Samir Khan asked me for a translation of this short paper by the mathematician Vladimir Arnold (1937-2010) on his foray into literary studies: http://www.math.nsc.ru/LBRT/g2/english/ssk/arnold_sll.pdf
News of the [Russian] Academy of Sciences, Literature and Language Series, vol. 56, no. 2, p. 63.
On the Epigraph To Eugene Onegin
V. I. Arnold, 1997
The French epigraph to “Eugene Onegin” goes like this:
Pétri de vanité il avait encore plus de cette espèce d’orgueil qui fait avouer avec la même indifférence les bonnes comme les mauvaises actions, suite d’un sentiment de supériorité, peut-être imaginaire.
Tiré d’une lettre particulière
Steeped in vanity, he had even more of the kind of pride that makes one acknowledge one’s good and evil actions alike with the same indifference, out of a sense of superiority, perhaps an imaginary one.
– From a private letter
It’s generally considered that this “private letter” is a hoax of Pushkin’s, who made up the epigraph text himself.
Recently re-reading “Dangerous Liaisons” by Choderlos de Laclos, I came across the following line (in letter L  from Madame de Tourvel to Vicomte de Valmont):
“Je n’ai pas la vanité qu’on reproche à mon sexe ; j’ai encore moins cette fausse modestie qui n’est qu’un raffinement de l’orgueil…
I do not have the vanity my sex is accused of; I have even less of that false modesty which is nothing but a refined form of pride…”
I was struck by the resemblance to Pushkin’s epigraph. I thought that Pushkin changed “I do not have” to “he had,” perhaps unconsciously bringing the phrase closer to describing himself than Onegin, in a line from a novel “in which reflected was the day / and modern man was there portrayed / clearly enough […] with his amoral mind / churning at empty action’s grind…”*
Tending to hoaxes, he could have tried even more to conceal a borrowing from a novel about which he’d said elsewhere, “a mother would tell her daughter to spit on this book” — out of a sense of caution, perhaps a justified one. A “modest author,” as Pushkin called himself, would let himself translate just half of the “glorious verse” or to delude the reader with hints understandable only to insiders (“I’ve heard they want to force the ladies…”, etc.*)
Someone among Pushkin’s friends and contemporaries could have known the source of the epigraph.
Pushkin’s borrowings (“Faust,” “Angelo”**, Tatiana’s letter — in the West, they think the whole of “Onegin” is a re-working of Byron’s “Don Juan”) are never exact translations. The epigraph’s text resembles the text of Madame de Tourvel’s letter no less than does Pushkin’s “Novel in Letters,” evidently inspired by “Dangerous Liaisons” (although not just by them).
Not being a literary scholar by profession (and even less a Pushkinist), but a mathematician, in my work I must constantly depend not on proofs, but on sensations, guesses and hypotheses, moving from one fact to another by means of the kind of insight that lets one see commonalities in things that an observer may think completely unrelated.
A correct guess goes hand-in-hand with a feeling that further proofs would be completely useless, an almost painful feeling that’s unforgettable, but difficult to convey.
Above, I’ve tried to make the reader relive the sense of having seen this already, similar to what I felt on reading Letter L of “Dangerous Liaisons.”
I’m referring to “Madame de Tourvel” following the English translation rather than “the presidentess Tourvel” (la Présidente Tourvel) as she is called both in the original French and in the Russian translation.
*Arnold was almost certainly working from memory, and this is actually a slight misquotation from Chapter 7, Verse XXII of Eugene Onegin: the original says that Onegin, though mostly tired of reading, had kept “two or three novels / in which [plural; Arnold has the singular] reflected was the day / And modern man was there portrayed / Clearly enough, with his amoral soul / Self-loving and dry / Infinitely given to fancy, / With his infuriated mind / Churning at empty action’s grind.” (I’m not going to try to make it all rhyme and scan.)
** This is also a slight misquotation of Chapter 3, Verse XXVII: “I know, they want to force the ladies to read in Russian. Horrors, true! Could you imagine ladies holding / ‘The Well-Intentioned’ in their hands?” — in the section when he explains why Tatiana wrote her letter to Onegin in French, Pushkin mocks the poor Russian grammar of contemporary noblewomen, as well as putting in a dig (according to his own footnotes) against a notoriously poorly-edited magazine of the time.
(I Googled the original text in both cases, and found that both of these are misquotations, but very common ones.)
*** Pushkin’s re-write of “Measure for Measure”
Russian Golden Age and Romantic poetry translation series, 9/?
I introduced Karolina Pavlova to this series a few days ago, telling about the harassment she faced as a woman writing poetry in Russia in the nineteenth century. She finally left Russia and settled in Derpt — what is now Tartu in modern-day Estonia. This poem expresses her feelings, powerful but mixed, once she settled in her new city and felt free to write poetry again.
Salut, salut, consolatrice!
Ouvre tes bras, je viens chanter.
You who’d stayed in my beggar soul,
Hail to thee now, my poor rhyme!
My bright ray over ash and coals
Left from my sweet and joyful time!
The one that even the desecration
Of all shrines could not ravage through.
My curse! My riches! My vocation!
The sacred work I’m called to do —
Awake, arise, o word unspoken!
Sound once again from my sealed lips!
Descend down to your chosen token
Again, my fateful tragic bliss!
Still with your hand the mad complaining
And doom again my heart entire
To boundless suffering and pain, and
To endless love, endless desire!
Karolina Pavlova, February 1854, Tartu (Estonia); Translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, October 2016
Russian Golden Age and Romantic poetry translation series, 8/?
