Yevgeny Onegin, by Alexander Pushkin and translated by Anthony Briggs
Back in 2012 I read and thoroughly enjoyed the Tom Beck translation of Eugene Onegin. Fast forward a few years and Pushkin Press have published a new translation interestingly titled Yevgeny Onegin. Onegin (with any first name) is notoriously difficult to translate so I thought I’d return to it and see how the two translations differed.
Before I get into that a quick word: Briggs quotes early 20th Century Russian literary historian Prince Mirsky as saying that the poetry in Onegin flows and bubbles “like champagne in sunshine”. I can’t speak to how faithful Briggs is to the original Russian – I can’t read that after all – but I can say that Briggs’ translation definitely has that sunlit champagne quality and was an absolute pleasure to read.
Isn’t that a marvellous cover? I absolutely love it.
Before I get into the translation itself it’s worth spending a moment on one of the best translator’s introductions I’ve read. Briggs explains in clear non-technical language the type of poem Pushkin is writing here – the 14 line sonnet. He then sets out the differences between what are typically called English sonnets and Italian sonnets (a question of how rhymes are paired rather than nationality).
The Italian sonnet clusters its lines in two sets of four rhymes then two sets of three rhymes. The English sonnet clusters them instead in three sets of four rhymes with a final set of two rhymes (which tend to either dramatically complete the first twelve sets of rhymes or subvert them).
Pushkin uses both forms (and other sub-forms) in Onegin which is apparently quite unusual. In most poems that use the sonnet form you can tell where you are and what’s coming by the clustering of the rhymes. In Pushkin, because the form varies, by the time you get to the mid-point you don’t know whether this particular stanza follows the English sonnet form or the Italian which means you are intentionally disorientated and often can’t resolve the individual stanza until you finish it.
Briggs explains that this flexibility of form is part of why the poem never becomes tedious to read – it’s constantly changing and refreshing itself. I found this absolutely fascinating and it really helped me understand what was happening structurally within the poem as I read it.
Briggs also touches on a particular difficulty in translation from Russian to English (which generally by his account isn’t all that hard). This is what’s known as masculine and feminine rhymes.
Masculine rhymes end in a single stressed syllable – the cat sat on the hat. Feminine Rhymes follow a stressed syllable with an unstressed one – and that’s harder to give an example of because it’s common in Russian but rare in English. In fact, it’s so rare that all the examples tend to be extremely obvious. As Briggs points out if you hear “languish” the rhyme is very likely to be “anguish”; if you hear “creature” then “feature” is likely to follow.
What all this means is that when translating from Russian in most cases where the Russian uses a feminine rhyme there won’t be a direct English equivalent. When there is it will likely be tediously obvious and therefore dull (Briggs notes “hoping/moping” and “related/dated”). This issue is very present in Onegin, which uses alternate feminine rhymes. The result is the translator needs to be creative making use where possible of part-rhymes and words that sound or feel similar even if they don’t actually strictly rhyme.
The introduction is a good few pages long and it’s packed with this kind of interesting and useful information. I have no technical background in poetry but even so I found it very easy to follow. Briggs is never patronising but instead writes for the benefit of the intelligent lay reader. Frankly, even if you don’t like his translation the book’s worth buying for the intro alone.
I should though probably now turn to the translation. I’m initially going to quote the very first stanza from each translation, after which I’ll quote several stanzas from my Tom Beck review and after each I’ll again set out the Briggs’ equivalent. Here goes:
“My uncle’s acted very wisely,
to seek his best when he’s so sick;
his family’s reacted nicely
and he’s most happy with his trick.
He’s set the world a good example,
which others really ought to sample,
but it’s a bore when night and day
the sick man forces you to stay!
To keep him sweet, as if he’s dying,
give him his daily medicine
and make quite sure that it goes in,
adjust the pillows while one’s sighing:
‘Don’t even think of getting well,
The devil take you, go to hell!’”
And here, by contrast, is the Briggs:
“Uncle, a man of purest probity,
Has fallen ill, beyond a joke.
Respected now, and scorned by nobody,
He has achieved his masterstroke
With this exemplary behaviour,
But it would try the Holy Saviour
To tend a sickbed night and day,
And never stir a step away,
Employing shameful histrionics
To bring a half-dead man some cheer,
Plump pillows and draw sadly near,
Indulging him with pills and tonics,
Heaving deep sighs, but thinking ‘Ooh!
