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Antony Wood, trans., with illustrations by Simon Brett, The Gypsies and Other Narrative Poems.

Antony Wood, trans., with illustrations by Simon Brett, The Gypsies and Other Narrative Poems, by Alexander Pushkin. Boston: David R. Godine, 2006. 116 pp. ISBN: 1-56792-272-4. Hard cover. $24.95.

Antony Wood's translations of The Gypsies and Other Narrative Poems, with engravings by Simon Brett, refract many of Pushkin's aesthetic qualities into a luminous echo of his voice, ideally providing Anglophone readers with access to his verse narratives. This elegantly illustrated volume consists of a thoughtfully eclectic cross-section of Pushkin's poemy and skazki, exemplifying the author's versatility within poetic forms he used prolifically and flexibly. The English verses into which Wood casts the poems simulate the original rhyme and rhythmic patterns, capturing one of their definitive features by reproducing the narrative pace of the Russian originals.

This collection consists of the following poems in translation: The Gypsies, The Bridegroom, Count Nulin, The Tale of the Dead Princess and the Seven Champions, and The Tale of the Golden Cockerel. In the two folk tales he has included (The Tale of the Dead Princess and The Tale of the Golden Cockerel), Wood's approximations of the original meter and rhyme schemes result in a loose, malleable line capable of accommodating the stylistic registers of fairy tales in English. Wood follows Pushkin's verse structure more closely in the other poems in this collection (he duplicates it only in the ballad of The Bridegroom, for reasons he explains in his "Afterword"), but still produces a natural enough sound in English. He achieves, for example, an appropriate air of frivolity in Count Nulin (a parody of Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece), and the light sonority of Pushkin's Byronic mode in The Gypsies, which marks a point in the Russian author's life when he had surpassed Byron and discovered a greater interest in Shakespeare.

In his translation of the earliest of Pushkin's three quasi-dramatic narrative poems, (1) The Gypsies, Antony Wood compensates for the relative deficit of long polysyllabic words in English by employing short filler words and rhythmic repetitions (a pletenie sloves, if you will). While this works better stylistically in the folk tales, in poems such as The Gypsies it results in the successful reflection of the original's remarkably adroit shifts of focus and pace. Consider the following passage:

   A year goes by... another year.
   The gypsies in their peaceful throng
   Wander on, and everywhere,
   Wherever they settle, they belong.
   Spurning the chains of civilization,
   Aleko spends, as free as they,
   His each and every roaming day
   Without regrets or agitation.
   He and his kin are still the same,
   But out of mind his former days,
   He has grown used to gypsy ways,
   The snugne ss of their nightly home,
   The rapture of pure idleness,
   Their language, poor but sonorous.
   His shelter's shaggy guest, the bear,
   A vagrant from its native lair,
   Roves the Moldavian villages,
   Performs its clumsy dances, gnaws
   Its irritating chain, and roars
   Before the wary villagers;
   The bent old man is not averse
   To beating on the tambourine,
   Aleko leads the bear and sings,
   Zemfira goes about to glean
   The voluntary offerings.
   Night falls; the three together make
   Their meal of unreaped millet grain;
   Soon the old man is nodding.., then
   The tent is tranquil in the dark.


Pushkin describes, in thirty lines, what the past two years of Aleko's life have been like. Throughout the passage the focus gradually shifts, concentrating on more and more finely detailed imagery, culminating with darkness. The temporal frame narrows as well, going from "two years" to the final minutes of a day. This transition from general to specific temporal and imagistic foci occurs imperceptibly until the twenty-seventh line (the twenty-sixth in the English), at which point we instantly discover that the narrator is describing a single moment. As a comparison of the English and Russian shows, Wood reproduces Pushkin's effect in verse that conforms to a rhyme scheme typical of the author's narrative poems. This effect, one of the most important narrative features of Pushkin's poemy, cannot be reflected so well in a prose translation, because the pace of the focal shift depends on rhythm and rhyme as much as the sequence and detail of the imagery.

