviet censorship board.[vi] Zamyatin was a contemporary of Alexei Maximovich Peshkov, known by his nom de plume as Maxim Gorky. The literal meaning of ‘Gorky’ is bitter, a name the author and political activist chose for himself to convey his rage at the injustices he witnessed in Tsarist Russia, and about which which he wrote importunately enough to receive five nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Gorky spent a good portion of his life in exile. He was punished by the Tsarist regime, and after 1922, by the Soviet Union. He had supported the Bolsheviks against the repressive regime of Nicholas II (especially after the massacre that took place in January of 1905, known as “Bloody Sunday”). Later, he became critical of the communists’ ideological rigidity and willingness to trample on civil liberties. Another much-admired author, journalist, and a heroic figure among the most committed of social activists, Vladimir Korolenko, was likewise disenchanted with the Bolsheviks and critical of both the red and white factions during Russia’s civil war (following the October of 2017 revolution and dissolution of the Provisional Government of the Republic). Modernist critic Yuly Aykenvald wrote of Korolenko: “His life was the continuation of his literature and vice versa.” One might assert the same about the continuity between literature and the culture of humanism fought for by all who stood up to tyranny in pre- and post-revolutionary Russia.
To reiterate, the above-given is partial, woefully inadequate, and yet a much-needed reminder of a culture via-à-vis of which Dmitry Kuzmin, the poet and publisher adduced by Professor Platt, is just one example, and a recent one at that.[vii] Looking back further, to the 19th Century, we can’t but note that Fyodor Dostoevsky, like Dickens, was particularly intent on highlighting the suffering of working class people in rural and urban settings during the Industrial Revolution (this is attested to by Dostoevsky’s very fist novel, Poor Folk). Those familiar with Dostoevsky’s work know that he was sentenced to four years in a Siberian prison camp in 1849 (to those four years were added six more of compulsory military service in exile); Dostoevsky was part of the Petrashevsky Circle, an informal group that read and discussed books — mostly Western philosophy and literature — which were banned because they promulgated ideas and principles that were critical of tsarist autocracy and called for the abolition of serfdom everywhere.[viii] Less well known is the fact that the world-famous playwright and short story writer, Anton Chekhov, dedicated himself to bringing about prison reform. Spurred by the death of his brother Nikolai from tuberculosis in 1889, and despite his own poor health, Chekhov made a long and difficult journey in 1890 to Russia’s Far East to interview convicts living in the penal colony on Sakhalin Island. The abuse and degradation of thousands of prisoners (men and women, along with their children) horrified him. His findings were published under the title Sakhalin Island in 1893 and 1894. Chekhov turned the horrors he witnessed on Sakhalin into the story, “The Murder,” which appeared in 1895. A doctor by profession, Chekov treated nobility and peasants alike. He made a point of treating the poor free of charge, even traveling long distances to visit patients in their homes. Taking careful note of the peasants’ wretched, dire living conditions, and consequent debility, he made sure to act as witness with stories such as “Peasants,” “Ward No. 6,” and numerous others.
Of that same generation, Gleb Uspensky is another fine example of agitating with a pen on behalf of peasants turned into workers and the urban poor after the Emancipation reforms of 1861. From the 1870s he spent a decade traveling across Russia and documenting the harsh realities of peasant life, despite being subjected to surveillance by members of the 3rd Department, the secret-police organization established in 1826 at the behest of Nicholas I. Uspenski was under surveillance from 1873 until 1901, a period of almost 30 years.[ix]
Many of Uspensky’s essays, travel memoirs and sketches, were published in prestigious literary journals, like Otechestvennye Zapiski (Notes on the Fatherland), which brought him into the ambit of publishers, editors, and other writers whose literary and intellectual legacies are still central to Russia’s national imaginary. Otechestvennye Zapiski, which served liberal-minded readers, particularly the university-educated and intellectual set (the “intelligentsia”), assembled young talent and luminaries. Among them were playwright Alexander Ostrovsky, novelist Ivan Goncharov, satirist Nikolai Shchedrin (whom Bulgakov counted as an influence), poet Afanasy Fet, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, as well as poet, literary critic, and publisher, Nikolay Nekrasov. All are now part of a near 200-year-old tradition of humanism expressed through literature and the arts in general.
