Yevgeny Onegin by Alexander Pushkin, translated by A. D. P. Briggs
Eugene Onegin is the master work of the poet whom Russians regard as the fountainhead of their literature. Set in 1820s imperial Russia, Pushkin’s novel in verse follows the emotions and destiny of three men – Onegin the bored fop, Lensky the minor elegiast, and a stylized Pushkin himself – and the fates and affections of three women – Tatyana the provincial beauty, her sister Olga, and Pushkin’s mercurial Muse. Engaging, full of suspense, and varied in tone, it also portrays a large cast of other characters and offers the reader many literary, philosophical, and autobiographical digressions, often in a highly satirical vein. Eugene Onegin was Pushkin’s own favourite work, and it shows him attempting to transform himself from a romantic poet into a realistic novelist. This new translation seeks to retain both the literal sense and the poetic music of the original, and capture the poem’s spontaneity and wit. The introduction examines several ways of reading the novel, and text is richly annotated. (via Goodreads)
One of the first things that Briggs does, something that isn’t retained in the above Goodreads blurb, is revert to the more Russian version of “Eugene”—Yevgeny. He does this because, well, it sounds better. It has better rhythm. Try it out loud: Yev-gen-y On-e-gin. There’s a rise and fall to that. Better than Eu-gene On-e-gin. But I got the feeling from Briggs’ introduction that if the Anglicized Eugene worked better that’s what he’d have used. That’s the style of his translation and that, he argues, is the most Pushkin way of translating Yevgeny Onegin.
Pushkin is the most highly respected of Russian poets, and he is so probably because he wasn’t high and mighty about the language. Briggs points out that the original novel length poem is written in a combination of high and low Russian with a dash of French. It’s written in iambic pentameter, but Pushkin made the rhyme scheme his own, but wasn’t a slave to perfect rhyme. It’s Pushkin’s use of what works that almost gives the poem an English sensibility. This is what Briggs tries to bring out in his translation.
I’ve read other translations of Yevgeny Onegin. I have the Nabokov version, but it’s in one of the dusty boxes in my closet. I didn’t feel like digging it out, but I remember it feeling quite serious. The story *is* a bit grim, but Briggs’ light translation also makes it enjoyable. Pushkin is poking fun at the blazé, ball-going, dueling culture of Onegin’s world and is inviting us as readers to commiserate. Briggs’ translation is accessible and very readable. I recommend it.
Publishing info, my copy: ePub format, Pushkin Press, July 12, 2016
Acquired: April 2016, NetGalley
Genre: Poetry, Literary