Eugene Onégin and four tales from Russia's southern frontier

Eugene Onegin book cover

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.  Lénsky is engaged to Olga, a girl who lives on another neighbouring estate with her widowed mother and older sister Tatyána.  Tatyana 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 innovative and idiomatic translation of Eugene Onégin is the first to present the work as a novel, and the first since Nabókov’s idiosyncratic version of 1964, to focus on accurately conveying Pushkin’s meaning and distinctive ‘tone of voice’, undistracted by the search for English rhymes.

About the Four Tales from Russia’s Southern Frontier

This title – my own – comprises four separate narratives of Pushkin’s, written like Onégin in verse, between 1820 and 1828:

•  A prisoner in the Caucasus is the earliest of the four, written when Pushkin was 21. It reflects his experiences during 1820 when, banished from St Petersburg, he travelled by way of the Caucasus to his remote posting in modern Moldova. It contains memorable descriptions of the scenery and of the mountain folk’s way of life.

•  The fountain of Bakhchisaráy was completed about two years later, and incorporates Pushkin’s memories of the Crimea, which he visited on the same journey. He again uses his experience of the locale to give a persuasive reality to the setting of the tale. The work has much atmosphere and charm: the exotic life of the Crimean khans in the palace of Bahchisaráy is beautifully imagined and portrayed.

•  Gypsies reflects Pushkin’s experience of living in Moldova from 1820 to 1823. Finished in October 1824, when Pushkin was 25, Gypsies is a maturer work that strikes a bleaker mood. The style of narration is terser, with episodes succeeding each other abruptly, like scenes in a play, and with conversation mostly presented as dramatic dialogue. Through the French writer Prosper Merimée it influenced the libretto of Bizet’s opera Carmen .

•  Poltáva (which provides much of the libretto for another opera, Tchaikovsky’s Mazépa) was written four years later still. It is a larger, more ambitious and more powerful work than the other three. Set against a specific historical background, the swift and compelling narrative brings together love, politics and war, and prefigures the great Russian historical novels of the later 19th and 20th centuries. It also contains some tensely dramatic dialogues and some superb descriptive passages. One remarkable feature is the characterisation of Mazépa the Ukrainian leader, who dominates the story: though Pushkin goes out of his way to depict Mazépa as self-centred, corrupt and untrustworthy, he somehow causes the villain to engage our interest and sympathy in such a way that he steps out of the later pages of the story like a true tragic hero.

The grouping of the four narratives together is mine, not Pushkin’s. Though independent works, they show some features in common. In the first place, they share a common medium and rhythm. Secondly, their settings – the Caucasus, the Crimea, Moldova, and Ukraine – are all geographically along the southern frontier of Russia as it was in the century leading up to Pushkin’s time: in the background of each story one can catch the sound of the drumbeat of advancing Russian armies, sometimes (it must be said) cheered on with imperial enthusiasm by the author himself; but at the same time one can also – contradictorily – share in Pushkin’s sympathetic observation of the indigenous peoples whose cultures were threatened by Russia’s expansion. And all the settings are in areas of southern Russia where Pushkin had travelled in the early years of the decade, which gives his descriptions a special vividness and authenticity.

There have been few translations of any kind of these four interesting and attractive works into English. This is the first time they have been presented together, and in an accessible prose version, and with a commentary.

Translation of Eugene Onégin and the Tales from Russia’s Southern Frontier

It is an enormous pity that such important – and interesting, and beautiful, and moving, and amusing – works as these should have remained till now unknown to most English-speaking readers. So I have tried above all to make Pushkin’s narratives, and the meaning and ‘feel’ of his words, as accessible as possible in English. By ‘accessible’ I mean both readily comprehensible and enjoyable – something that people will read not just out of duty or to pass exams, but for pleasure.

Pushkin wrote Eugene Onégin as a novel-in-verse; and it has long been my conviction that it richly deserves to be read by English readers as a novel. Not only is it a great novel in itself, but without knowledge of it our appreciation of the development of the Russian novel by Turgénev, Dostoyévsky, Tolstóy and others remains imperfect. There are many translations of the work into English verse, but strangely there has been no translation of it before as a novel. The aim of my translation is, for the first time, to bring Eugene Onégin to English readers as a novel.

In contrast to Eugene Onégin, where plenty of verse translations exist, the Tales have hardly been translated at all; and what translations there are have usually been into English verse.

Of course there are losses in translating Pushkin’s verse narratives into prose. These losses – of rhythm, rhyme and word music generally – are precisely of those qualities of Pushkin’s writing that can only be appreciated by reading him in Russian. But there are many other qualities of Pushkin’s writing that can be translated – indeed that are best translated – into prose: the narrative itself; the characterisation; the interplay of imagination and reality; the poetry of imagery and description; and, for Onégin especially, the wealth of comment, irony and humour. And I have already mentioned the opportunity that a prose rendering offers to produce a clear and accurate English rendering of the text without the distraction and distortion of versification.