Born in 1821, the brilliant Nekrasov began writing poetry in 1856, and was seen by some as a rival to Pushkin. Later on, as editor, critic and publisher of two literary journals, Sovremennik (The Contemporary) and the aforementioned Otechestvennye Zapiski, Nekrasov played a major role in shaping the nation’s literary life and numerous literary careers. Nekrasov’s innovative poetry focused on the lamentable situation of Russian peasants. When the Edict of Emancipation was passed in 1861, Nekrasov quickly ascertained the hardships it would cause the newly-freed serfs. He wrote two poems to underscore the profound flaws in the emancipation reforms: “Freedom” and “Korobeiniki” (“The Peddlers”). The latter contained lines that were patently subversive: “What’s fun and games for the Tsar/Is grief for a common man.” A longer poem, “Who Is Happy in Russia?” was published in several instalments between 1863 and 1876. Persistent censorship hampered his efforts to publish the various portions, and later, illness and death prevented Nekrasov from completing the poem. Dostoevsky, friend and regular contributor to Nekrasov’s journals, came to stay with him one month before he passed away from intestinal cancer in January of 1878.
Nekrasov too endured constant police surveillance for decades. Fellow writer and journal contributor, Mikhail Mikhailov, who had advocated for the serfs’ emancipation and a new social order, was deported to Siberia in 1861. Nikolay Chernyshevsky, literary and social critic, as well as a novelist who figured prominently in Nineteenth-Century Russian literary realist aesthetics, met the same fate. A socialist and democrat who celebrated Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 as a sign of great progress in America, Chernyshevsky was sentenced to penal labour (1864–1872), and then exile to Siberia (1872–1883). He perished there at the age of 61.
I offer this history of resolute antipathy to both autocracy and serfdom in Russia with two objectives in mind: first, to show that a literary culture of resistance existed, and was vigorously curated and critically supported by Sovremennik and Otechestvennye Zapiski, two of Russia’s leading literary journals (both run out of Saint Petersburg); and second, as proof of the dense web of relationships and reciprocal influences that characterized literary activity in Russia in the 19th century, and that was elicited in part by the liberal and politically West-leaning ideas the journals’ editors wished to foster.
To be clear, the objective here is to reconstruct — in a way that is admittedly sparse — a past that for the majority of educated Russians informs the ethos of the present. Sovremennik was made defunct by Tsarist censors in 1862. Accused of spreading “dangerous ideas,” Otechestvennye Zapiski was permanently closed in 1884. Before its closure, Sovremennik operated on the basis of a shared understanding between contributors and editors. Chernyshevsky, who was exiled to Siberia, was the chief editor of Sovremennik from 1853 to 1862. Yet another anti-Tsarist firebrand, the highly-regarded literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, served as an editor at both Otechestvennye Zapiski and Sovremennik (at the former first, before being enticed over to the latter by Nekrasov). He set the journals’ ideological tenor until his premature death in 1848 at the age of 37. Belinsky happened to be the younger Nikolay Nekrasov’s mentor and entrusted him with unpublished material before his death.
Men like Belinksy are most worthy of commemoration. He believed in individualism and the natural dignity and rights of each human being. He was a humanitarian, deeply affected by the plight of the poor and vulnerable, including women pushed into prostitution through hardship. Importantly, both Nekrasov and Belinsky formed a nucleus around which literary culture revolved and coalesced.[x] Many of the most accomplished poets, essayists, historians, and novelists entrusted their work to them while engaging with the editors’ convictions, and therefore also thrashing out ideas about writers’ social and moral obligations. Since they were intimately involved with the selection of material for publication, Nekrasov and Belinsky dominated thought and its expression.
Nekrasov and Belinsky published novelists Ivan Turgenev, Anton Goremyka, Leo Tolstoy, and novelist and social philosopher Alexander Herzen. Historians Sergey Solovyov and Timofey Granovsky, and poet and activist in exile, Nikolay Ogarev likewise appeared in the pages of Sovremennik. These contributors’ personal beliefs didn’t always align (some thought radical reforms essential, others felt the need for more incremental changes to protect traditions and a national identity they valued greatly). Yet the body of works produced through both publications nevertheless helped build lasting aesthetic and intellectual foundations, as well as compassionate attitudes toward victims of economic and political oppression.
Here, at last, we arrive at the crux of this very dense — and far from limpid — matter of culture, moulded by literature and other arts. This essay begins by commenting on the significance of a recently-published book of Pushkin’s translated poetry, together with the claim that Pushkin’s imprint on Russian literature and the art of poetry is likely unparalleled. What follows is an excursus into Russia’s literary history in reverse chronological order until we arrive at figures such as Ogarev, Herzen, Belinsky, and others who were a mere decade younger than Pushkin, or who were born into the very next generation, like Mikhail Lermontov, Nekrasov, Turgenev, and Dostoevsky. The importance of this can’t be overplayed. Succinctly put, the temporal (and in some cases, social) proximity of these writers to Pushkin had an effect that was both formative and catalytic.
