Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Why I Wish I Knew Russian, & a Pushkin Giveway

Pushkin under the wicker reindeer!

Pushkin’s Yevgeny Onegin and a Folio Society “Queen of Spades” notebook, with reindeer.

I love Pushkin.

Who doesn’t?

The Russians consider him their best writer.

After a a few days of barely looking up from Pushkin’s  Collected Stories (and you must read “The Queen of Spades,” a ghost story about a gambling grandmother), I decided to reread Eugene Onegin.

I first read Pushkin’s lively novel in verse in college, as did my husband. We lost our identical copies years ago, and have no idea what translation it was.  And then two years ago I got a hankering to reread it.  I picked up a new Penguin and enjoyed Stanley Mitchell’s elegant, charming translation of Eugene Onegin.

So why did I need Anthony Briggs’ new translation, Yevgeny Onegin?  Because Nicholas Lezard at The Guardian listed it as one of his favorite books of the year.

Eugene Onegin Pushkin 56077-largeAlthough Briggs’ and Mitchell’s approaches to verse and word choice are different, both translations are readable. I wrote here in January 2015 about Mitchell’s translation:

In this brilliant novel in verse, Pushkin tells the story of Eugene Onegin, a rakish Byronic hero who, bored by carousing, wine, women, song, writing, and even books, moves from St. Petersburg to the country after inheriting an estate. He befriends a young poet, Lensky, to whom he is very devoted.   And yet he thoughtlessly wrecks their friendship by flirting at a dance with Olga, Lensky’s fiancée. The result is a duel with Lensky. (Eugene doesn’t want it, and yet somehow he doesn’t say no.) And the whole thing is complicated by Eugene”s rejection of Olga’s sister, Tataina, who writes a love letter to him.

The narrator’s voice is almost always ironic, and the poem mixes lyricism with realism. Olga soon forgets Lensky and marries someone else. Tatiana visits Euegene’s deserted house and falls in love with his library. Eugene only falls in love with Tatiana years later, after it is too late.

Briggs’ translation is intelligent, but less elegant than Mitchell’s.  That  is not, however, why I am giving it away to a lucky reader. (Leave a comment if you’d like it.)   It’s because  I DON’T LIKE THE DESIGN. The Pushkin Press book is small, pretty, and chic, but has smaller print than the Penguin and is somehow less comfortable to hold.   I had this same problem with the Dorothy Project’s chic edition of Barbara Comyns’ Who Was Dead and Who Was Changed, another  little square book.  

Briggs' translation.

Briggs’ translation.

What I like most about  the Briggs edition is the scholarly introduction, which explains the history of Pushkin’s  invention of the Russian literary  language and his prosody, inspired by Shakespeare.

Briggs writes,

The writer’s greatest achievement, apart from the literary quality of his work as a whole, in which the disciplines of classicism mesh with new freedoms released in the age of Romanticism, is nothing less than to have reformed the national language.  This bold claim is no exaggeration.  As he grew up, the young Pushkin was presented with at least three different linguistic forces existing as separate entities in his large country .  Posh people spoke French, ignoring or despising ordinary Russian, though Pushkin heard a good deal of this tongue from the local lads and from his dear old nanny…(who makes an endearing guest appearance as Tatiana’s nurse in the third chapter of Yevgeny Onegin).  In addition, he was continually subjected in church and at school to the rich sonorities of Old Church Slavonic.  By some miracle, almost without thinking about it, he created modern Russian simply by using it, choosing at will between elegant Gallicisms, vernacular Russian and his nation’s equivalent of the King James Bible and Book of Common Prayer, with a sensitivity to sound, style and meeting that gives him an elevated place in the annals of linguistic reform.

Long ago, the beloved professor of my Russian lit in translation class examined the themes of maturity and metamorphosis in Eugene Onegin. He also lectured on the relationship between the narrator of Eugene Onegin and the reader, the narrator and Eugene, and the narrator and the work of literature.

If only I had taken better notes!


Why do Russian translations read so well?  I do wish I could learn Russian.  Translation (literally a “carrying across,” from the Latin transfero) is a precarious art:  it  captures sense but not sound, and only crudely suggests word arrangement, figures of speech and meter.

For years I devoted myself to classics and read little in translation.  Why?  Snobbishness and foolishness.  One of my best and most snobbish classics professors (and “classics professor” implies excellence and snobbery) used to tell us, ” You can’t do serious work in translation.”  I understand what he means–Mary McCarthy in The Groves of Academe also laughs at a student who writes her thesis on Broch’s The Death of Virgil, without being able to read Virgil –but where can we all find the time to be linguists?  I was committed  in grad school to eight to ten hours a day of ancient languages, studying for comps, and teaching  elementary Latin and a Virgil’s Aeneid independent study.   Learn Russian?  Forget it!

Fewer people in the U.S.  have opportunities to study foreign languages today.  The culture is now very business-oriented, and many colleges and universities are slashing humanities courses.  The state universities in the area are hanging on  by a thread to their language departments.   I do not expect this to get better under Trump’s rule.

Where I live?  All language departments eliminated at the local “private” university!