Nabokov’s poetry remains little known to English-speaking audiences. In English, he published only fourteen short pieces, all in The New Yorker and all relatively light. Yet, in Russian, Nabokov published hundreds of poems, the vast bulk of which date from before he began writing in English and became a master novelist in the language. Although Nabokov’s Russian novels are widely read in translation, it should be remembered that the early Nabokov was almost equally prolific a poet as he was a novelist.
Besides his own, the only English versions of Nabokov’s Russian poems are those of his son Dmitri, included in the Penguin Collected Poems. However, whilst Dmitri Nabokov’s skill at imitating paternal practice contributed greatly to the authority of his prose translations, in the case of the poetry, English readers are left with a very narrow window onto Nabokov’s early, lyric works. Nabokov’s own views on translation were highly idiosyncratic. Apotheosized in his edition of Evgeny Onegin, he strove for “rigid fidelity” to the original, seeking to capture the semantic nuances of words whilst abandoning the formal and phonic features of a text. His Pushkin thus reads like an elegant crib.
Nabokov was, of course, completely aware of the sacrifice he was making in his Pushkin translation. In a remarkably witty stanza from one of the English poems, ‘An Evening of Russian Poetry’ (1945), he points to a number of customary couplings in Russian that come undone in English:
The rhyme is the line’s birthday, as you know,
and there certain customary twins
in Russian as in other tongues. For instance,
love automatically rhymes with blood,
nature with liberty, sadness with distance,
humane with everlasting, prince with mud,
moon with a multitude of words, but sun
and song and wind and life and death with none.
The skill here is perhaps only really perceptible to a reader competent in Russian, but the interference between two rhyme schemes – the implicit Russian (кровь / любовь, природа / свобода, etc.) and the explicit English – is a wonderful effect in the best macaronic tradition.
Nonetheless, my sense is that Nabokov was too eager to deliver such pairs up to the semantic altar. His obsession with literalness seems more a child of old age. Two translations of one poem, ‘К моей юности’ (ca.1939), reveal how he revised his work. I wouldn’t call either a particularly masterful poem in English, but it is intriguing to compare them to the original and see just how much more literal the later translation is. This is even possible for readers with little Russian, who can observe the revisions made to enjambments between the two versions: the later one follows the original closely, functioning almost like a facing text. Both could, in Nabokov’s words, be labelled “a clumsy, but more or less exact affair”, yet I feel myself drawn more to the earlier translation, partly for enjambed effects, partly for the sonic superiority of phrases like “the oneness of the way”. It seems to me that Nabokov’s goal in revision was not to remove any clumsiness in the poetic design, but to make his translation more precise, losing these little amenities in the process.
Nabokov’s own translations hence do not capture much of his poetic style. As in his prose, he maintains a penchant for recherché vocabulary and formal preening, but the lyric aspect of his poetic voice goes unheard. What is more, this lyricism can in fact be rather derivative: Russian falls neatly into rhymed tetrameter, and the earliest poems are both formally and topically predictable. Such archaism is easily lost. Nonetheless, whilst a good amount of Nabokov’s poetic output can be seen as juvenilia, and whilst he never got away from writing formal verse whose rhythms echo the C19th tradition, there is much to recommend some of the more mature poems. Indeed, there is something distinctively interesting in seeing familiar aspects of Nabokov’s aestheticism re-presented (as it were) in quatrains of tetrameter.
To give some impression of Nabokov’s poetic style in Russian, I attempted a rhymed version of one poem, ‘Как я люблю тебя’ (‘How I love you’), written in Berlin in 1934. It is a beautiful and curious piece, framing with memories of an intense amorous encounter two enigmatic stanzas describing baking, tropical heat. The final stanza’s exhortations to a realm beyond betray the many affinities of Nabokov’s style, at its most allusive, to symbolism. The sensuality for which we know him is all here, but his lyricism is more innocent, less arch.
My translation attempts to replicate Nabokov’s verse form as faithfully as possible, preserving both rhyme scheme and metre, with as little divergence from the actual semantic content as I could manage. The highly-synthetic nature of Russian means that it often requires more syllables to express an idea than English. Thus, maintaining tetrameter sometimes calls for some (strictly speaking, pleonastic) additions. Of course, this can sometimes aid in the search for rhymes. The greatest challenge was the third stanza, which breaks with the ABCB rhyme scheme for something much tighter. I had no choice but to add significant embellishments, which I hope do not dilute the translation too much.