Without exception, all who belonged to Pushkin’s generation or the next, in one way or another, witnessed the phenomenon that was Pushkin: his spellbinding craft; the poetic elan that showcased his astounding ingenuity with genre, form, and language, even at the level of lexis; the erudition that enabled him to appropriate but also break with other literary traditions; and, significantly, his unequivocal moral purpose. Pushkin was, to borrow from the title of Philip Nikolayev’s book, a star, whose dazzling light reached every corner of Russia’s artistic life, transforming the entire domain with its inviolable incandescence.
Nothing in the above-given description is an exaggeration. Pushkin was larger than life, a paragon composer of verse, but also a playwright, novelist, and translator. He admired, learned from, and then surpassed other poets, like the English Romantic, Lord Byron. A Romantic poet himself, Pushkin embraced the principles of the French Enlightenment (reading Voltaire), as well as the aims of 19th century liberalism in England. He embodied the idea that a more just society had to be willed into being, that poets in particular had a moral duty to enlighten readers, and to inspire them to act in ways that would bring about social change. Pushkin’s poem, “Ode to Liberty,” is a powerful condemnation of despotism in any form (composed in 1818, when he was only 19 years old). It was found among the possessions of the leaders of the anti-tsarist Decembrist Uprising in 1825. Another poem written in 1818 is Pushkin’s paean to Westernizing philosopher Pyotr Chaadaev. A few lines from “To Chaadayev,” translated by Nikolayev, read as follows:
While, thus ablaze with liberty,
Our hearts remain alive to honor,
Let’s to our mouther-country offer
Our spirit’s full nobility!
Comrade, believe: it will emerge —
The star of dazzling ecstasy;
Russia will wake from her mirage;
On ruins of autocracy
We yet shall see our names writ large. (Pushkin, trans Nikolayev 42-3)
At an online book launch for The Star of Dazzling Ecstasy, Nikolayev referred to Pushkin as Russia’s first civic poet. He was the first to demonstrate a social consciousness in verse, focusing on the evils of serfdom. And where Pushkin’s lyre went, others followed.[xi] Pushkin did express frustration at times, having learned the risks involved in challenging the tsar. He equivocated, made doubtful by what he perceived to be the peasants’ fecklessness. Such feelings are expressed in the untitled poem below, composed in 1823:
When, freedom’s solitary sower,
Before the star of morn I went
With a hand pure and innocent
Into the subjugated furrows
To plant the liberating seed —
It was a waste of a good deed,
Time and benevolence misspent.
Graze on in peace, obedient nations!
May calls of honor ring in vain.
Do herds want boons of liberation
Nay, they need to be short or slain,
Well yoked in every generation,
And governed with a scourge of pain. (Pushkin, trans Nikolayev 58-9)
Yet Pushkin was far more critical of the despotic institutions and general mindset that kept human beings in bondage. He satirized the nobility’s self-regard and obsequiousness, and he didn’t spare himself, mocking his own leisurely, banal enjoyments, and questioning the personal belief that poetry, his self-assigned mission, could move readers and lead to meaningful change. The first stanza from “To the Poet,” a pep-talk in a sonnet that Pushkin wrote in 1830, presumably to himself, reads thus:
Poet! Set not too much store by the people’s love.
The noise of accolades will not for long be heard,
You’ll face the idiot’s court, you’ll hear the cold crowd laugh,
Yet you must remain firm, sullen, unperturbed. (Pushkin, trans Nikolayev 172-3)
A later poem is more self-assured and assertive. Its classically inspired mode evokes poets Horace (and Ovid, I’d say[xii]). Composed in 1836, “Exegi monumentum” (the epigraphic title borrows Horace’s “I raised a monument”) gives us these indelible lines:
The monument I’ve built is not in chiseled stone,
The people’s path to it will ne’er be overgrown,
Its disobedient head in bold defiance has risen
Above the Alexandrine column.
No, I will not all die: my soul in the secret lyre
Will well escape decay, outliving my remains,
My fame will last while in the sublunary sphere
At least one poet remains.
Word of me will travel the holy land of Rus,
And every living tongue in it will sing my praise:
The Slavs’ proud heir, the Finn, the still savage Tungus,
The Kalmyk, friend of prairies.
I daresay that a fact that folk will cherish long
Is that bright liberty served as my lyre’s true calling,
That I, in my cruel age, evoked kindness with song
And mercy for the fallen.
