Pushkin Threefold: Narrative, Lyric, Polemic and Ribald Verse, the Originals with Linear and Metric Translations By Alexander Pushkin

I love Pushkin! If you love poetry you gotta love him, that all I can say. His work is fantastic, his poetry amazing! 455

Pushkin Threefold: Narrative, Lyric, Polemic and Ribald Verse, the Originals with Linear and Metric Translations

I've never seen poems by Pushkin, but today I came across this book in a used bookstore. I think I've found a new favorite poet! The poems were so lovely and lyrical. I'm going to admit I didn't read all of them, but I read many, and I liked them very much. 455 Let me first qualify this two-star rating as having absolutely nothing to do with any writing Alexandr Pushkin might have himself done; this is actually essential to understand because if there is one thing I got from this book it is that I will never know what it is actually like to read Alexandr Pushkin unless I learn Russian fluently, and also probably unless I learn early 19th century Russian particularities at that!. See, Pushkin Threefold presents the reader with three versions of each poem- the original Russian Cyrillic, a literal line-by-line translation, and Arndt’s own metric translations, meaning his interpretations of the poems, which are metered, rhymed, and apparently attempt to reflect not only the content but also the musicality and strict structure of Pushkin’s originals, to whatever degree that is possible, which he admits is pretty much no degree at all; if you are trying to maintain any kind of faithfulness to the word choice and tone of the original it would come out as some unmetered and babbly nonsense, because there is about as much lexical and tonal crossover between English and Russian as there is between a toad’s croak and an owl’s hooting.

For example let me take as a “Pushkin original Cyrillic” the first clause of my first sentence of that first paragraph (read it again? good), here is some ridiculous approximation of what it might be in Arndt’s literal translation: “I can the [outtake] at two luminaries of [significance none] attribute to text Alexandr Pushkin in self practiced”, or something, and then let's take it as an Arndt’s spiffy metric translation, which would invariably come out to something such as “Two pale flickerings amid the eve’s gloam above such a thought, as in a distance Alexandr Pushkin recedes himself at diligent work”.

The whole thing was like this. Each comparative translation more disheartening than the last.

I would spend some time looking lovingly at the beautiful (utterly alien and void of any information-transference, of course) original Russian text, staring at it more like one looks at the patchwork of fields as you airplane across a great stretch of land, or geologic patters on seashores or something, not expecting anything really semiotic to burst forth from it or anything; then I would read Arndt’s metric translations, which were sometimes enjoyable and lovely in themselves (I sincerely did appreciate reading a full translation of “The Bronze Horseman”); but then, see, I would turn to the literal translations and just be floored and awed by how much Arndt had deviated from any actual meaning and feel of the original, because he was so damn devoted to form and rhyme! It was appalling!

So then Arndt’s introduction, which I really only skimmed at first, basically tells me (the reader) to anticipate all of this, that there are no approximations of the lexical type if one is to attempt to adhere to something approaching the original form, and Arndt himself is including all three versions of each poem as to show the inherent impossibility of translation!

The only significance I gleaned from this book is that reading poetry in translation is almost futile, which is not a new notion I guess but is depressing to say the least to be reminded of, and that there is not enough time in my life to learn Russian, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese thoroughly enough to be able to understand Mandelstam, Baudelaire, Rilke, Dante, Lorca, or Pessoa to a satisfactory, genuine degree, that is if you're seeking something approaching their actual voice, and that poetry is probably a mother-tongue type deal for all time, and that the Tower of Babel thing was a real bitch, and that shadows of replicas are all I can ever get, poetry-wise, and then that I have to kind of forget this whole experience with Arndt and forget that my beloved Pessoa does not sound like my beloved Pessoa at all and that I should just experience things as best as I can, as a poor ragged “kinda-can-speak French a little and kinda-can-a-little-better speak German” ignorant American, and least I have Shakespeare and Shelley and Keats and Whitman and a bunch of others, damn it.

Oh but this book as a beautiful cover. 455 Pushkin is one of my rare exceptions when it comes to not liking very much anything poetic prior to, say, 1850. Goethe would be another, more for his fine collars than his poetics, though.
Pushkin was a fascinating guy and his poetry is very singular mostly, I think, because you can see him irreverently beginning to push against the staid boundaries of the medium in his work.
There are many fine poems here and you get three different versions of them all! (I prefer the lyric). Gems include The Bronze Horseman (natch) and Tsar Saltan, which I had never read and scads of awesome shorter works. 455 A masterful collection from an experienced translator of poetry, William Arndt, that is enjoyable both for those who read and do not read Russian, and for those both familiar and unfamiliar with Pushkin. The 'threefold' division of the title refers to the original poetry, Arndt's literal translation and his metric, or scanned, translations. For the Russian student, especially one interested in poetry and translation, the book provides an extra treat in the introduction, a theoretical and practical discussion of the thornier problems faced by poetry translators. Here, it becomes clear that Arndt is more than just fluent in Russian and the language of Pushkin: he is also a poet by trade, a true crafter of words who exhibits sensitive and supremely judicious use of language.

