Books: From the Land of Shadows : Pushkin is the Sea |
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Pushkin is the Sea

Pushkin: The Complete Prose Tales translated by Gillon R. Aitken (Michael Russell, Salisbury, Wiltshire)
Pushkin’s Fairy Tales translated by Janet Dalley with an introduction by John Bayley
(Barrie & Jenkins, London and Mayflower, New York)

Some would argue that it doesn’t matter whether poetic masterpieces written in languages unknown to us are translated well or badly, since what makes them poetic is untranslatable by definition. Others would argue that unless translation is done as well as possible we can’t even guess at what we are missing out on. Hardly anybody argues that a translation can be the equivalent of the original. Yet in 1977 the appearance of Charles Johnston’s astonishing translation of Eugene Onegin powerfully suggested, even to those with no knowledge of the Russian language, that Pushkin really must be as good as he is generally cracked up to be. To those even fleetingly acquainted with the original text, Mr Johnston sounded like a sorcerer. He had duplicated the intricacy of Pushkin’s stanza without notably cramping its naturalness of tone. Previously, translators had sacrificed the one in keeping with the other — except, of course, for Nabokov, who had sacrificed both.

On sober inspection, it became evident that not even Mr Johnston had been able to do the impossible. Inevitably he was at a loss to reproduce the full range of mimetic effects made available to Pushkin by the lexical wealth of the Russian language and by his own genius. The sound keeps running thin. But even with all objections made, it is now possible to say that for the English-speaking reader Pushkin’s magnitude as a poet is at last beyond conjecture. The inference is inescapable: only a great work could inspire so good a translation.

As Belinsky pointed out, Russian poets before Pushkin were rivers. Pushkin is the sea. He is the real beginning of Russian poetry, which is really all modern. So is Russian prose, since he is the real beginning of that too. He turned from poetry to prose towards the end of his short life. Russianists who once despaired of conveying the quality of Pushkin’s poetry were and are fond of saying that the quality of his prose is even harder to transmit. But as with Eugene Onegin it would perhaps be better to wait for a palpably excellent translation before we decide that the prose is untranslatable.

The Complete Prose Tales was apparently first published in this country in 1962 as a paperback, which meant that it was not reviewed. When it appeared in hard covers in 1966, it was once more overlooked, on the assumption that it had been reviewed before. Now here it is again, incorporating ‘some slight textual revisions’. It is a worthy volume which deserves an ungrudging welcome. Here is a handy guide to the contents of such important works as The Tales of Belkin, Dubrovsky, The Queen of Spades and The Captain’s Daughter, plus many slighter things. But Mr Aitken can give you a small idea of what was remarkable about the way Pushkin wrote them.

Pushkin’s idea of prose was ascetic. In his poetry he might indulge himself — although even his excesses were economical — but in his prose there is always an element of mortification. ‘Precision and brevity,’ he wrote. ‘Without these, brilliant expression serves no purpose.’ His model was Voltaire, whom the French by that time were beginning to find arid. As John Bayley tells us in his indispensible Pushkin: A Comparative Commentary, when Prosper Mérimée translated The Tales of Belkin he could not resist the impulse to juice up the style. Mr Aitken does his best to reproduce Pushkin’s astringency, but he has the unhappy knack of padding a line without meaning to. There is a telling example in his rendition of The Queen of Spades (1833). ‘ “The game fascinates me” said Hermann, “but I am not in the position to sacrifice (the) essentials (of life) in the hope of acquiring (the) luxuries.” ’ This statement is attributed to Hermann twice during the course of the story. It is an epigram and should sound like one. It would possibly be better without the two ‘the’s which I have placed in brackets, although there is some excuse for putting them in, since Russian often leaves you the choice of whether to supply an article or not. But the other two words I have bracketed, ‘of life’, simply don’t exist in the original and I can see no good reason for adding them.

Mr Aitken is no great shakes with dialogue. When anybody talks, the results sound stilted. He thus tends to slow down a story whose whole stylistic object is to speed up. But generally he is useful on details. It is an aberration, not a characteristic, when he says of the Countess: ‘she removed the patches from her face.’ The reference is the Countess’s early days in Paris, when she was a young beauty, not an old boot. Saying ‘the patches’ makes her sound like a heavily repaired inner tube. The original word, mooshki, actually means stick-on beauty spots. It is true the contemporary English word for such cosmetic aids was, precisely, ‘patches’, but the same word will not serve the turn now. Even this miscalculation, however, springs from knowledge more than from ignorance: Mr Aitken is a keen and helpful student of the relevant social minutiae.