Remain obedient to God’s injunction, Muse,
Fear no hurt, crave no crown, retain your calm and cool,
Treat flattery and slander with indifference
Argue not with the fool. (Pushkin, trans Nikolayev 210-11)
To appreciate the importance of a new book with deft translations of Pushkin’s shorter works (many of which have never yet been available in English), one has to grasp the fuller context — literary, social, and philosophical — these represent, along with their subsequent cultural reverberations. Nikolayev conveys key aspect of this in his introduction, “On Pushkin’s Genius”:
“The depth of a culture can be measured by the depth of its poetry, and in Russia, true depth starts with Pushkin. Pushkin’s work is the first Russian literature that is artistically sublime as well as philosophically and psychologically deep. One of the best educated people of his time, one of the freest thinkers, and more in tune with world poetry than anyone else in Russia, Pushkin brought us to our modernity, elevated our ethical and artistic standards, and gave us our heartfelt, idealistic wisdom to live by….Reading him is edifying, it uplifts the spirit. As the poet Apollon Grigoriev famously said, “Pushkin is our everything.”
Organized in chronological order, the translated poems enable readers to glimpse the artist as a young idealist, and then at later stages of his “becoming Pushkin”: as a man captivated by other cultures, epochs, and their ethos; or in the throes of love and desire; or preoccupied with everyday matters; or sometimes ruing his own youthful enthusiasms or goals for being impracticable. “Nikolayev’s dazzling selection captures [the full] range, from the self-ironic, the furious, and the defiant” (13), writes Todd, and justly so. Moreover, these translations enable us to glimpse a man, a life, and portions of an oeuvre that established a culture, which to this day venerates both beauty and defiance in the face of injustice.
PART 3: On Philip Nikolayev’s translations
Translation is at once science and art. This is even more true of translations of verse or poetry of fixed form. Translation of verse requires an understanding of rules (Nabokov’s 1964 translation of Onegin offers useful guidelines[xiii]). Such rules pertain to syntax, denotative and associative meanings, conventions of word usage, permissible substitutions or deletions, adherence to aspects of form, including prosody, and so on. At the same time, to translate Pushkin is not so much a matter of sticking to rules (alas, they get one only so far), but of having intimate knowledge and command of two languages (or more), and heaps of other skills, many of which, frankly, depend on inborn talent. An inspired translator of Pushkin will possess an ear for language and the mellifluous in combinations of words or lines, an unerring sense of rhythm, and an ability to perceive the subtlest of meanings and convey it. Even then, and despite all this, the translation might be poor because what is required to translate Pushkin is such an extraordinary confluence of skills, knowledge, and experience, that successful translations are nearly impossible to account for. Furthermore, there is something ineffable about what great translators accomplish; their works are like a children who are marvels in and of themselves.
There are standards for assessing translations, sure, and Nabokov provided a framework — one he developed while contending with Onegin. Based on the three models/approaches he outlined in his 1964 book, they are as follows: “paraphrastic,” which gives priority to the meaning and spirit of a poem, while taking liberties with the diction of the original (the “Out of Language”); the “lexical,” which preserves all of the lexical and syntactical features of the original language, but at the expense of poesy in the receiving language (the “Into Language”); and the rarest and most difficult, the “literal,” which labours to preserve both meaning and the prosodic and formal features of the original in the translation, including meter and rhyme.
The “literal” or the most sought after translation, whose exigencies I’ve sketched out above, is the type accomplished by Nikolayev in The Star of Dazzling Ecstasy. As far as I can tell — since I can read and understand the Russian — the results are astonishing, a feat rendered more extraordinary by the fact that the poems vary in theme, mood, and form. The book contains oft-read, beloved poems, such as “The Captive” (1823), “The Demon” (1823), “Pray Keep Me Safe, My Talisman” (1825), “The Prophet” (1826) “Madonna” (1830), and “Elegy” (1830). There are numerous others, including ones on the subject of love: the famous “To Anna Kern” (1825), “A Confession” (1824-6), the elegiac “The Burned Letter” (1826), “I loved you” (1829), and “Farewell” (1830), and the erotically charged “No, not one bit do I remotely treasure” (1830-1832). As already discussed, a number of poems deal with the harrowing aspects of autocratic rule in the past, as well as in Pushkin’s time: “In mineshafts of Siberian ore” (1827) is addressed to members of the 1825 Decembrist revolt, who were sentenced to hard labour in mines (for all intents, receiving a death sentence). There is the hair-raising “Ah, what a night! It’s rattling cold” (1827), which describes a square littered with bodies of men who met gruesome deaths through execution at the hands of murderous henchmen belonging to the private army organized by Ivan the Terrible. Ivan IV Vasilyevich, the first tsar of Russia, ran a program of systematic oppression of the nobility, Oprichnina, that enabled him to consolidate his power and control over the Tsardom of Russia during the mid- to late-16th century. Here’s a portion of the poem:
Moscow slumbers at peace, all silent,
Forgetful now of daily fright.
