A Poem a Day: Eugene Onegin

Today’s selection will be accessed somewhat circuitously. I’ve chosen a stanza from Chapter 3 of the great Russian novel-in-verse, Eugene Onegin, written by the poet Alexander Pushkin.

Epic painting I would love to credit...

Epic painting of Pushkin I would love to credit…

There are a few lyrical poets that are baller enough to create their own stanza form. Shakespeare, Petrarch, and Spenser are a few that come to mind. Pushkin developed the Onegin stanza (also called the “Pushkin sonnet”), a 14 line poem which consists of verses of iambic tetrameter with the rhyme scheme AbAbCCddeFFegg, where the lower case letters denote masculine rhymes (stress on the last syllable of the line), and the uppercase letters denote feminine rhymes (stress on the penultimate syllable; these are a bitch to come up with in English, I might add, since penultimate-stressed words are simply less common than, say, in other languages like Russian).

Despite the beauty of the Onegin stanza, Vladimir Nabokov famously chose to do a prose translation of the novel, while also including daunting commentary and footnotes “like skyscrapers,” as he called it, championing this practice. For the translation course I took this semester, our ongoing project was to translate Nabokov’s prose back into iambic tetrameter.

Photograph by Horst Tappe, 1969

Nabokov is watching…Photograph by Horst Tappe, 1969

Translating into rhyming verse felt a bit foolish at first, but we slowly learned to make informed decisions. How loosely could we paraphrase a given passage, rather than go line by line? Depends on the character speaking, and what emotional state they are in, what tone they are using. Should we keep proper names, or change them to less specific referents? Pushkin probably chose to use a name at a given point for a reason, so tread carefully. The rhyme feels impossible to preserve, what should I do? Better to do a near rhyme, sight rhyme, or drop the rhyme altogether than break the meter, for example. And so on.

If I had access to the original Russian, I would include it (please let me know if you know where I can find it online!). So below I present Nabokov’s translation, and my poetic translation of Nabokov’s words, from Chapter 3 of the Bollingen Series edition (link above).

“Stanza 15”

Tatiana, dear Tatiana!

I now shed tears with you.

Into a fashionable tyrant’s hands

your fate already you’ve relinquished.

Dear, you shall perish; but before,

in dazzling hope,

you summon obscure bliss,

you learn the sensuousness of life,

you quaff the magic poisons of desire,

daydreams pursue you:

you fancy everywhere

retreats for happy trysts;

everywhere, everywhere before you

is your fateful tempter.

“Stanza 15” (my poetic rendering)

Tatiana, oh my dear young dreamer,
I now shed many tears with you.
That dandy is no choice redeemer,
You leave your fate in hands undue.
Before your heart does fully perish,
In dazzling hope, that bliss you cherish
Is summoned from obscurity;
You learn of life’s sensuality.
You quaff desire’s bewitching poison,
Your daydreams are in hot pursuit,
You fancy every place and route
Holds dens for happy trysts. You’ve chosen
To see your tempter everywhere,
Of danger to be unaware.

Pushkin's Study (Photo: RIA Novosti archive, image #549323)

Pushkin’s Study (Photo: RIA Novosti archive, image #549323)

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