My Onegin

The prize-winning Slovak translator on Pushkin

I don’t claim to be an expert on Pushkin’s poetry, in fact I might say there’s only one work of his I’m thoroughly acquainted with, and that’s Eugene Onegin. I‘ve read his lyrical and epic poetry, his fiction, drama and correspondence, of course, and have read up on the poet and his work, yet Eugene Onegin holds quite an exceptional place in my reading and perception of Pushkin.

Another Russian is to blame for this: Tchaikovsky. I’ve loved opera since a very early age and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is one of my all-time favorites. I saw the film version at the age of fifteen and it was a profound and intense experience.

At that time I wasn’t yet familiar with the “written“ Onegin, except for Tatiana’s letter to Onegin, which featured on our secondary school reading list and which all of us had to learn by heart.  During my school-leaving exam in Russian I had to answer a question on Pushkin. I made use of what I recalled of Tchaikovsky’s Onegin to sound well-informed on Pushkin’s Onegin. I used the same ploy a month later, in my entrance exam at the Department of Russian language and literature of the Comenius University in Bratislava. Students of Russian were required to read all of Eugene Onegin, as well as the entire oeuvre of Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov (there was no messing about with Professor Kopaničák) —in the original. Did I read Onegin then? In its entirety? I forget. What I do remember though is that I was blown away again in 1969 when I read it in Olga Mašková’s Czech translation.

I knew an earlier Czech translation by Josef Hora as well as the Slovak version of Janko Jesenský (1874-1945).  Hora’s translation made Pushkin/Onegin stately and sophisticated, while when I read Jesenský’s version I felt that in the thirty years since he had translated it, the language of Slovak poetry had made tremendous strides forward.  Mašková‘s Pushkin/Onegin, on the other hand, was my contemporary. Stripped of romanticism – actually, that’s not the right way of putting it – romantic in a different way, romantic with a distance, with an ironic attitude to romanticism, anticipating and paving the way for its end or transformation, skeptical towards society, its era and itself.  The reason for this, of course, was the language and style of the translation, which was in tune with the language of modern Czech (and Slovak) poetry in the late 1960s.  However, re-reading the original convinced me that early 19th century Pushkin sounded just as fresh.

In 1972 I started working as dramaturge at Bratislava’s Theatre of Poetry. I immediately set out to realize my big dream – to try to adapt Onegin for the stage and then, of course, to see it produced on stage. It was Mašková’s translation of Onegin that inspired the first version of my script: “my” Onegin was going to be just as dynamic and ironic, and sound just as contemporary as he did in her translation. I based the outline of my script on the Czech version while I waited for the new Slovak translation by Ivan Kupec, which was due to be published any moment. When it appeared, I incorporated the Slovak lines into the script, yet my project “Eugene Onegin – our contemporary” didn’t work. The new translation of Eugene Onegin left me with a sense of disappointment.

In the 1960s a younger generation of Slovak poet-translators that included Vojtech Mihálik, Viliam Turčány, Miroslav Válek, Ľubomír Feldek and Ján Buzássy, to name just a few, put poetry translation on equal footing with original writing, laying the foundations of modern Slovak poetry translation.  It may be hard to believe but this is how long we had to wait to read the French symbolists, Dante, Rilke, Mayakovsky and other giants of world poetry rendered in decent Slovak. I had always admired Ivan Kupec as a poet but as a translator he belonged to an earlier generation – one that included Ján Smrek (1898-1982) and Emil Boleslav Lukáč (1900-1997) and Kupec‘s fellow surrealist poets – whose translations lacked solid philological underpinning and, more importantly, didn’t have much of a feel for the poetics of metrical verse.  Kupec’s translation of Eugene Onegin was “old”. It felt like part and parcel of the translations of the 1920s and 1930s, using the “poetic” language of its period, which abounded in archaic expressions and often resorted to tortuous syntax in order to preserve the rhythm of the original. His translation sounded stiff and went completely against the grain of Pushkin’s language, which was poetic while at the same time retaining the natural patterns of speech. In some ways it was inferior to Janko Jesenský‘s 1942 translation.

I didn’t have much translating experience under my belt at that point, having translated only some Russian modernist and avant-garde poetry and – jointly with the German literature scholar Peter Zajac –  a few works by German expressionist writers and Bertolt Brecht.  I translated some twenty stanzas from Eugene Onegin’s first chapter, just “for the drawer“, and thought it worked quite well. But I left it at that. At that stage I probably wouldn’t have dared to tackle the whole text. Furthermore, I lacked motivation, since the need for a Slovak version of Eugene Onegin had been satisfied by Kupec’s third translation (the first, by Samo Bodický, had appeared in 1895-6).   Besides, Kupec’s translation was about to be reprinted in a three-volume edition of Pushkin’s works.

