Comparing the Johnston and Nabokov Translations of ‘Eugene Onegin’

August 29, 2022 by Essay Writer

Charles Johnston and Vladimir Nabokov are the most well-known translators of Eugene Onegin, because they focused on different aspects of the text and ended up with entirely distinct renditions of the same work. Johnston, a British diplomat and translator of Russian poetry, wrote what is considered by many to be the best preservation of the Onegin stanza and Pushkin’s lyricism in translation. Nabokov, a prominent Russian writer himself, notoriously denounced several translations of Eugene Oneginin multiple languages before (and after) deciding to write his own in order to fix the problems he found in others. Nabokov believed that translations in verse sacrificed meaning and faithfulness to syntax for melody and rhyme structure, and therefore wrote his translation in prose (although his work still sounds poetic due to Pushkin’s vocabulary). In addition to translating the novel, Nabokov wrote over 1,000 pages of commentary and included discarded stanzas, lines, and even an extension which Pushkin started called “Onegin’s Journey,” ultimately publishing four volumes of work.

Pushkin begins each chapter with a short quote, which acts as a title and clue as to the chapter’s content. Several of these phrases appeared originally in Russian, although he also includes a few in French, one in Italian, and one in English (from his own beloved Byron). Johnston and Nabokov translated only the Russian quotes because, for example, despite the popularity of French in Russia at the time of the novel’s publication, it was still a foreign language, and must be kept as such. Throughout the novel, both translators also agree on Eugene instead of the Russian Evgeny to refer to the hero, although Johnston switches a few times to benefit from the extra syllable. One must wonder at the choice to anglicize Onegin’s first name, especially by Nabokov, since his last name remains the same, as do the names of other characters in the book, but translators seem to have accepted Eugene Onegin as the standard.

Nabokov and Johnston display their difference in styles with the first question in Chapter Three. Nabokov chooses the most direct translation possible of the Russian word куда (typically translated in 21stcentury English as “to where”), despite the strange formality of “Wither?” as a question on its own in English. Johnston goes with a more casual “You’re off?” which fits better with his translation of the rest of the line and overall looser translation. Both clearly retain the sense of motion described by the Russian word, although their tones differ slightly, a characteristic which continues throughout the novel. “Wither?” implies Onegin knew that Lensky planned on going somewhere, but does not know his destination, while “You’re off?” communicates a mild sense of surprise at Lensky’s departure itself. Four lines later, the translations present a more significant difference in meaning. When Lensky divulges his destination, Nabokov’s Onegin responds “Now, that’s a fine thing,” while Johnston’s says “But how mysterious.” Johnston clearly took some liberties with this line in order to rhyme it with the next, since the Russian words do not imply mystery, and the reader is left wondering why, exactly, it is mysterious that Lensky would visit the neighbors.

Directly after their evening with the neighbors, Johnston and Nabokov use different techniques to introduce Onegin and Lensky’s conversation in the carriage. Johnston informs the reader that she overheard this conversation secretly, while Nabokov invites the reader to join him in eavesdropping as the conversation transpires at that very moment. Nabokov keeps Pushkin’s sense of comradery with the reader, as if the narrator walks with her alongside the story while explaining every detail. Johnston remains informal, addressing the reader directly, but presents the story as finished and his account as merely a retelling.

In multiple places, Johnston uses a passive description where Nabokov chooses active. Stanza XXV discusses the habit of other young girls to play with the feelings of their admirers, as Johnston says: “We’ll take vanity, and let hope sting it.” Nabokov makes the girls part of the action with: “Let us first prick vainglory with hope.” This may be another example of an instance in which Johnston needed more syllables than a literal translation of words provided, forcing him to rearrange, since Pushkin’s words match those of Nabokov. Later, in lines 28-30 of Tatiana’s letter, Johnston’s Tatiana imagines her life had Onegin not visited and writes that “In the role of virtuous mother and faithful wife [she’d] have been cast,” compared to Nabokov’s Tatiana, who would “Have been a faithful wife and a virtuous mother.” In Johnston’s words, Tatiana plays no role in her own life, speaking as if she is but an actress and must follow the instructions of her director, becoming a virtuous mother and faithful wife. This makes it sound as if Onegin’s appearance changed her life for the better, and now she will not be forced into a role she does not want. Nabokov’s Tatiana sounds bitter because she would have been content to marry another and bear children, and if he had not visited, she could have gone through life as she expected to, without the excitement and confusion she feels.