Meanwhile the square amid the night,
Still full of yesterday’s execution,
Shows signs of torment in profusion:
A corpse, by sword asunder struck,
A stake here and a pitchfork there,
A toppled executioner’s block,
Big cauldrons full of cooling tar,
Spikes sticking out at sundry places…
Bones mixed with embers glow. Dark bodies,
Impaled alive on wooden lances,
Sit doubled up in rigour mortis. (Pushkin, trans Nikolayev 124-7
Limitations of space prevent me from reproducing here more that a few additional poems; I hope to give readers an inkling of Pushkin’s range. Immediately below is a poem from a suite, “Imitations of the Quran,” which was completed in 1824. The suite as a whole is splendidly suggestive of Pushkin’s spiritual tendencies, as well as of the young poet’s fascination with the world traveler Byron and his evocations of the “Orient,” for want of a historically more fitting word.
On hearing the blind man’s approach,
The Prophet, knitting his brow, flees:
Scandal and vice must not encroach
Upon his contemplative peace.
Prophet! You’ve been a copy given
Of heaven’s scroll—not for the wrathful;
Keep calm while preaching the Quran
Without coercing the unfaithful
What is the source of pride for man?
That naked he emerged one morn,
Who breathes but for the briefest span
And dies as weak as he was born?
That God can give him o’er to death
Or animate him—at discretion,
Who from the sky prolongs his breath,
Whether in fortune or misfortune?
That I have Kindly given him
His bread, his date, his fig, his olive,
And blest his daily work routine,
His vineyard, his hill, and his cornfield?
Yet once the angel trumpets twice,
Heaven’s thunder on earth will fall,
Brother will against brother rise
And son from mother will recoil.
By fear disfigured, they will all
Before their Lord appear at last,
And fast the infidels will fall,
Covered with flames and ash and dust. (Pushkin, trans Nikolayev 68-69)
The playful “The Sonnet” (1830) speaks for itself, while giving readers an appreciation of Pushkin’s grip on literary developments elsewhere in Europe.
“Scorn not the sonnet, critic.”
Stern Dante treated not with scorn the sonnet,
And Petrarch sang his love in sonnet form,
The author of Macbeth drew pleasure from it
In it Camões lent his griefs to rhyme.
And to this day it blows away the poet:
Wordsworth employs it as his chosen norm
When he, in an asocial lonely moment,
Portrays ideal nature in a poem.
Mid shady hills of faraway Taurida
The Bard of Poland would fit to its tight meter
Ex tempore aspiration or regret.
Up here, it was a new thing to the ladies
As yet, when for it Delvig would forget
Hexameter’s Homeric harmonies. (Pushkin, trans Nikolayev 184-5)
Below is taken from “The Poet and the Crowd” (1828), another classically inspired poem that reflects Pushkin’s occasional frustrations (and perhaps, self-doubt) concerning the reception of his work:
The Poet and the Crowd
Procul este, profani (“Away, profaners!” Virgil’s Aenead)
The poet’s absent-minded hand
Strummed the inspired lyre. He sang on
While unenlightened folk aound,
Expressions proud and coldly frowned,
Listened with meaningless attention.
And the crass rabble questioned thus:
“To what end is his tuneful singing?
With earful of this soulful ringing,
To what goal is he leading us?
Where is the lesson in his chanting?
Our hearts both breaking and enchanting,
Oh waywardmost of sorcerers,
Your song is beer than the breeze,
But just as fruitless. Tell us please,
Where’s the utility to us?”
Be silent, senseless mob, grunt not,
Wage worker, slave to care and want,
I cannot stand your cheeky rant!Worm of the earth, not son of heaven,
Utility’s what you believe in,
Your judgement is inane and hollow:
You weight the torso of Apollo,
Yet in his form you see no good.
That marble is a god! So what?
You much prefer your cooking pot,
Because therein you cook your food!
No, Sir! If you are heaven’s chosen,
Not someone who’s a dime a dozen,
Use divine gifts as it befits:
Conduits for useful benefits!
Correct with verse your brethren’s hearts,
For we are cowardly, ungrateful,
Sly, foolish, wicked, shameless, hateful,
Slaves, liars, targets for your dart.
We are cold castrates of the heart!
Berate us then, our vice to lessen,
Loving thy neighbor. We too may love you
If you install in us your lesson
The while we have a listen of you. (Pushkin, trans Nikolayev 139-41)
And finally, this poem from 1936, witty and poignant at once, expresses the poet’s desire to be free of the burdens that attend his calling:
I do not highly rate those loud trumpeted rights
That turn many a head, nor do I rant against
The gods who silently deny me access
To the sweet joy of questioning the taxes
Or meddling in the kings’ war on each other.
