Eugene Onégin (2015)

About Eugene Onégin

Pushkin wrote the verse-novel Eugene Onégin between the ages of 24 and 32. It is the major work of his maturity and widely regarded as his masterpiece.

The story, popularised outside Russia through Tchaikovsky’s opera, concerns a world-weary rake, Eugene Onégin, who, bored with the pleasures of St Petersburg’s high life, leaves the capital for his country estate, where he strikes up an unlikely friendship with his sensitive and idealistic young neighbour, the poet Vladímir Lensky. Lensky is engaged to Olga, a girl who lives on another neighbouring estate with her widowed mother and older sister Tatyána. Tatyána falls in love with Onegin; but he, coldly rejecting her advances and cynically courting her sister, is dragged into a tragedy of his own making.

In contrast with Ruslán and Lyudmíla, Eugene Onégin is a story of Pushkin’s own time – about the society he belonged to, the places he knew, the people he mixed with, the situations they encountered. It is an engaging story, presented realistically, as though by a participant in the action, with subtle characterisation, vivid word painting, and a wealth of comment, irony and humour. Addressing fundamental themes such as the conflicts between art, reality and social convention, Pushkin’s novel-in-verse became the founding text of modern Russian literature, introducing the quintessentially Russian hero and heroine, who would remain the archetypes for subsequent novelists throughout the nineteenth century.

My new translation

In May 2015 Alma Classics reissued my translation of Pushkin’s masterpiece, which Oneworld Classics had first published in 2011.

Nearly all previous translations of Eugene Onégin have tried to preserve the verse format of Pushkin’s original – a succession of closely rhymed 14-line stanzas with lines of eight or nine syllables in an iambic rhythm. But the sound of the translated stanzas is inevitably different from the original, their language less natural, their shifts of tone less clear, and their meaning too often a distortion. In the 1960s Vladimir Nabokov, conscious of these problems, produced a famous translation in which he retained Pushkin’s 14-line stanza form , but abandoned his rhymes and regular rhythms in the interest of faithfulness to Pushkin’s words and meaning. But his version has often been criticised, rightly in my view, for its over-literalness and its bizarre English style.

My current translation follows Nabokov’s principles, but not his practice.  I have followed him in giving primacy to the accurate transmission of Pushkin’s sense in Pushkin’s 14-line stanza form (without rhymes), but I have used a natural, contemporary English much truer, I believe, than Nabokov’s language, to the intonation of Pushkin’s natural, contemporary Russian.  In this way I hope to bring to the English reader the many qualities of this exceptional work that (unlike rhyme) are amenable to translation – the story itself, the characterization, the interplay of imagination and reality, the poetry of imagery and description, the intricate structure, and the wealth of comment irony and humour.  This translation rescues meaning from metre and conveys more faithfully than any of its predecessors the sense and spirit of Pushkin’s original.  As a bilingual edition, supported by one of the fullest commentaries available, it should be invaluable to students of Russian as well as to those preferring to read Russian literataure in English.

See extracts from my translation.