Following a prolonged enforced pause in the 1970s (when, along with many other writers and translators, I was banned from publishing) some wonderful translating opportunities came my way.  Working with Peter Zajac I translated, and after some trials and tribulations managed to get published, works by Günter Eich, extensive selections from Brecht, Ingeborg Bachmann and Heiner Müller, Karl Kraus‘s monumental Last Days of Mankind, an anthology of German ballads and another of German expressionists.  Going back to Russian, I translated Lermontov’s “Oneginesque” poem Sashka as well as the complete fables of Krylov.

In the spring of 2000, while searching for something in my drawer, I came across a slim file with yellowing sheets of paper. They contained the first twenty stanzas of Eugene Onegin’s first chapter. I started reading and before I knew it, I was reaching for the original and… beginning to rework the first few stanzas. After that there was no stopping me. I was hooked. I decided to translate the whole of Eugene Onegin just like that, without looking for a publisher.  I took my time, working at a leisurely pace and taking breaks.  Sometime that autumn Peter Zajac remarked that the two of us might have reached the age and, indeed, perhaps even the level of experience required to take on a major work.  By that he meant nothing less than Goethe’s Faust. I knew I was in trouble.  Though the mills of Zajac grind slowly, they grind exceeding small and I realized that if I didn’t finish my Onegin translation right then and there, that is, before Zajac got his teeth into Faust, I would never make it. And so I did.

While all three Slovak translations recreate the Onegin stanza (iambic tetrameter with the aBaBccDDeFFeGG rhyme scheme), the main and crucial difference between Kupec’s translation and mine consists in the fact that his version is “poetic” in the romantic sense of the word, i.e. it uses elevated, exalted language meant to sound more “beautiful” and “demanding”  than normal spoken language, applying the principles of classical and, in part, romantic poetry to Pushkin’s work, while in trying to stick to the Onegin stanza he often resorts to contorted, tortuous and unnatural sounding syntax. However, what makes Pushkin great is precisely the fact that he was the first to move poetic language closer to the spoken word, his Onegin being a striking example of this.

This was exactly what I tried to achieve. With the help of my English translator I would now like to try and demonstrate some of the differences in vocabulary and syntax by means of  examples taken from Eugene Onegin, Chapter 1, Stanza XXX, using Nabokov’s hyperfaithful translation to get as close to the original meaning as possible.

Lines 1-2 illustrate the way I have tried to follow natural speech patterns:

PUSHKIN:  Увы, на разные забавы /  Я много жизни погубил!

NABOKOV:  [Alas, on various pastimes I have wasted / a lot of life!]

KUPEC:  “Ach, koľko času na zábavy / som voľakedy premrhal.”

[Oh, how much of time on entertainment / I had wasted once]

ŠTRASSER:  “Dosť života som na zábavy / s pôžitkom vedel premrhať

[So much of my life on entertainment / I was able to waste happily]

Kupec begins the stanza with the interjection, “ach” which, though it corresponds to Pushkin’s “uvy,” has a distinctly “poetic” ring to it, whereas the Russian “uvy” is quite everyday. My translation, on the other hand, sounds like normal, contemporary speech. To fill the second line and maintain the rhythm I added “s pôžitkom” [happily, with relish] which does not occur in the original, yet is in keeping with Onegin’s hedonistic nature.

Kupec’s strategy of “elevating” the language to a “higher,” poetic level is apparent in lines 3-4:

PUSHKIN:  “Но если б не страдали нравы,  / Я балы б до сих пор любил.”

NABOKOV: [But to this day, if morals did not suffer,/ I’d still like balls.]

KUPEC:  “Veď keby nekazili mravy / dosiaľ by bály v láske mal.”

[For if they did not corrupt morals / I‘d still be fond of balls]

ŠTRASSER:  “Keby tým netrpeli mravy / mal by som plesy dodnes rád.”

[If morals didn’t suffer/ I’d still like balls today].

Kupec’s “corrupt morals” is much stronger than Pushkin’s “if morals didn’t suffer”. Furthermore, to maintain the iambic tetrameter, he leaves out the 1st person marker in “dosiaľ by [som] bály v láske mal”. While this elision is typical of “high poetic style,” it is quite confusing as it suggests a switch from 1st person to 3rd person narration. By contrast, I have retained Pushkin’s literal meaning while hopefully still letting Onegin sound natural, the way a young person might speak today.

