James E. Falen is a professor emeritus of Russian at the University of Tennessee. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. His other books include: Isaac Babel , Russian master of the short story ,  a comprehensive study of the life and work of Isaak Babel — Selected Lyrical Poetry ,  translation of some more poetry of Pushkin.
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I read it only in English, but that was enough to make me fall in love with it. That intense love eventually led me to feel driven to translate the whole thing into English verse myself, even though when I started, I barely knew any Russian at all! Back in the early s, I was blissfully ignorant of the fact that the Russians virtually universally consider Eugene Onegin to be the most glorious peak in the vast mountain range of their literature, but I nonetheless happened to have two English versifications of the work sitting on a bookshelf in my study, and one day I proposed to my late wife Carol she died in , alas that we read them together, simultaneously.
I had a favorite version, to be sure, but I liked all four of them, and so I praised them all. The oldest translation of the quadruple, done by a British writer named Oliver Elton, had come out in In , a new translation by Walter Arndt, a native speaker of German, was published.
Arndt was a well-known writer, as well as a lively translator from both Russian and German into English. However, though he was highly proficient in English, one can often detect, in his translations, a slight foreign accent, of which he himself seems to have been unaware. And unfortunately, this accent, slight though it is, sadly mars his work. Then, in , the trilingual enfant terrible Vladimir Nabokov came out with a disastrous word-for-word translation, lacking grace, lacking rhymes, and lacking meter.
And yet, since he was world-infamous for Lolita and numerous other novels, his ugly but not ugly enough! Thirteen years later, in , a verse translation by Sir Charles Johnston, a highly esteemed British diplomat, came out. It is especially uneven in its rhythm, and the grammar is often convoluted and hard to understand; in many places the verse is awkward and bumpy. But that was truly my knee-jerk first reaction. How lucky that I was at least open-minded enough to do that!
One day, though — who knows why? It was smooth, clear, catchy, beautiful, lyrical, and touching — in a word, intoxicating. Shortly after writing that article, I expanded it into a full chapter of my book Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language a book mostly about translation and the quest for beauty. But in this latter chapter I also included one stanza — just one!
At the time of writing that chapter, I had seen only one stanza by Deutsch, which I had stumbled across in an obscure science book by a Russian physicist, and I instantly realized that it was a magically scintillating gem. I am eternally grateful to him for having done so. What led Jim Falen to do his own version of EO? Jim read it, but his reaction was mostly just frustration. And soon enough, to his own great surprise, spurred by his disappointment with Johnston, Jim started working on his own English-language translation of Eugene Onegin.
But in the end he came out with a miraculous translation of stunning beauty. To read aloud the entire book consisting of roughly line stanzas takes about four hours, split up into two sessions. That act was magical. At that time, it never occurred to me that I might try reading the original work in the Russian language, as my Russian was very weak.
Around then, I taught a poetry-translation seminar at Indiana University, and one of the key examples I used was Eugene Onegin , assigning my students various stanzas as rendered by Deutsch, Elton, Arndt, Johnston, and Falen to study and comment on. However, since I myself had studied Russian a little bit, I picked up the original Russian book and just for the fun of it started reading some of my favorite stanzas, slogging through them with difficulty but enthusiasm, and what I gleaned from them I shared with my students.
By reading those same stanzas in the Russian original over and over again, I gradually committed them to memory, and then I repeated them countless times to myself, making them become deep parts of me. To that end, I also sat in on a Russian course and had frequent lunches with Russian conversation partners.
The answer is simple. There are hundreds of millions of people in Russia who love this work in the original, and who will recognize enormous chunks of it if you recite them. In fact, if you start reciting a stanza and stop part way through, they will complete it, just from memory.
So if you want to connect spiritually with the set of people who love the work, you have to memorize it in its original language. At that time I had gotten in touch with Jim Falen — first through letters, then through email, and then by telephone. Eventually, having been so deeply touched by his version, I tried my hand at translating a few memorized stanzas into my own personal style of English. Never had I imagined such a thing, but all at once, it was happening.
And to my enormous gratification, Jim Falen himself was very supportive of my effort. I can toodle on down to Tennessee, give a talk on the absurd, and meet Jim Falen — irresistible!
And then, two evenings later, 90 people showed up for the second session. For me, managing to lure all 90 people back for the final four chapters felt like a great triumph.
My initially tenuous link with Jim and Eve Falen thus turned into a wonderful, profound friendship — probably the best thing that has come out of my interest in translation. During the rest of that year , I translated stanza after stanza, like mad, in many states and in many lands.
On the very last of those visits, just as I was putting the finishing touches on my translation, the three of us spent three unforgettably joyous evenings sipping on sherry and munching luscious chocolates, while reading aloud my entire manuscript, here and there fine-tuning a rhythm or a rhyme, and with Jim on occasion reciting one of his own Onegin stanzas aloud, so that we could savor the comparison.
What a rare treat! One of the highlights of my whole life. How could I not? Here they are and by the way, these line poems are not Onegin stanzas, though their flavor is very similar :. In fact, they are wonderfully different. And how do they compare with the original? Well, the original is a stunning work in all sorts of ways, but so are both of these translations. I have no qualms in saying that each of them is, in its own way, just as good, just as sparkling, just as deep as the original.
But for me, that kind of comparison is not the point. For me, the real point is this: Do they make you fall in love with the work? Do they make you become as profoundly intoxicated with the work as the most intoxicated Russian is? Today I know the work intimately not only in English, but also in Russian — and also though not as intimately in beautiful, flowing, lyrical verse translations into German, French, and even Swedish.
To conclude, let me stress that it was only through acts of creative translation that I fell in love with this great work of literature. Long live the great and subtle art of translation! Douglas R. He regrets that he is a bit less known for his literary translations, such as of Eugene Onegin , and for his writings about the art of translation, such as his tome Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language. Falen: Eugene Onegin. New York: Basic Books, Translations sorted by translator :.
Arndt, Walter: Eugene Onegin. New York: E. Dutton, Deutsch, Babette: Eugene Onegin. Modern Library. New York: Random House, Elton, Oliver: Evgeny Onegin. London: The Pushkin Press, Falen, James E. Hofstadter, Douglas R. London: Private Printing, Nabokov, Vladimir: Eugene Onegin. New York: Pantheon, Your email address will not be published. Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment. Private Photo.
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A Tale of Two (or so) Translations
True, I once studied it for a short while, but I've never held a conversation or read a book in Russian. Given this, what would give me the chutzpah to write about, let alone think I could judge, various English translations of "Eugene Onegin," that exemplary Russian novel in verse by that most Russian of Russian poets, Aleksandr Pushkin? I first became interested in "Eugene Onegin" through reading a far more recent novel in verse: "The Golden Gate," written in the mid's by the Indian poet and novelist Vikram Seth. The latter, which enchanted me from the moment it appeared, owes its genesis, indeed its entire stanzaic structure, to the former, a debt that Mr. Seth explicitly acknowledges, devoting several lines of verse to the work that sparked his own, namely the English version of "Onegin" by Sir Charles Johnston, a British diplomat and poet, which came out in and which Mr. Falen, a professor of Russian at the University of Tennessee. Surely, I thought, quite swayed by Mr.