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Re: [xmca] About Nazim Hikmet, Pushkin, and Translation

----- Original Message ----- From: "David Kellogg" <vaughndogblack@yahoo.com>
To: "Culture ActivityeXtended Mind" <xmca@weber.ucsd.edu>
Sent: Thursday, June 25, 2009 4:25 AM
Subject: Re: [xmca] About Nazim Hikmet, Pushkin, and Translation

Dear Ulvi (and Achilles, and maybe even Mike, who digs poetry and Chapter Seven):

Last night after I sent off the snippet of Nazim Hikmet I was feeling a little guilty about the way I cropped it, and it occurred to me that cropping poetry is in a sense (perhaps even in the same sense) as difficult as translating it.

On p. 252 of (Minick's version of) Thinking and Speech we have a very short snippet of Pushkin:

Like rosy lips without a smile
I would not love Russian speech
Without grammatical errors.

Here is the original Russian:

Как уст румяных без улыбки,
Без грамматической ошибки
Я русской речи не люблю .

But what really helps me to understand it is not the original Russian but the original context. It is Eugene Onegin. Tatyana, the Byron-reading daughter of landed gentry, is visited by a tall, supercilious, handsome and Byronic Eugene and promptly infatuated.

She commits a serious breach of propriety; she puts pen to paper. However,
as the daughter of Russian rural landowners, she does not have volitional control of her own language. She knows conventionalized meanings and basic interpersonal communication skills but she cannot express profound meanings which are also deeply personal meanings in her own language.

She writes in French. Pushkin then slyly ‘translates’ her letter into Russian, explaining that IF Tatyana had actually poured out her heart in Russian it would be full of grammatical errors but that this would merely add to the charm:


I see another problem looming
To save the honour of our land
I must translate—no presuming
This letter from Tatyana’s hand
Her Russian was as thin as vapor
She never read a Russian paper
Our native speech had never sprung
Unhesitating from her tongue
She wrote in French…what a confession!
What can one do? As said above
Until this day, a lady’s love
In Russian never found expression
Till now our language—proud, God knows—
Has hardly mastered postal prose


They should be forced to read in Russian
I hear you say. But can you see
A lady—what a grim discussion!
With The Well Meaner on her knee?
I ask you, each and every poet!
The darling objects –don’t you know it?
For whom to expiate your crimes
You’ve made so many secret rhymes
To whom your hearts are dedicated
Is it not true that Russian speech
So sketchily possessed by each
By all is sweetly mutilated
And it’s the foreign phrase that trips
Like native idiom from their lips?

Protect me from such apparition
On dance floor or break up of ball
As bonneted Academician
Or seminarist in yellow shawl.
To me unsmiling lips bring terror
However scarlet; free from error
Of grammar, Russian language too.
Now too my cost it may be true
That generations of new beauties
Heeding the press will make us look
More closely at the grammar book
That verse will turn to useful duties
On me all this has no effect
Tradition still keeps my respect…


No, incorrect and careless chatter
Words mispronounced, thoughts ill-expressed
Evoke emotion’s pitter patter
Now as before, inside my breast

As Vygotsky remarks, this passage is often seen as frivolous, and the pitter-patter of the translator's rhyme scheme doesn't help much. Nabokov complained:

What is translation? On a platter
A poet's pale and glaring head
A parrot's screech, a monkey's chatter
And profanation of the dead!

And Nabokov himself translates Onegin into prose. But our translator-poet, Sir Charles Johnstone, emphasizes that versifying lightness is part and and parcel of Pushkin's profundity; it is the emotion that makes a man write a piece of deathless literature about duelling (in which he rakes his hero over the coals for doing it) and then throws his own life away in a careless duel, the feeling of lived experience according to which poetry is the real stuff of life and breathing lungs and beating heart are (literally) pretexts.

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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