I must admit that it’s none of my bother
Whether the press is free to dupe the fools
Or whether watchful censorship has rules
Against one jester journalist’s ambitions —
All words, words, words…[xiv] No, I crave better freedoms:
Caring not to be slave to the tsar or the people,
God bless them, I would be much more content and gleeful
To follow my own path and own account to none,
To bend not neck nor conscience, nor to cower
Whether before or for the sake of power,
But to roam unrestrained at the whim of volition,
Gazing in awe at nature’s beauty in creation,
To flutter and vibrate with rapturous elation
In front of masterworks of artful inspiration.
— That is bliss, those are rights!… (Pushkin, trans Nikolayev 204-5)
Now to make a few additional remarks about the translator, Philip Nikolayev. I have been following his work as poet and translator for at least five years. He is a remarkable poet — highly focused on his craft, original, versatile (master of many forms), and productive.[xv] He has four published collections to his name. A bilingual collection, Fugitive Speech, is in the works. As a translator he can easily be described as singular, not just because he’s exceptionally good, but because he can translate from a handful of languages instead of adhering to the usual rule of one-way translation from one language into only one other. I have read Nikolayev’s translations of poems from French, Rumanian, and, surprisingly, from Urdu, Hindi, and Sanskrit. He translates contemporary Russian poetry on a regular basis. These works, composed in Russian by poets whose styles vary appreciably, turn out breathtakingly well in English.
Nikolayev arrived in the USA at the age of 24 from Russia, yet has a superb command of English. This is uncommon among adult immigrants. Nabokov argued that after ten years of age, an individual will never become fluent in a newly acquired language, and a 2018 article published in the Scientific American appears to back his claim: “One of the largest linguistics studies ever conducted showed…that it is best to start by age 10 if you want to achieve the grammatical fluency of a native speaker.”[xvi] An exception, then, Nikolayev has made English his own, and it shows in the ways he has managed to recreate the allusive, layered, and interior aspects of the original verse (and rhyme schemes). I’ve included examples of poems from the The Star of Dazzling Ecstasy so readers can read and judge for themselves. I hope they will notice too that Nikolayev has done a fine job of balancing the intricacies of language and expression, which were characteristic of Russia’s haut monde 200 years ago, with current-day English-language readers’ expectations.
Nikolayev completed the translation in The Star of Dazzling Ecstasy over a course of ten years, and my hunch is that his work improved in the process. A small number of poems, or lines therein, show a slight unevenness, and there are a few instances were I feel another word could have worked better. These are cavils, however, and are of no consequence in comparison to my regard for the immeasurable value of The Star of Dazzling Ecstasy and the translator’s achievement. And that is to make available at long last in English Pushkin’s artistry in all its ardent, sharp-witted, and fierce glory.
[i]Franklin, Simon. “Alexander Pushkin: ‘Eugene Onegin.’” Journal of European Studies, vol. 23, no. 92, Dec. 1993, pp. 471+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A15024715/AONE?u=yorku_main&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=d85ab749. Accessed 7 May 2022.
[ii]Sarah Funke Butler’s is an excellent, detailed discussion of this foredoomed project in “Document: Nabokov’s Notes,” which was published in the Paris Review in February, 2012. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2012/02/29/document-nabokov%E2%80%99s-notes/.
[iii]Founding members included Yuri Orlov, Anatoly Shcharansky, Lyudmila Alekseeva, Alexander Korchak, Malva Landa, Vitaly Rubin, Yelena Bonner, Alexander Ginzburg, Anatoly Marchenko, Petro Grigorenko, and Mikhail Bernshtam.
[iv] Solzhenitsyn, was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.” Brodsky was awarded the Nobel in 1987. Akhmatova was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in 1965, and again in 1966.
[v]For further reading on the history of Samizdat, please see “The writers who defied Soviet censors” by Benjamin Ramm. The essay was published on 24th July 2017. BBC Culture.
[vi]Other authors of note who were either censored or executed on Stalin’s orders include Boris Pilnyak, and the great Jewish author Isaac Babel.
[vii]See the following essay by Kirill Medvedev, “Dmitry Kuzmin,” in issue 13 of the online magazine, n+1 (Winter 2012). Medvedev examines the more recent culture of social activism, and asks important questions about the direction it is taking in present. <https://www.nplusonemag.com/issue-13/essays/dmitry-kuzmin/>
[viii]The progressive Petrashevsky Circle included a number of distinguished poets and writers, such as Aleksey Pleshcheyev and the great Ukrainian poet, writer, and visual artist, Taras Shevchenko, and the great Russian satirist Nikolai Shchedrin. A. Fadeev wrote of Shchedrin: “The pathos of satirical humanism was his driving force. The mere awareness of people being treated cruelly while causes for their suffer were removable, filled him with rage and… murderous laughter that makes his satire so distinctive.”