The book is sensibly structured, with the verse translations coming first, by themselves, and then being followed by the originals and their literal translations in parallel. This is handy for all sorts of readers and reading: the student of Russian can read the originals and quickly refer to the parallel text to check new words; the lover of rhythm, cadence and sound can devote himself to verse in either language without fearing chance 'contamination' from the other; the experimental poetry translator (or translator-would-be) can try his hand at translating a poem and then compare his work to both types of translation; the Pushkin lover can enjoy owning such an eclectic volume, one which combines the familiar with the more obscure. And finally, the general reader can admire the sheer volume of Pushkin's output (this is but a small selection) and get a taste of the great craft and art that is poetry translation.

In summary, I find it difficult to say what this book is really about, Pushkin or translation. I'm going to say both: Pushkin is the means through which Arndt displays his utmost skill, giving us both the end product, the verse translations, and the 'raw material', the literal ones. This is exciting because it does not allow us to fall into the delusion that poetry, or it's translation, is static: instead, it makes us think about the complex interactions between the original words, sounds and rhythms, their meanings, and our own native language. This is the threefold. That Pushkin has been chosen as both fuel and facilitator of this is wonderful, as his energy and emotion are monumental - and, we dare even to hope, accessible in any language. 455 Pushkin is a truly awe inspiring writer. Seldom have I have encountered such seemingly effortless facility in turning a phrase and letting the rhyme and metrical scheme so augment the scene or emotion he is describing. The fact that I am forced to read him in translation but nevertheless get this impression must somehow work to account for the almost inestimable esteem with which he is regarded by native Russian speakers. He is truly one of the easiest poets to read I have ever encountered.

There are, as far as a can tell, several distinct Pushkins. There is the political radical, declaiming against the autocracy and lack of freedom in his country. There is the sly humorist, poking fun at the vainglorious and pompous, as well as quite frequently at himself. There is the ardent patriot, who can write movingly of his countries heroes (Peter the Great, Kutuzov) and its monuments (the opening stanzas of 'The Bronze Horseman' provide an elegant panegyric to St. Petersburg). There is the impassioned lover, the teller of risque jokes ('Tsar Nikita and His Forty Daughters' had me laughing out loud), the common man who loves traditional folk tales, and both the Byronic-tragic figure and the cold realist who laughs at such excesses of emotions on one's sleeve.

But first last and always there is the poet. Let one sonnet stand as an example of the power of his verse I encountered over and over again throughout this volume:

How am I saddened by your coming,
O time of love, o time of bud!
What languid throb you send benumbing
Into my soul, into my blood!
How laggardly enchantment seizes
The heart, as spring's returning breezes
Waft to my face in silken rush
Here in the green secluded hush!
Have I become so alienated
From all things that exult and glow
All things that joy and life bestow,
That now they find me dull and sated
And all seems pale as burnt-out coal
To the long-since insentient soul?

These lines from his master work, Eugene Onegin, catch the ennui of the character with their images, rhymes, cadence and sheer power of the emotion conveyed. And they are just an example of a mastery he shows again and again throughout this volume.

The edition has a overly erudite fifty page introduction by its editor/translator Walter Arndt, who presents the threefold nature of Pushkin by provided the original Russian, a relatively straight 'linear' translation, and a more poetic, or 'metrical' translation. While there are advantages to doing this, I would rather have had the whole of Eugene Onegin rather than just excerpts, and dispensed with both the linear and original Russian versions. It was somewhat interesting to see how the linear 'what a slap' in 'Count Nulin' became the metrical 'a real haymaker' while the 'broker woman' in the linear 'Tsar Saltan' becomes the metrical 'schemestress'. However, the idea of Arndt's that in transforming the linear into the metrical he was moving closer to the original, not further away from it, is a valuable one, and certainly the metrical translations have a truly enhanced fluidly. Arndt certainly knew what he was doing in translating this master- I just wish he had given us more of the finished product within the four hundred plus pages.

Still, a truly incredible read, and one that now gives me an intimation of understanding as to why he is so widely regarded as one of Russia's greatest writers.


Alexander Pushkin ↠ 4 Read