When will the devil come for you?’”
What immediately strikes me there is that it’s evident that Beck has prioritised flow (as he says in his own introduction – he’s a musician by training and wanted to preserve the musicality of the verse). Briggs here is trickier. See for example his pairing of probity” with “nobody” or (and I think this is rather clever) “histrionics” with “tonics”.
In places the choices change the meaning. In Beck the uncle has acted wisely, which isn’t really a comment on his character but rather on his actions. In Briggs by contrast the uncle is a man of utmost probity. Similarly, in the Beck the uncle is pleased with himself at being tended by his family suggesting a certain manipulativeness on his part whereas in Briggs the use of “masterstroke” makes the line more of an ironic comment by the narrator on the situation.
As to which meaning Pushkin intended I’ve no idea but I think it’s already possible to see how each translator pursues their different goals in the translation. I don’t think Briggs’ “ooh” quite comes off, but I also don’t think it’s fair to pick on the occasional jarring rhyme (and if I wanted to I could do it quite easily do it to Beck too).
Let’s continue. Here’s stanzas three and four from the Beck:
Completing service long and faithful,
his father ended his career
and left his son debts by the plateful
from having given balls each year.
And yet my friend was saved from Hades
by his Madame, a Gallic lady;
and then Monsieur took on the lad,
a lively child but never bad.
Monsieur l’abbé, who hated quarrels,
thought learning ought to be a joy,
tried not to overwhelm the boy.
He didn’t bother him with morals,
and if annoyed, he didn’t bark,
but took Eugene to Letny Park.
When Eugene grew and first felt passion,
was plagued by love and hope and doubt,
they did what’s always been the fashion
and threw the wretched abbé out.
My friend was free from every pressure,
could live and act as was his pleasure,
so he was always finely dressed
in what was surely London’s best.
He spoke and wrote French to perfection,
bowed constantly, his hair well curled,
and when he danced he turned and twirled,
his light Mazurka no exception.
He didn’t have too long to wait
before the world thought he was great.
And here from the Briggs:
With worthy service now behind him,
His father lived from debt to debt.
Three balls a year soon undermined him,
He was as poor as you can get.
Fate saved the boy, who was aware of
Madame, and being taken care of,
And her replacement, a Monsieur.
The child was frisky, though demure.
Monsieur l’Abbé, a Catholic father,
Not keen to weigh Yevgeny down,
Taught him by acting like a clown.
Morals seemed irksome; he would rather
Chide him for the odd naughty lark,
And walk him in the Summer Park.
Rebellious youth came in due season –
A season full of hopeful dreams
And gentle sadness – ample reason
To give Monsieur the sack, it seems.
Onegin now, devil-may-care-style,
Copied the very latest hairstyle
And came out like a London fop
To see society, Tip-top
In spoken French (no less proficient
In speech and writing), he could dance,
And with the utmost nonchalance
Perform a bow, which was sufficient
To show him in a pleasing light
As a nice lad, and very bright.
I actually think the Beck is rather good there. I like the references to Letsky Park and to the Mazurka (though again I’ve no idea if either is in the original) and again he clearly achieves the musicality he sets out for. Briggs I suspect wouldn’t be enamoured of rhymes like “lad” and “bad” but “dressed” and “best” is exactly the kind of paraphrasing that Briggs is fond of.
Briggs’ language is again I think intentionally tricksier and riskier. It’s the champagne effect. I love “devil-may-care-style” being rhymed with “hairstyle” which is inspired and I think his first three lines from stanza 4 (“Rebellious” to “reason”) are much more poetic than Beck’s equivalent first two rhymes in the same (“when” to doubt,”). Briggs takes three lines here to capture what Beck manages in two but I think to better effect and both ultimately maintain the overall fourteen line structure.
Moving on, this is from the Beck:
Alas! His feelings were now cooling,
he wearied of the social round,
the constant flirting and the fooling
now seemed to him absurd, unsound.
Pursuing beauties now fatigued him,
betrayals, friends no more intrigued him,
nor guzzling beefsteaks, Strasbourg Pie,
champagne until the day you die,
dispensing piquant sayings, grimace,
and bicker, have an aching head
from everything you’ve done and said.
Although he was a fiery scapegrace,
he’d lost his love of having fun,
of sabre-fighting and the gun.