Fyodor Tyutchev (1803-1873) spent most of his career as a diplomat, much of it in Germany, and wrote poetry on the side, not valuing it as more than a hobby. It was only later that his lyric gifts were appreciated. His poems reflected his complicated life (he had both wives and mistresses, and seemed to dearly love them). He also struggled with depression recurrently throughout his life. This poem expresses his attitude towards both issues.
There are two gods for mortal creatures,
Two twins that we call Death and Dream
Wondrous alike in many features —
One gentler, one would grimmer seem…
But other gods are also twain.
The world knows no lovelier pair,
And hearts who yield to their charms fair
Will not know of more desperate pain.
Their bond is tight, not chance, not wild.
Only on fateful days are we
Charmed by their secrets and beguiled
By their persistent mystery.
And who, when flooded by sensations
When blood would freeze and boil inside,
Has not known of your joint temptations,
Twin sisters Love and Suicide!
Feodor Tyutchev, c. 1850, first published 1886; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, October 2016
Russian Golden Age and Romantic poetry translation series, 7/?
Later in his life, now legally Shenshin at last, Afanasy Fet adopted a practice of spending his winters in Moscow and his summers at his manor at a village near Kursk, where he was very inspired by the surroundings. He produced four new volumes of poetry called “Evening Lights”, but others criticized him as his deep lyric poetry with its beauty and pain did not match his appearance as a sober well-to-do landowner, family man, justice of the peace.
This poem is in the first volume.
Windows steel-gridded, grim faces so pale,
Hatreds from brother to brother all glare.
I will acknowledge your stone walls, o jail:
The feast of youth had rejoiced once in there.
What has flashed yonder with beauty undying?
Ah, ’tis my spring flower lovely and dear.
How did you stay whole, meek, piteous, drying,
Under the feet of inhuman mobs here?
Joy had been shining, immaculate, pure
When you were dropped by the maid bridal-dressed.
No, I won’t abandon you; safe and secure
Your home and place now will be on my breast.
Afanasy Fet, 1882; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, October 2016.
A Russian student of mine asked me about online resources on Russian poetic translations, as she was interested in reading Russian poetry with the help of a translation, so I’m going to toss this up here in case other people care as well:
https://gumilev.ru/languages/ – Nikolai Gumilev’s online fan site has a collection of translations of his poetry. If I dare say so, many of the ones in English are not very good (I wouldn’t do my own if I believed there were already much better ones) but they are resources, and they link to the original so someone with, say, second-year Russian can puzzle out what is going on.
There’s a collection of Pushkin translations here:http://www.poetryloverspage.com/po…/pushkin/pushkin_ind.html
I’ve said my opinion of the most frequently cited translator of Akhmatova (in short: no rhyme = half the soul); but Akhmatova’s main site in Russian is here, and someone with, say, second-year Russian can read the simpler poems and work them out. That site, though, does not have a database of translations of Akhmatova, although it does have a database of translations she’d done, and I didn’t know she translated from Chinese, Korean, Tatar, Yiddish and Kabardian!:http://www.akhmatova.org/verses/verses.htm
Here is an index of translations of Akhmatova’s work: http://www.poetryloverspage.com/…/akhmat…/akhmatova_ind.html
I REALLY admire A. Z. Foreman, who posts his translations, including from Russian, here: http://poemsintranslation.blogspot.com/p/my-poetry-translat…His Russian translations are not faithful to the rhythm and metre, but are really good. I briefly corresponded with him online back when he was a UChicago student*, and offered to set one of his original poems (which are also excellent) to music,** but I didn’t secure permission, so alas, although my music setting exists, it won’t see the light of day.
*that was years before I even imagined my fate joining with that of this august institution.
**I am not a composer, but I do have a sense of what kind of melody I want for pretty much any poetry I read (if you’ve ever heard me read things out loud, you won’t find this surprising), and given a guitar, I can find chords to match it. I was surprised myself the other day when discussing poetics with the linguist Haj Ross. He showed me e. e. cummings’s “In Just-spring” and I started singing it. “I didn’t know there was a musical setting,” he said. “Oh, I think I made this one up,” I replied, but my mind now admits no other.
Russian Golden Age and Romantic poetry translation series, 6/?
Kondraty Ryleyev (1795-1826) may be one of the most tragic figures of nineteenth-century Russian literature. Raised in genteel poverty, he managed to acquire a first-class education — which led him to have liberal ideas far ahead of their time, and so he turned his rhetorical talents to the organization of the 1825 Decembrists’ Revolt. When that failed, he was among the five sentenced to hang as ringleaders — he had volunteered to die alone, taking the blame for all of them. At their hanging, three of the ropes, including Ryleyev’s, snapped at the drop, and they survived…and were condemned to die a second time. He allegedly said, “Cursed country, where they don’t know how to hold a conspiracy, to judge a trial, or to hang you!”
He was married to Natalya Tevyasheva, the daughter of a landowner for whom he had worked as a tutor, and had two daughters, just toddlers at the time of his death. Even before his death, the Tsar assigned his wife two thousand rubles (a huge sum in those days) and later, a pension.
This poem is relatively simple and predictable compared to the complexity of other lyric poets of the time, and follows a very similar structure to the later A. K. Tolstoy poem we saw in this series: a sort of Thesis-Elaboration-Analogy that seems to have been as common in Russian love poetry as binary form in Baroque dance.
My wishes have at last been granted,
My longtime dreams have now come true.
The pain with which my heart was branded
And my pure love is now with you.
In vain I caused you fear and trouble.
My passion has now found reward.
I’ve come alive for joy redoubled
And grief like dim dreams disappeared.
So, when east burns at the dawn hour,
Sprinkled with the relieving dew,
After a night’s cold, the cornflower
From wilting rises to bright blue.
Kondraty Ryleyev, 1824-1825, first published 1861; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, October 2016.