June 01, 1999

The Poet's Fate

Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin (1799-1837) is Russia’s greatest poet, and every Russian writer that Western readers have taken to their hearts have recorded their debts to him. This includes prose writers such as Gogol — to whom Pushkin, with prodigal generosity, gave the plots of Dead Souls and the Inspector General — and Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Dostoevsky.

Indeed, Pushkin’s popularity is so great that every Russian government in the last two hundred years has found it necessary to have him on board. Even the Bolsheviks, who might have been expected to jettison Pushkin as an aristocratic irrelevance, chose instead to promote him as a noble victim of the Tsar, and to emphasize his love of folklore and his peasant nanny. Yet in the West, his work remains chiefly known through opera: Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, for instance, or Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin and Queen of Spades. Why should that be?

The most obvious answer is that the clarity and simplicity of Pushkin’s language have made him peculiarly resistant to translation. The poetry of striking metaphors always translates easily; yet Pushkin often writes without imagery of any kind, relying on effortless, colloquial vigor and an extraordinary felicity of form which is hard to capture in English. The Russian language has a case structure which enables his meaning to remain clear whatever the order of his words, while English is uncomfortable with the least distortion of word order to achieve rhyme.

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