[ix]Among many of Uspenski’s works, perhaps the best known are The Village Troubles (Vols. I-III), and The Power of the Land, which came out in the early 1880s.
[x]Belinsky died from consumption on the eve of his slated arrest 1848. Isaiah Berlin wrote of him: “Because he was naturally responsive to everything that was living and genuine, he transformed the concept of the critic’s calling in his native country. The lasting effect of his work was in altering and altering crucially and irretrievably, the moral and social outlook of the leading younger writers and thinkers of his time.” It was Belinsky’s letter, calling for the end of serfdom, that — not coincidentally, perhaps — Dostoevsky had read aloud at public gatherings and helped print and disseminate by means of a secret press. It was for these particular offences that Dostoevsky was sentenced in 1849 and sent to prison camps in Siberia for four years. See Isaiah Berlin’s chapter on Belinsky in his Russian Thinkers (1978).
[xi]In 1837, poem by Mikhail Lermontov, wrote “Death of the Poet” in shocked and frantic reaction to Pushkin’s death. Lermontov accused the court aristocracy of manipulating events that led to the tragedy. The poem depicted this clique as “huddling about the throne in a greedy throng”, and as “the hangmen who kill liberty, genius, and glory.” Hand-written copies of the poem were circulated, eventually reaching the Tsar’s people, who deemed the last 16 lines of the poem highly seditious. Lermontov was arrested and exiled to military service in the Caucasus. Nekrasov wrote the poem “Freedom” in 1861 as a response to the inadequacies of the Emancipation Reform of 1856, as well as in tribute to Pushkin’s “Ode to Liberty.” A Poet’s Death (1837) by Ogarev was likewise dedicated to Pushkin.
[xii] The poem brings to mind Ovid’s Envoi: “And now the work is done, that Jupiter’s anger, fire or sword cannot erase, nor the gnawing tooth of time. Let that day, that only has power over my body, end, when it will, my uncertain span of years: yet the best part of me will be borne, immortal, beyond the distant stars. Wherever Rome’s influence extends, over the lands it has civilised, I will be spoken, on people’s lips: and, famous through all the ages, if there is truth in poet’s prophecies, –vivam – I shall live.” (Metamorphoses, Bk XV:871-879, trans. A. S. Kline)
[xiii]See also Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse: Text (Vol. 1), Translated by Vladimir Nabokov, Introduction by Vladimir Nabokov, Foreword by Brian Boyd, Princeton Press, 2018.
[xiv]Pushkin’s note: “Hamlet.”
[xv]For readers not familiar with Nikolayev’s work, go to the Poetry Foundation’s page for basic facts about the poet and titles of his published collections: <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/philip-nikolayev>
[xvi]See article by Dana G. Smith, published in the Scientific American in May of 2018, “At What Age Does Our Ability to Learn a New Language Like a Native Speaker Disappear?” <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/at-what-age-does-our-ability-to-learn-a-new-language-like-a-native-speaker-disappear/>
Franklin, Simon. “Alexander Pushkin: ‘Eugene Onegin.’” Journal of European Studies, vol. 23, no. 92, Dec. 1993, pp. 471+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A15024715/AONE?u=yorku_main&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=d85ab749. Accessed 7 May 2022.
Sarah Funke Butler’s is an excellent, detailed discussion of this foredoomed project in “Document: Nabokov’s Notes,” which was published in the Paris Review in February, 2012. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2012/02/29/document-nabokov%E2%80%99s-notes/.
Founding members included Yuri Orlov, Anatoly Shcharansky, Lyudmila Alekseeva, Alexander Korchak, Malva Landa, Vitaly Rubin, Yelena Bonner, Alexander Ginzburg, Anatoly Marchenko, Petro Grigorenko, and Mikhail Bernshtam.
 Solzhenitsyn, was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.” Brodsky was awarded the Nobel in 1987. Akhmatova was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in 1965, and again in 1966.
For further reading on the history of Samizdat, please see “The writers who defied Soviet censors” by Benjamin Ramm. The essay was published on 24th July 2017. BBC Culture.
Other authors of note who were either censored or executed on Stalin’s orders include Boris Pilnyak, and the great Jewish author Isaac Babel.