One of the most important details in Tatiana’s letter is the most challenging to translate into English. Russian, like many other languages, has two different pronouns for “you,” a formal and an informal. The rules regarding which pronoun to use can be tricky, but generally people use the formal pronoun until they are well acquainted and mutually decide to switch to informal. This makes Tatiana’s letter even more of a risk because she continuously uses the informal pronoun, a massive breach of etiquette towards a man she has barely met, but English readers would never know. Johnston translates all of the pronouns into standard spoken English, not even hinting at her overly intimate address. Nabokov makes an effort by his use of the antiquated English informal “thou” when Tatiana confesses “I am thine,” though he translates to “you” for the rest of the letter to match the rest of the novel and avoid sounding stiff due to the common English misconception that “thou” conveys formality.

Beginning in the first stanza, Johnston leans toward a more aggressive translation style. When given options, he tends to choose English translation which sound harsh or have negative connotations. In the discussion of Lensky’s itinerary, Johnston has him contradict Onegin’s disdainful “You can’t be serious killing each evening off like that?” with an irritated-sounding “You’re wrong,” inserting conflict and tension into a scene which remains light in the original. (Nabokov stays truer to Pushkin’s Russian words with “You don’t find it difficult thus every evening to kill time?” and “Not in the least”). Another example appears in stanza II, when Johnston writes “For God’s sake, that will do,” compared to Nabokov’s “That will do, old boy, for goodness’ sake.” Pushkin does write “For God’s sake” in Russian, although Onegin uses a diminutive for Lensky which does not translate correctly into English (roughly translated as “sweetheart” or “dear,” but the Russian word lacks any romantic/gendered connotation), leading Nabokov to even out the sentence by changing “God” to “goodness” and choosing a term of endearment which does not sound quite so intimate, while Johnston simply cuts out the familiarity.

In stanzas IV and V, Pushkin uses the same adjective to describe the area which Lensky and Onegin drive through, as well as Lensky’s love interest, not using the adjective in the exact same sense both times (based on the Russian, this critic would refer to the country as “inane” in English and the girl as “foolish”). Nabokov takes this and uses one translation of the Russian adjective which fits for both descriptions, “silly,” and Johnston chooses two different descriptors, “pretty stupid” and “dumb.” Nabokov’s Onegin comes across as aloof, seeing the country and its people as foolish and shallow, while Johnston’s Onegin sneers rather maliciously and seems to see everything in the country as unworthy of his intellect. Later, in stanza VII, Johnston depicts Tatiana after her meeting with Onegin as imagining their wedding “Despite herself,” which, although comparable in meaning, has a negative connotation compared to Nabokov’s neutral phrase that she “Could not help thinking” of their match. Once again, Johnston’s word choice introduces conflict, this time inner, when he suggests that Tatiana tries not to fall in love with Onegin but does anyway, like she is too weak to stop herself. Nabokov’s phrasing reads more as if she unconsciously begins to picture a union, not realizing that she is falling in love until it is too late.

In the discussion of heroes and vice in stanza XII, Johnston writes “Even in novels, vice entraps us, yes, even there its triumph grows” versus Nabokov’s “Vice is attractive in a novel, too, and there, at least, it triumphs.” Johnston implies that as such a powerful force, vice conquers in the real world and even in the fictional, whereas Nabokov conveys vice as nothing more than temptation in people’s lives, that at least vice wins in novels, because it never does anywhere else. Pushkin’s words in this instance present a translational challenge, and can be used in support of either rendition due to his use of a Russian noun which possesses no real meaning of its own, but rather emphasizes the word in front of it (in this sentence “there”), which ambiguously could mean “even there” or “there, at least,” leaving neither Nabokov nor Johnston more “correct,” but forcing them to use their own interpretations, the divergence of which comes as no surprise.

Both translators accomplished precisely what they set out to do with their work on Eugene Onegin. Nabokov wrote an English version using the most precise translations of words and phrases from Russian, insuring the existence of an English translation faithful to Pushkin’s meaning, and Johnston crafted a translation which retained the audial beauty of Pushkin’s verse while still conveying the meaning of the story accurately, if not quite perfectly. Johnston and Nabokov tell the same overall story, but their translation styles present slightly different characters due to the imperfect nature of translation, which requires the men to use their own attitudes about the text in their linguistic choices. The diversity of translations gives English readers options based on what they deem important in a text, and for purists who want everything (but not enough to learn Russian), they can just read both.

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