Principles of translation

In translating my twin aims are accuracy and readablility. “Accuracy” signifies faithfulness both to the meaning of the author’s words and to the diction (eg contemporary or archaic, high-flown or demotic, poetic or prosaic) and tone of voice (eg normal or ironic, serious or jocular, reverential or mocking) in which the author expresses them. “Readability” leads me to use a default style where the vocabulary, idioms and sentence structures are natural and unaggressively modern, modifying this where the context requires. In my Latin translations I have, for example, broken up the long classical Latin periods of Erasmus into the shorter sentences preferred in contemporary English.

Translating Pushkin

Most of Pushkin’s major works, are written in rhymed verse. But translating Pushkin’s rhymed verse into English rhymed verse is perilous, particularly in the lengthier works.  Here’s why –

  • It is impossible in English, because of the nature of the language (lack of regularly inflected endings, rigidity of word order), to produce the same wealth and spontaneïty of rhyme that Pushkin could produce in Russian.
  • Forcing Pushkin’s poetry into rhymed English lines cannot be sustained without distorting his sense and style.
  • Most modern English readers’ reaction to a rhymed narrative poem is different from that of Pushkin’s readership: it is hard for lengthy passages of rhymed verse in modern English not to seem either stilted or comic.

So I am convinced that rhyme is a barrier, not an aid, to the faithful translation of Pushkin lengthier poetry. Of course, the English reader will miss the magic and music of Pushkin’s rhymes. But the sounds of English are inevitably different from the sounds of Russian, so anyone who wants to enjoy Pushkin’s word music has no alternative but to learn Russian. My aim has been to present Pushkin’s verse narratives to English readers in a way that, for the first time, gives the ‘narratives’ primacy over the ‘verse’ and that makes it easy for the reader who has not learned Russian to enjoy the many other beauties of Pushkin’s writing.  That is why, for example, my 2005 version of Eugene Onégin unashamedly presented the work as a novel rather than as a narrative poem.  In other cases – eg. in Ruslán and Lyudmíla, where Pushkin was creating a witty and fast-moving story in epic form – I have used unrhymed verse to convey the verve of the original along with Pushkin’s rhythmical momentum.

I recognise that, in translating Pushkin’s shorter, song-like verses, preserving a regular rhyme pattern is often essential.  My renderings of Pushkin’s lyrics, therefore, mostly keep Pushkin’s rhyme scheme, while still aiming for maximum accuracy, clarity and naturalness.

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