Verses and Versions: Three Centuries of Russian Poetry

In addition to writing Ada and Pale Fire and Lolita, thus bringing us some of the last century?s most rewarding novels in English, the fascinating and fabled Vladimir Nabokov was also a prolific (though characteristically contentious) translator from his native Russian. His translations of Pushkin — which embodied what his editors call a philosophy of “absolute literalism” — put him at the center of 1960s debates about translation, which included, as a counter to Nabokov?s attempted literalisms, Robert Lowell’s “adaptations.” Indeed, Nabokov had a very distinct philosophy of the translator as both an absolute servant and counter-genius to the work at hand, and of all things he seems to have prized rendering both jauntiness and rhyme across languages — perhaps with less regard to spoken rhythm or flowing syntax. At over 400 pages, the book offers a chance to revisit a wide array of Nabokov?s translations in the text, gathering his English renditions of poetry from Pushkin to Mandelstam and beyond. Russophiles will be happy to see the actual Russian of each lyric on a facing page, and may understand the role of each Russian poet better than those who are more drawn to Nabokov because of his English novels. Interspersed throughout are little snippets of Nabokov’s recognizably resounding bombast. The perfect translator, Nabokov writes, “should have genius, style and wit?.should be absolutely honest, should not bypass difficulties?should be of the same sex as his author. He should be paid princely sums for his work. Blunders should be punishable by heavy fines; trimmings and omissions by the stocks.”