Adam Freudenheim of Penguin Books was kind enough to send me a copy of Eugene Onegin, one of my all-time favourites. It's one of the few Russian books I have had the pleasure to read in the original, and a book I often go back to. I have read a couple of Italian translations a few years ago, one in prose and one in verse. They were not too bad, all things considered. Of the English ones, I have read two so far – one good, one less so – and this was the third. I have only glimpsed at Nabokov's version, which some people say reads like machine translation.
I had been aware for years that Stanley Mitchell was working on a "definite" verse translation of the Onegin, as a couple of friends – one a publisher, the other a translator – tried to dissuade me from commissioning a new translation (if you follow this blog, you know I reject the idea that any translation can be definitive). So it is with great excitement and curiosity, and the highest expectations, that I started to read Mitchell's translation.
Did I like the book?
Yes, overall I did. I think I could appreciate it even in a Hungarian translation.
What did I like most?
The fact that I could read it only in two sittings – a rare thing for a lousy reader like me.
What didn’t work for me?
I don't know why but full rhymes always seem to get in the way and stick out in English. And I found myself having to reread quite a few passages, which can't be good. The narrative flow of the original is unsurpassable, of course, but the occasional inversions and archaisms – which are obviously there for the rhyme – have a very negative effect overall. The choice of reproducing Pushkin's meter was brave – but not successful, I think. Blank verse or heroic couplets could have yielded a much more natural result in English, as the iambic tetrameter is very uncommon in English poetry.
Would I publish it?
Our Oneworld Classics edition of Eugene Onegin, in Roger Clarke's translation (he has also translated Pushkin's Ruslan and Lyudmila, Boris Godunov and the Little Tragedies for us, as well as Erasmus's Praise of Folly) will appear this Autumn.
What if it came as an unsolicited manuscript?
I'd give away one of my kidneys to receive one submission of the same quality every ten years.
Did it sustain my interest throughout?
The rhyming got a bit tiresome at times. To sustain interest throughout over such a long poem you really need to be called Pushkin, Ariosto or Byron – and translators are obviously are at a great disadvantage when they are confronted with poets of such stature.
The best bit in the book?
The best scene in the book?
The pistol duel between Onegin and Lensky. I always like duels.
Comments on the package, editing, typesetting?
Penguin have done a good job overall, but where is the Russian text facing the translation? I also think that they could have gone for a more adventurous cover. . . Editing and typesetting was good. A few typos, but Adam had warned me and he said they have been corrected for the new reprint, so I can't be harsh about it.
My final verdict?
I don't know – I expected this translation to be something extraordinary, and I only found it to be a decent, agreeable translation, but nothing special. Not a definitive translation, then – but obviously I would like to congratulate the translator for completing such a long and difficult task. I took the liberty to send the book to one of our best verse translators, JG Nichols, and he didn't like it at all. Similarly, Roger Clarke, who had bought a copy of the Penguin edition, found Mitchell's rhymes and inversions difficult to digest. A quick look on the Internet returned this review of the Mitchell translation on the Independent, along the lines of my appraisal, although the Guardian reviewer liked it better. All in all a slight disappointment for me.
In September, I'll send a copy of our edition of Onegin to Adam, so that he can trash it on the Penguin blog . . . They say there's no bad publicity . . .