Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Poems about translation 23: Pushkin, 'To Gnedich' (1832)

Hot on the heels of the previous Poem About Translation (no. 22 in the series) comes a poem by Pushkin. (You may remember Pushkin has come up in these html pages before, in the form of Nabokov's poem on translating Pushkin.)

I discovered this particular poem via Efim Etkind's fascinating essay 'The Translator', translated from Russian by Jane Bugaeva. The article appears in the latest issue of the Massachusetts Review and can be downloaded here.

Etkind's piece tells the extraordinary story of Tatiana Grigorievna Gnedich, who translated Byron's Don Juan into Russian while a prisoner in Stalinist Russia. She spent two years translating some seventeen thousand lines into Russian rhymed verse, under the supervision of her jailer, before being sent to a labour camp for eight years where she made further improvements to the manuscript.

Pushkin's poem is addressed to Tatiana's great-great-great uncle Nikolay Gnedich, who translated the Iliad into Russian in the early decades of the nineteenth century:

"Gnedich" by Unknown - http://az.lib.ru/g/gnedich_n_i/ Transferred from ru.wikipedia Original uploader was Vasbur at ru.wikipedia. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gnedich.jpg#/media/File:Gnedich.jpg

Etkind quotes the first lines of the poem, presumably in a translation by Bugaeva:
For a long time you spoke with Homer,
all alone.
For a long time we waited,
oh so long.
And then, enlightened, you returned
from those high mysteries
delivering your masterpiece.*
On searching for the full poem in English, I was struck by the difference between this translation and the only one I could find on the web, a 1996 translation by Genia Gurarie which seems to be in alternate hexameters and tetrameters, with end-rhyme:
With Homer you conversed alone for days and nights,
     Our waiting hours were passing slowly,
And shining you came down from the mysterious heights
     And brought to us your tablets holy.
Without having any knowledge of the Russian (or, perhaps, because of that), I find the few lines of Bugaeva's translation more appealing than Gurarie's, but I would be interested to hear opinions from any Russianists who might happen to be reading.

*Pushkin may not always have thought so highly of Gnedich's Iliad - see the Wikipedia entry for Gnedich which offers an alternative take on the translation.


Iain Mac Eochagáin said...

I speak Russian and think the first translation is much better. The second one has a trait that I so often find tempting when I translate Pushkin myself, namely a syntactical re-arrangement to fit the iambs ("And brought to us your tablets holy"). When translating Pushkin, it's very hard to maintain a normal English word order throughout and nigh impossible not to start some line with "and" (apart from the ones that begin with "and" in the Russian) - again, because of the iambs.

Strangely, neither translation has the same syllable count as the original, which is 12 and 9 in 12 couplets, although Bugaeva has 9 and 3, which is reminiscent of the original.

sunny south coast said...

Thank you for your comment, Iain! It's good to have an opinion from someone who's able to compare with the Russian! :)