To put everything in context, I’ll provide the original below along with a literal facing translation. My own translation follows alongside Nabokov’s. The Russian version of the poem is that published in Стихи (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1979), pp.252-3. The Russian text reproduced along with Nabokov’s own translation in Poems and Problems breaks the final stanza in two (between “меж стволами. / Как я люблю тебя!”) so that it aligns with a break added by Nabokov himself in his translation. This divides a quatrain over two stanzas and was certainly not envisaged in the original version. Nabokov’s translation, complete with extra break, is reproduced from Poems and Problems (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970), pp.79-81. You may need to zoom your text a bit – I had to shrink things to get the formatting to work.
Как я люблю тебяТакой зеленый, серый, то есть
весь заштрихованный дождем,
и липовое, столь густое,
что я перенести — уйдем!
Уйдем и этот сад оставим
и дождь, кипящий на тропах
между тяжелыми цветами,
целующими липкий прах.
Уйдем, уйдем, пока не поздно,
скорее, под плащом, домой,
пока еще ты не опознан,
безумный мой, безумный мой!
Держусь, молчу. Но с годом каждым,
Над краснощекими рабами
Какой закат! И завтра снова,
Как я люблю тебя. Есть в этом
How I love youSo green, grey – that is
everything is shaded with rain
and linden [adj.], so thick,
that I [cannot] bear it — let’s go away!
Let’s go and leave this garden
and the rain, boiling upon the paths
between the heavy flowers
kissing the sticky ashes.
Let’s go, let’s go, before it’s too late,
soon, under a raincoat, homewards,
before you [masculine] are recognized
my crazy one [masculine] x2.
I am holding on, I am quiet. But with each year
Above red-cheeked slaves
What a sunset! And tomorrow again
How I love you. There are in this
How I Love YouKind of green, kind of grey, i.e.,
striated all over with train,
and the linden fragrance, so heady,
that I can hardly ———— Let’s go!
Let’s go and abandon this garden
and the rain that seethes on its paths
between the flowers grown heavy,
kissing the sticky loam.
Let’s go, let’s go before it’s too late,
quick, under one cloak, come home,
while you still are unrecognized,
my mad one, my mad one!
Self-control, silence. But with each year,
Above red-cheeked slaves
What a sunset! And once more tomorrow
How I love you! In this
How I love you! The beams
How I love youSo green, so grey, here everything
is shaded with rain, so green, so grey,
and thick with linden, packed so tight
that I just can’t —— let’s go away!
Let’s go and leave this garden
and the rain that boils here on the paths
between the heavy-headed flowers
that bow to kiss the sticky ash.
Let’s go, let’s go, it’s getting late,
get beneath this coat, come near,
before they notice who you are,
you madman. My madman! My dear!
I hold on, silent. But each year,
Pitiless of the slaves’ red cheeks
What a sunset! And tomorrow’s sun
How I love you. This evening air
As forced as my tetrameters might seem at times – Russian flows into the form with Pushkinian grace, whereas English has a tendency to thump along – I’m not terribly convinced by Nabokov’s own translation. It is, on the whole, literal (and poetically an improvement on my working crib), but the mystical insinuations of the final stanza, for instance, have quite a different effect when roused from the trance of metre. Given the number of prosodic sacrifices, I’m shocked by the readiness with which Nabokov, in a couple of places, betrays his own principle of “rigid fidelity”. First of all, his translation does not signal the fact that the figure addressed in the poem is a man (“безумный мой”)! What is more, the arch lepidopterophile sneaks in amendments that considerably alter the tone: “geometrid” for the simple “бабочка”, which just means “butterfly”. Perhaps this was actually what he had in mind all along, and sought to preserve his own mental image? Frankly, however, I find the idea of publishing this translation as a standalone piece (as the New Yorker in fact did) somewhat baffling. Something is obviously missing. It would hence be a real, if rather trifling, pleasure to see more of Nabokov’s poetry in English translations taking a different approach from his own. I’m eager to see my modest effort surpassed!