See the following essay by Kirill Medvedev, “Dmitry Kuzmin,” in issue 13 of the online magazine, n+1 (Winter 2012). Medvedev examines the more recent culture of social activism, and asks important questions about the direction it is taking in present. <https://www.nplusonemag.com/issue-13/essays/dmitry-kuzmin/>
The progressive Petrashevsky Circle included a number of distinguished poets and writers, such as Aleksey Pleshcheyev and the great Ukrainian poet, writer, and visual artist, Taras Shevchenko, and the great Russian satirist Nikolai Shchedrin. A. Fadeev wrote of Shchedrin: “The pathos of satirical humanism was his driving force. The mere awareness of people being treated cruelly while causes for their suffer were removable, filled him with rage and… murderous laughter that makes his satire so distinctive.”
Among many of Uspenski’s works, perhaps the best known are The Village Troubles (Vols. I-III), and The Power of the Land, which came out in the early 1880s.
Belinsky died from consumption on the eve of his slated arrest 1848. Isaiah Berlin wrote of him: “Because he was naturally responsive to everything that was living and genuine, he transformed the concept of the critic’s calling in his native country. The lasting effect of his work was in altering and altering crucially and irretrievably, the moral and social outlook of the leading younger writers and thinkers of his time.” It was Belinsky’s letter, calling for the end of serfdom, that — not coincidentally, perhaps — Dostoevsky had read aloud at public gatherings and helped print and disseminate by means of a secret press. It was for these particular offences that Dostoevsky was sentenced in 1849 and sent to prison camps in Siberia for four years. See Isaiah Berlin’s chapter on Belinsky in his Russian Thinkers (1978).
In 1837, poem by Mikhail Lermontov, wrote “Death of the Poet” in shocked and frantic reaction to Pushkin’s death. Lermontov accused the court aristocracy of manipulating events that led to the tragedy. The poem depicted this clique as “huddling about the throne in a greedy throng”, and as “the hangmen who kill liberty, genius, and glory.” Hand-written copies of the poem were circulated, eventually reaching the Tsar’s people, who deemed the last 16 lines of the poem highly seditious. Lermontov was arrested and exiled to military service in the Caucasus. Nekrasov wrote the poem “Freedom” in 1861 as a response to the inadequacies of the Emancipation Reform of 1856, as well as in tribute to Pushkin’s “Ode to Liberty.” A Poet’s Death (1837) by Ogarev was likewise dedicated to Pushkin.
 The poem brings to mind Ovid’s Envoi: “And now the work is done, that Jupiter’s anger, fire or sword cannot erase, nor the gnawing tooth of time. Let that day, that only has power over my body, end, when it will, my uncertain span of years: yet the best part of me will be borne, immortal, beyond the distant stars. Wherever Rome’s influence extends, over the lands it has civilised, I will be spoken, on people’s lips: and, famous through all the ages, if there is truth in poet’s prophecies, –vivam – I shall live.” (Metamorphoses, Bk XV:871-879, trans. A. S. Kline)
See also Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse: Text (Vol. 1), Translated by Vladimir Nabokov, Introduction by Vladimir Nabokov, Foreword by Brian Boyd, Princeton Press, 2018.
Pushkin’s note: “Hamlet.”
For readers not familiar with Nikolayev’s work, go to the Poetry Foundation’s page for basic facts about the poet and titles of his published collections: <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/philip-nikolayev>
See article by Dana G. Smith, published in the Scientific American in May of 2018, “At What Age Does Our Ability to Learn a New Language Like a Native Speaker Disappear?” <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/at-what-age-does-our-ability-to-learn-a-new-language-like-a-native-speaker-disappear/>
Olga Stein holds a PhD in English, and is a university and college instructor. She has taught writing, communications, modern and contemporary Canadian and American literature. Her research focuses on the sociology of literary prizes. A manuscript of her book, The Scotiabank Giller Prize: How Canadian is now with Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Stein is working on her next book, tentatively titled, Wordly Fiction: Literary Transnationalism in Canada. Before embarking on a PhD, Stein served as the chief editor of the literary review magazine, Books in Canada, and from 2001 to 2008 managed the amazon.com-Books in Canada First Novel Award (now administered by Walrus magazine). Stein herself contributed some 150 reviews, 60 editorials, and numerous author interviews to Books in Canada (the online version is available at http://www.booksincanada.com). A literary editor and academic, Stein has relationships with writers and scholars from diverse communities across Canada, as well as in the US. Stein is interested in World Literature, and authors who address the concerns that are now central to this literary category: the plight of migrants, exiles, and the displaced, and the ‘unbelonging’ of Indigenous peoples and immigrants. More specifically, Stein is interested in literary dissidents, and the voices of dissent, those who challenge the current political, social, and economic status quo. Stein is the editor of the memoir, Playing Under The Gun: An Athlete’s Tale of Survival in 1970s Chile by Hernán E. Humaña.
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