Despite its testingly elliptical style, The Queen of Spades was a big hit at the time. Pushkin noted in his correspondence that gamblers were punting according to the Countess’s system. (The letter is quoted in Tatiana Wolff’s brilliantly edited compendium Pushkin on Literature, which I should like to recommend in passing, since it is currently still on the shelves of the remainder shops. Even those with no time to set about learning Russian will find this book a richly stimulating work of humane scholarship.) With The Captain’s Daughter (1836), however, Pushkin went beyond where his audience could immediately follow him. Here was the most advanced example he was ever to provide of what John Bayley has definitively called ‘this uniform unexpressiveness which none the less expresses everything’. Unfortunately Mr Aitken’s idea of uniform unexpressiveness is too often indistinguishable from ordinary flatness. For Pushkin, ‘in a twinkling’ is simply too twee a way of rendering the adverb meegum. And what is the point of saying ‘frenzy of rage’ where ‘frenzy’ would do? It is not even accurate. The woman is in despair at suddenly having noticed her husband hanging from a gibbet. Rage would come later.

These might seem minor points but in fact they strike to the root of the matter. Gogol said that compared with The Captain’s Daughter all other Russian stories and novels seemed like sickly-sweet pulp. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are both in a straight line of development from Pushkin’s later prose. What Pushkin offered his contemporaries and successors was the possibility — conjured up seemingly from nowhere — of a medium which would interpose nothing between the reader and reality. Mr Aitken is just one more translator who has breathed on the glass. But at least he hasn’t walked straight into it.

One of the many seductive things about learning Russian is that the fairy stories are often by great writers, so that you meet the great talents in your first year. The story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, for example, is told by Tolstoy. Pushkin set the fashion. The official Soviet critical line on Puskin is that as a poet of the people he was schooled in the folk heritage of the motherland by his wise nurse, Arina Rodionovna. Certainly she must have been influential in helping him to develop his feeling for the Russian language even when the official tongue for one of his rank was French. But in fact it never mattered to him what his sources were, as long as they were vital. He was a world poet before he was a national one. His fairy tales are of acute artistic importance since they are early examples of his determination to tell stories in verse. They are first steps on the way to writing a whole novel in rhymed form. Any translator who chooses to render them in prose will be leaving a lot out.

Janet Dalley has rendered them in prose. Try as I might, I can’t see that the resulting book has any more to offer than the standard rhymed translations churned out by the Soviet publishing houses. Russian illustrations might be sub-Disney but they are, superficially at least, more beguiling than the Arthur Boyd lithographs which bleakly adorn this volume. Mr Boyd would have to be a lot more penetrating than he is before the reader could stifle an atavistic yearning for a beautiful princess who actually looked like a beautiful princess, rather than a bunyip’s mother.

The book’s introductory note is written by none other than John Bayley. It rehearses the same points which are to be found more fully developed in the relevant section of Pushkin: A Comparative Commentary, where the reader will also discover that when Bayley translates a few lines of a Pushkin fairy tale for purposes of illustration, he comes up with far better results than those to which he is lending his imprimatur here. Bayley, too, is translating Pushkin’s verse into prose, but at least the prose is accurate. In The Golden Cockerel, for example, when Pushkin writes ‘The whole capital shuddered’, Bayley renders it as ‘The whole crowd shuddered in horror.’ She tells you what to feel.

Pushkin never did. He was a universal artist. In the Soviet Union the whole tendency of Pushkin studies is to make their hero a progressive. He was progressive — all the subsequent debates on reform and revolution began within the boundaries of his work — but he was conservative as well. He was everything. Even at their most scrupulous, Soviet studies of Pushkin inevitably belittle him. Hence the importance of his foreign reputation. There is a sense in which Professor Bayley in his book and Edmund Wilson in his essays give the English reader an estimation of Pushkin which is truer than any Soviet reader is in a position to appreciate.

Unfortunately there is also a sense in which, no matter how good the translations get, the full majesty of Pushkin must remain unknown to anyone who can’t read Russian. I can only conclude by pointing out that not even Russians can read Russian without learning it first; that once you have made a start it turns out not to be as difficult as it looks; and that some of the rewards come surprisingly early. Russian literature might show every degree of refinement but it is simple at the core, because it all springs from Pushkin’s example. Genius is elementary. Pushkin is like Homer, Dante and Shakespeare: when he mentions something, you see it. It follows that to learn even a few lines of him in the original is to see that much of the world afresh.

New Statesman, 1979.