The differences in our approach are further evident in lines 8-12:

PUSHKIN:  “Люблю их ножки; только вряд /  Найдете вы в России целой / Три пары стройных женских ног.   Ах! долго я забыть не мог /  Две ножки…”

NABOKOV: [I like their little feet, but then ’tis doubtful / that in all Russia you will find / three pairs of shapely feminine feet. / Ah me, I long could not forget / two little feet!… ]

KUPEC: “Aj nôžky ich, hoc zradím vám / že nenájdete v celej Rusi / tri páry štíhlych nôžok dnes. / Oj, dlho hral si so mnou bes / tých nôžok…”

[And their little feet also, though I’ll confess / that you won’t find in all of Rus‘ / three pairs of slender little feet today. Oh, long has toyed with me the demon / of those little feet…]

ŠTRASSER: “Ľúbim ich nôžky, viem však – niet / v celučkej mojej ruskej vlasti  / tri páry pekných ženských nôh. / Dve som mal dlho, vie sám Boh, / v pamäti…

[I love their little feet though I know: there aren‘t / in the whole wide Russian motherland of mine / three pairs of pretty female feet / Two of them have stuck, God knows, / in my memory…]

Every time feet are mentioned in this stanza – in the first of what Nabokov memorably calls Pushkin’s “pedal digressions“ – Kupec resorts to the diminutive “nôžky” [little feet] while I have followed Pushkin in translating ladies‘ feet as “nôžky” [little feet] in the first and third instance, and as “nohy” [feet] in the second. Kupec chooses the archaic “Rus” in “celá Rus” [all Russia].  My version, “v celučkej ruskej vlasti” [in the whole Russian motherland], uses “ruskej,” the commonly-used adjective [Russian].  To maintain the tetrameter I have veered slightly from the original, adding the word motherland and rendering [all off] as “celučký,” which, although a diminutive, is quite routinely used for emphatic rather than diminutive effect.

Lines 11-14 offer an example of Kupec’s preference for archaic vocabulary and contorted syntax.

PUSHKIN:   “… Ах! долго я забыть не мог /  Две ножки… / Я все их помню, и во сне  / Они тревожат сердце мне.”

NABOKOV:  [… Despondent, fervorless. I still remember them, and in sleep they / disturb my heart.]

KUPEC:   “… Dosiaľ trúchliť musím / za nimi – v bdení, ba aj v sne / mučia ma, zjavujú sa mne.”

[… I still have to mourn / them – in waking and in dreams / they torment me, appear to me.]

ŠTRASSER: “…Smutný, nahorkastý / a nepokojný som tu sám, / vo sne si na ne spomínam.”

[… Sad, embittered / and restless I’m here alone / recalling them in my dream].

Kupec’s Onegin suffers exalted agonies: “trúchli” (mourns), “mučia ma” (is tormented).  By contrast, the three adjectives that characterize the mental state of “my” Onegin, “smutný, nahorkastý, nepokojný” [sad, embittered, restless], are quite common, the second, “nahorkastý,” being a colloquialism. I have slightly toned down Pushkin’s “disturbed heart,” having Onegin say simply “vo sne si na ne spomínam” [I recall them in my dreams], which I consider to be more in keeping with the spirit of the original than Kupec’s version which goes to the other extreme, with his Onegin mourning and being tormented “v bdení, ba aj v sne” [in waking and in dreams].  Kupec’s sentences tie themselves in knots to preserve Pushkin’s rhythmic and rhyming pattern: when his Onegin complains that his dreams “mučia ma, zjavujú sa mne” [torment me, appear to me], the personal pronoun is placed at the very end of the line. This is completely unnatural in Slovak. I have opted for the standard “vo sne si na ne spomínam” [I recall them in my dreams] while still maintaining the Onegin stanza.

Although some traditionalists may prefer Kupec’s version, I must have done something right since my Onegin, published in 2002, has now sold out and has received both of Slovakia’s prestigious translation awards: the Jan Hollý Prize and the Zora Jesenská Prize, as well as the Russian Pushkin medal.


Translated from the original Slovak by Julia Sherwood.

Ján Štrasser (b. 1946) is a Slovak poet, lyricist, essayist, editor and translator.  He has worked as theatre dramaturg and editor of several literary journals and has published 10 collections of poetry, 4 collections of song lyrics, three books of essays and several book-length interviews with leading Slovak cultural figures. He has translated Russian authors ranging from Ivan Krylov, Anton Chekhov and Alexander Pushkin, through Boris Pasternak, Daniil Kharms, Isaac Babel and Joseph Brodsky to Viktor Yerofeyev, Vladimir Voynovich, Vladimir Sorokin, Vasily Aksyonov, Liudmila Ulitskaya and Mikhail Shishkin, as well as – jointly with Peter Zajac – a number of German writers, and several musicals.