Translations that reproduce Pushkin's metrical and rhyme schemes, however, invite justifiable skepticism, as they have a history of harming rather than enhancing Anglophone readers' perception of Pushkin. In addition to the discrepancies between the mechanics of the Russian and English languages, the tradition of poetic forms has developed differently in each nation and therefore lends inimitable nuances to verses in the respective tongues. Walter Arndt's translations of Pushkin's Collected Narrative and Lyrical Poetry, for example, follow the original meters and rhyme schemes but reduce well-balanced, natural Russian verses to English doggerel. (3) Yet it remains one of the more widely available and comprehensive collections of Pushkin's poetry in English. To his credit, Arndt also produced Pushkin Threefold, which contains metrical translations, literal translations, and the original Russian texts of numerous poems, thereby giving readers who do not know Russian some idea of the form and meaning of the author's poetry. (4)

Fortunately, the discipline of Pushkin translation has improved recently, possibly because translators have begun to hold themselves to higher standards, or perhaps simply because they have discovered better approaches to rendering his work in English. (5) Among the more memorable Pushkin translations, Nancy K. Anderson's versions of the Little Tragedies stand out for aiming first and foremost to reflect the impression one gets from the original texts rather than strictly reproducing their metrical and rhyme schemes. (6) Wood has taken a similar approach, and it has proven fruitful. Representing the aesthetic effect of a poem should be regarded as the highest goal of translation, and those endeavoring to do so should be forgiven slight deviations from the literal meaning and poetic form of the original text.

No translation captures every aspect of a text, and one cannot fully appreciate the poetry of a great formal master such as Pushkin without learning Russian. Nevertheless, poetic translations of his notoriously untranslatable verse are important and should be encouraged as long as they meet a reasonable standard for readable English poetry. (Pasternak's translations of Shakespeare, for example, fall far short of the original, yet one must recognize their impeccability as poetry--and they are great translations, despite their inaccuracies.) While useful for students and scholars, literal translations cannot capture the inseparable fusion of meaning and form for which Pushkin is so well respected. As a result, they often leave readers wondering what makes him one of the greatest poets ever to live. (7) Unfortunately, however, very few verse translations have been written that do not sound trite,s Wood's excellent work therefore marks an important moment in the history of Pushkin in English.

Ivan Eubanks

Princeton University

(1) The other two quasi-dramatic poemy are, of course, Poltava and Angelo.

(2) A. S. Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v desiati tomakh, ed. B. Tomashevskii et al. (Moscow: Akademiia nauk, 1963), 4: 216-17.

(3) Alexander Pushkin, Collected Narrative and Lyrical Poetry Translated in the Prosodic Forms of the Original, ed. and trans. Walter Arndt (Dana Point, CA: Ardis Publishers, 1984).

(4) Alexander Pushkin, Pushkin Threefold: Narrative, Lyric, Polemic, and Ribald Verse, the Originals with Linear and Metric Translations, trans. Walter Arndt (Dana Point, CA: Ardis Publishers, 1972).

(5) A complete collected works of Pushkin is now available in English translation: The Complete Works of Alexander Pushkin in English, ed. Iain Sproat et al., 15 vols. (London: Milner and Company, Ltd., 2006). Unfortunately, the author of this review has not had the opportunity to peruse this colossal production, but some of the translators who contributed to it, such as James Falen, are among the best to have ever rendered Pushkin into English.

(6) Alexander Pushkin, The Little Tragedies, trans. Nancy K. Anderson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000). James Falen has also produced excellent translations of the Little Tragedies, which appear in Alexander Pushkin's "Little Tragedies':" The Poetics of Brevity, ed. Svetlana Evdokimova (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003). Falen has additionally translated Pushkin's narrative and lyric poetry, and his rendition of Eugene Onegin On Onegin stanzas) is by far the best available English version of the novel in verse.

(7) With all due respect to his superb and indispensable commentary, Vladimir Nabokov's translation of Eugene Onegin fails miserably as an aesthetically pleasing advocate for Pushkin's poetic genius. Nabokov's translation, however, proves useful to scholars and students of Russian who can compare it to the original text.

(8) The scant tradition of good verse translations no doubt results partly from the fact that English poetry has been influenced more by French, German, Latin, Greek, Italian, and Spanish poetic traditions than by Russian. As a result, the great English-language poets often cannot read Russian and find themselves poorly equipped to invest the spirit of Pushkin's poetry into English verse. Compare, for example, Seamus Heaney's unimpressive translation of "Arion" (in Alexander Pushkin, After Pushkin, ed. Elaine Feinstein ]Manchester: Caracanet, 1999]) to his Beowulf, one of the twentieth century's highest achievements of the translator's art.
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Author:Eubanks, Ivan
Publication:Pushkin Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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