Literature creates a challenge unique among the arts, for the transport of a great work from one culture to another requires the mediation of a translator. One need not know Italian to love Michelangelo and need not know German to love Beethoven. Literature, however, poses a special problem, and an even greater problem when dealing with poetry. Any English-speaking lover of Russian poetry has encountered the difficulty of explaining the magnificence of Pushkin—how does one explain or paraphrase “The Prophet” or “The Bronze Horseman”? Or, how does one convey the power, drama, and poignancy of the little tragedies? This latter question lies at the center of Nancy K. Anderson’s The Little Tragedies, a new translation of works recognized, as she justifiably notes, “as among the greatest works of Russia’s greatest writer”(9). Anderson’s mission, and labor of love, produces a comprehensive work, and this single volume includes translations of all four little tragedies and a wealth of supporting materials: an introduction, a translator’s preface, four critical essays (one for each work), further commentary, notes, and bibliography.
The Little Tragedies responds to a genuine deficit. “None of Pushkin’s work is so well known to English speakers as it should be, but the ‘little tragedies’ are particularly underrepresented” (10). Translations of the little tragedies are indeed few, and Anderson’s work is sure to become the standard translation. Anderson’s supporting materials attempt to explain the significance of these works to an English-speaking audience encountering them for the first time, and the commentary is accessible enough to benefit a student and sophisticated enough to inform a literary scholar coming from another discipline. The Pushkin specialist will not find a monograph to change the critical reception of the little tragedies—surely not Anderson’s purpose—but the specialist may indeed wish to read the informed close reading by one who read all four works, one word at a time.
In considering this project in totality, one should note—and applaud, in my opinion—that Anderson consistently approaches the little tragedies as a collective body of work. The commentary and notes point to threads joining the works in Pushkin’s creative biography, and also draw connections between them as they discuss structure and theme. Concluding her critical essay on The Miserly Knight, Anderson writes that the “essential power” of the little tragedies lies in the recognition that “each play is the story of a great and gifted figure who could avoid his own self-ruin, and who instead freely chooses it” (130). A similar summary observation on the “essence of the ‘little tragedies’” appears in the essay on The Stone Guest: “each one is an examination of the type of single-minded, self-willed passion that blinds a person, so that the warnings of reason and conscience are equally powerless, and the path of self-destruction is deliberately chosen” (174). The point is a sound consideration of these dramatic miniatures that distill the essence of hubris, envy, resentment and avarice.
In her preface Anderson describes her translation theory: “I have attempted to translate the ‘little tragedies’ into language that, first, is vivid and modern enough to sound credible to a reader or listener and engage the emotions, and then to make that language as musical as it can possibly be made before losing its credibility” (15). The dramas revolve around the impassioned monologues of their principals—Salieri’s opening monologue and the Baron’s speech in scene 2 of The Covetous Knight, for example. “Intensity, more than anything,” writes Anderson, “is what the ‘little tragedies’ are all about,” and the translator has the challenge of preserving the impact, emotion, and psychological motivation encapsulated in these moments. Here Anderson’s desire to “engage the [reader’s] emotions” comes into practice, and these moments will largely determine one’s response to this translation.
Anderson creates translations that have spirit and readability, but lack the awkwardness that often undermines translations of poetry. Nonetheless, I disagree with two very significant decisions made by Anderson. Thanks to her thorough preface and commentary, I respect her grounds for making them, and my reaction is not a critique so much as a difference of opinion on translation theory. First, she chooses not to translate the tragedies into blank verse because, in her opinion, “the distance between the cadence of dramatic blank verse and that of the modern English language is so great that the reader or listener finds it impossible to believe that such a speech is an outpouring of the speaker’s heart” (15). Anderson’s gifts as a translator imbue her work with a poetic essence in what she calls a “semi-metrical” translation, but I am also certain that she could have done an excellent job in blank verse. We are looking at a nineteenth-century poet composing tales of even earlier eras, and such modernization seems—to me, at least—unwarranted for the task. Moreover, preserving Pushkin’s original meter places the little tragedies in the context with contemporary dramas also composed in blank verse, such as all of Shelley’s drama and Byron’s Cain and Manfred. I think that we do believe the speech of those works to be “the outpouring of the speaker’s heart,” albeit in a nineteenth-century mode.
My second issue concerns Anderson’s wish to give the language of the little tragedies a twentieth-century feel. Twentieth-century discourse simply lacks the breadth of diction found in nineteenth-century poetry, and twentieth-century idioms seem anomalous at times. Consider two segments from the Baron’s soliloquy in The Covetous Knight, the first of which Anderson uses to illustrate her translation theory:
Like a young skirt-chaser who waits for when
He’ll meet his bimbo—some tramp on the make,
Or some fool he’s snowed—that’s how all day
I wait for the minute I go down
Into my secret vault, to the faithful chests.
What’s not in my power? From here,
Like a demon I can rule the world.
If I just want it—palaces will spring up;
Into my splendid gardens there will dance
A company of playful nymphs;
The Muses too will bring me tribute…
The language of the second excerpt seems appropriate to the character of the knight and is true to Pushkin. The preceding uses of “skirt-chaser,” “bimbo,” and “snowed” then seem inconsistent with one who would speak of demons, nymphs, and the Muses—all of which appear in Pushkin and suit the Baron, but which do not fit into a twentieth-century discourse.
I will close by citing a passage that contains all that is best about this translation, a pivotal entreaty by Don Juan in The Stone Guest:
Oh, let me die this minute, at your feet,
Let my poor dust be buried in this place,
Not by the dust which is so dear to you,
Nor anywhere nearby—some distance off,
There—by the gates—at the very entrance,
So when you come, my gravestone might be brushed
By your light foot or by your dress’s hem
When you make your way to that proud grave
To lay your ringlets on it and to weep.
The passage is composed almost entirely in blank verse, and its diction is eloquent and mellifluous. Its wonderful sound and thoroughly accurate translation preserve Pushkin’s language and meter, and are also most convincing despite the fact that in the twentieth-century (and twenty-first) no one speaks in such a way and certainly no one “weeps.” Such moments are a pleasure and speak to Anderson’s accomplishment, and I would have preferred the consistent presence of such meter and the absence of any twentieth-century touches.
In bringing the four little tragedies together and supporting them with her materials, Nancy Anderson has done a service for expanding knowledge of Pushkin in the English-speaking world. Some may take issue with her translation decisions, and others may praise these same decisions. In either case one must respect the gifts that she brings to these remarkable works in Pushkin’s oeuvre, and be grateful that she has brought those gifts to this effort.
Andrew J. Swensen
Swensen, Andrew J. Rev. of Alexander Pushkin, The Little Tragedies. Translation, with Critical Essays, by Nancy K. Anderson. Pushkin Review / Pushkinskii vestnik 4 (2001): 147-50. Retrieved from: <http://www.pushkiniana.org/index.php/vol-4-reviews--/209-swensen-review04>.