My Heart Speaks Russian...
“My Heart Speaks Russian…”
From 1940 Nabokov the novelist wrote entirely in English. Russian remained the language of poetry and of personal communication with family and friends. Nabokov continued to write poems in Russian until the end of life, and many of the poems written in the 1940s-1970s are masterpieces of the Russian 20th century poetry.
At the same time Nabokov remained essentially a Russian writer. Even though he never again set his novels and stories entirely in the Russian emigre community there is a Russian theme in all of his English novels.
Of Nabokov’s novels and short stories written in English only Lolitaand Speak, Memory were later translated into the Russian language by the author. Or, rather, they were not translated but rewritten as Nabokov in his self-translations followed in the steps of the Russian 19th century tradition and thoroughly “localized” the text instead of providing an abundance of footnotes. He often changed proper names, including the names of the characters and fictional geographical names. In addition, some fragments of the text were either expanded or reduced depending on the differences in the cultural background of the readers in the two languages. Such was the case both with the Nabokov’s self-translations and with translations of his texts made by other translators (all translations into the languages familiar to him were carefully edited by Nabokov).
Also, the American writer Nabokov devoted a great amount of time to the translation of Russian classics and to bringing the Russian literature home to his students and to the readers. Apart from his essay Nikolai Gogol, he published translations of poems by Pushkin, Lermontov and Tyutchev (Three Poets collection), The Hero of Our Time by Michail Lermontov, The Song of Igor’s Campaign, a translation of the 12th century Russian epic. His approach to translating Russian writers into English was radically different from his self-translations - he tried to achieve as much accuracy as possible.
The most famous and the most controversial of Nabokov’s translations from Russian is Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. The translation was made with scientific accuracy and demanded four volumes of commentaries. The need for literal translation of Pushkin’s masterpiece was experienced by Nabokov in his years of teaching Russian literature. The existing English translations, albeit with artistic merits, were so far from Pushkin’s original that a close reading of Pushkin’s poem was made impossible. The teacher and the students were reading two different texts.
The publication of the translation and commentaries to Eugene Onegin caused mixed reactions both from readers and from literary scholars. From the present perspective there seems to be little ground for a debate as the numerous poetic translations and Nabokov’s literal translation need not be compared- they were written for different purposes and using different methods and they can certainly coexist. While the translation itself serves specific purposes the commentary is one of Nabokov’s masterpieces. A Eugene Onegin encyclopedia created by Nabokov not only provides an immense volume of information but it also reads as fascinating novel in itself.
Many of Nabokov’s translations from Russian were published only recently in Verses & Versions, a collection compiled and annotated by Brian Boyd and Stanislav Shvabrin.