And here from the Briggs:
No. While still young he lost all feeling,
Finding the noisy world a bore
And lovely girls not so appealing,
Not so obsessive as before.
Betrayals left him sad and weary,
Both friends an friendship he found dreary.
You cannot keep on sluicing steaks
Or Strasburg pie with what it takes –
The best champagne! And it gets harder
To please the diners with bons mots
When headaches leave you feeling low.
Yevgeny, once a man of ardour,
Acknowledged that his love was dead
For conflict, sabres and the lead.
Briggs makes nice use of French here both reminding us of Onegin’s class and at the same time rhyming “mots” with “low” which I rather like. Becks I think has a more modern feel with rhymes such as “fun” and “gun” while Briggs’ “ardour” through to “lead” feels more period to me. It’s also worth noting here how Briggs rhymes “ardour” with “harder” which I think in context he gets away with.
One final example. Here’s the Beck:
Oh flowers, love, you fields and meadows,
Oh idleness, yours is my soul;
I’m not Eugene, we’re different fellows,
that matters to me on the whole
in case some too sarcastic readers
or other bookish, slanderous creatures
should callously compare my quirks
with those of Byron and his works,
as if I were but merely scrawling
my effigy, just like that proud
fantast, as people put around
so shamelessly, (which I find galling),
as if we wrote of nothing else
but poems all about ourselves.
And here’s the Briggs’ equivalent:
O rural idyll, love and flowers!
O fields to you I yield my soul…
I mark what differences are ours,
What separates us on the whole,
So that no reader, no wild joker,
No literary libel-broker
Can publish somewhere by design
Onegin’s features as for mine,
And then repeat the claim (outrageous!)
That here my portrait has been daubed
Like Byron’s, proudly self-absorbed,
As if one could not fill these pages
By painting someone other than
One’s own self as the leading man.
I chose this stanza in the original so that I could talk about the links with Byron rather than because of any intrinsic interest to it. Even so it still makes a useful comparator. Again the translation choices impact the meaning slightly: Beck’s Onegin yields his soul to idleness while Briggs’ to the fields. Similar, particularly in context, but not quite the same.
Beck’s choice of “poems all about ourselves” is I think a little pedestrian, which I don’t think is true of Brigg’s “own self as the leading man.” Again though what shines through is the difference in intent. Becks flows well and has a clear rhythm. Briggs is more playful (note for example his “wild joker” with “literary libel-broker”).
What comes out of all this for me is a very clear pattern and a sense of very intentional translations (as of course they should be). Faced with the choice Becks goes most every time for flow and rhythm while Briggs is much fonder of linguistic tricks and little surprises for the reader.
I’m not qualified to talk to better here and I don’t think anyway which is better is an interesting question. As I said at the start of this piece I thoroughly enjoyed the Beck when I read it – so much so that I read a separate translation which is a tribute to the first (it kindled my enthusiasm). Reading his stanzas here afresh I’m reminded quite how good so much of it is. The Briggs’ delighted me. I loved the playfulness and cleverness of it.
Briggs sometimes comes unstuck. At one point he rhymes “intractable young beauties” with “Implacable non-venal cuties” which particularly stood out. That’s unavoidable though because he’s taking greater risks with his rhyme-choices and trying to capture that sense of “champagne in sunshine”. I think he succeeds.
One final remark and that’s on the title of the poem itself. Briggs notes that Yevgeny is more Russian than the commonly used Eugene which is plainly true. However, more importantly he notes that Yevgeny Onegin is a little poem in itself: yev-gen-y/o-ne-gin. Eugene Onegin just ain’t got the same swing.
I may at some future point read the Penguin Classics’ Stanley Mitchell translation. Briggs in his introduction talks a little about other translations but is at pains not to single any out for criticism, save to a small extent the Mitchell which he does raise points on. It may sound odd but I think that’s a form of compliment: Briggs clearly feels the Mitchell can stand up for itself. If I do I’ll post another comparison though I warn you now that’ll make it fifty per cent. as long again as this one…
Oh, and just in case anyone wants to know which translation I recommend you read that’s easy: both of them of course!
Honestly I have no idea so please feel free to leave links in the comments. Interestingly, Nick Lezard of the Guardian has also reviewed both these translations. His Beck is here and his Briggs here.