A Tale of Two (or so) Translations

This is the long story of how I – thanks to the intoxicating translation of James Falen – read, fell in love with, and eventually translated Alexander Pushkin's magnificent novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin. By

Translators at work: Eve Falen, Douglas Hofstadter, James Falen (1998). Private Photo.

I first became aware of Alexander Pushkin’s magnificent, magnetic, magical, mesmerizing novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin (Евгений Онегин in Russian) through the subtle art of translation — verse translation, to boot. I read it only in English, but that was enough to make me fall in love with it. That intense love eventually led me to feel driven to translate the whole thing into English verse myself, even though when I started, I barely knew any Russian at all! It’s a curious story that I think is worth telling, so I’ll tell it here.

Back in the early 1990s, I was blissfully ignorant of the fact that the Russians virtually universally consider Eugene Onegin to be the most glorious peak in the vast mountain range of their literature, but I nonetheless happened to have two English versifications of the work sitting on a bookshelf in my study, and one day I proposed to my late wife Carol (she died in 1993, alas) that we read them together, simultaneously. My idea was that Carol would read aloud one “Onegin stanza” (always consisting of 14 lines with a unique metrical and rhyming pattern) in one English translation, after which I would read aloud the same Onegin stanza in the other translation. And then we would read the same two stanzas aloud one more time, thus getting to hear each translator’s voice twice before going on to the next stanza. That’s how I started exploring the intoxicating world of Eugene Onegin.

In 1996, after finally realizing how important and central a role Eugene Onegin plays in Russian culture, I wrote a short article for the New York Times Book Review in which I compared four anglicizations of EO. I had a favorite version, to be sure, but I liked all four of them, and so I praised them all. The oldest translation of the quadruple, done by a British writer named Oliver Elton, had come out in 1937. In my view, Elton’s Onegin wasn’t too bad, but it wasn’t sparkling, let alone sizzling.

In 1963, a new translation by Walter Arndt, a native speaker of German, was published. Arndt was a well-known writer, as well as a lively translator from both Russian and German into English. However, though he was highly proficient in English, one can often detect, in his translations, a slight foreign accent, of which he himself seems to have been unaware. And unfortunately, this accent, slight though it is, sadly mars his work. Nonetheless, when Walter Arndt’s translation of Eugene Onegin came out in 1963, it was the first English-language translation of the book to have appeared in over 25 years, and it received a high award for poetry translation — the Bollingen Award, given out by Princeton University.

Then, in 1964, the trilingual enfant terrible Vladimir Nabokov came out with a disastrous word-for-word translation, lacking grace, lacking rhymes, and lacking meter.  Nabokov himself — a lover of perversity if ever there were one — savaged his own work, declaring it “not ugly enough” and gleefully saying that he looked forward to making it even more “rebarbative” (meaning “yucky”). And yet, since he was world-infamous for Lolita and numerous other novels, his ugly (but not ugly enough!) massacre of EO received an enormous amount of attention, and created a lot of confusion among surprisingly many intelligent people, who were so razzle-dazzled by his flair with words that they were sucked in by his nonsensical act.I won’t comment further on Nabokov’s grotesque production; suffice it to say that in my view it does not deserve being placed on the same shelf as the translations I admire (and indeed, in my study it is not found on the same shelf as those).

Thirteen years later, in 1977, a verse translation by Sir Charles Johnston, a highly esteemed British diplomat, came out. In my view, Johnston’s translation is at about the same level of quality as Walter Arndt’s — decent, even fairly good, but defective in a lot of ways. It is especially uneven in its rhythm, and the grammar is often convoluted and hard to understand; in many places the verse is awkward and bumpy.  Nonetheless, it was through Johnston’s translation that I first became aware of Eugene Onegin. Or to be more precise, Johnston’s was one of the two versifications that I read aloud with Carol shortly before she died.

The other one she and I read aloud together was by James Falen, a professor of Russian at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Falen’s version was published in 1990 by the rather obscure University of Southern Illinois Press, and it was just by chance that I happened to come across it in a favorite bookstore. When I first espied it, I thought to myself, “Oh, surely, this can’t be much good… After all, how could an American professor living down in hokey Appalachia possibly hope to compete with a sophisticated and cosmopolitan British diplomat?” As you can see, I was filled with prejudices that today make me cringe.  But that was truly my knee-jerk first reaction. I should add that at that time, I hadn’t yet fallen in love with Eugene Onegin — in fact, all I’d read of it was a handful of lines at the very opening of Johnston’s translation, and those lines certainly hadn’t set me on fire— but I was fascinated by verse translation in general, so I bought Falen’s version on a lark. How lucky that I was at least open-minded enough to do that!

For some years, though, Johnston’s and Falen’s translations simply sat side by side on my shelf at home, doing nothing but gathering dust. One day, though — who knows why? —I asked Carol, “Say, why don’t we try reading these two translations together?” To my delight, she was gung-ho, and what do you know — after only a few pages we had both fallen in love with Falen’s version! It was smooth, clear, catchy, beautiful, lyrical, and touching — in a word, intoxicating.  So much for my provincial “hokey Appalachian” prejudice!

So these were the four EO translations that I compared in my 1996 article in the New York Times —Elton’s, Arndt’s, Johnston’s, and Falen’s. Shortly after writing that article, I expanded it into a full chapter of my book Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language (a book mostly about translation and the quest for beauty). The chapter right after that one was devoted to discussing the bloody massacre that was Nabokov’s EO translation. But in this latter chapter I also included one stanza — just one! — by a much earlier translator named Babette Deutsch. At the time of writing that chapter, I had seen only one stanza by Deutsch, which I had stumbled across in an obscure science book by a Russian physicist, and I instantly realized that it was a magically scintillating gem.

By coincidence, a few months later, a friend of a friend of a friend in Ohio inherited a bunch of used books, among them a pristine first-print-run hardback copy of Babette Deutsch’s entire translation, and having seen my New York Times article, he decided to send me that book. I am eternally grateful to him for having done so. I quickly discovered that Babette Deutsch (who, by the way, wrote many books, including a picaresque novel about the life of French poet François Villon) had a remarkable gift for language, and I found her Onegin translation to be gemlike from beginning to end (or do I mean “Jim-like”?). If pressed, I would still rank Falen’s translation slightly above Deutsch’s, but one must keep in mind that his was done in 1990, while hers dates way back to 1936. I don’t know if Falen was familiar with Deutsch’s version while working on his own; my guess is that he wasn’t.

What led Jim Falen to do his own version of EO?  Well, in 1977, his wife Eve, knowing how much Jim loved the original Russian version of Eugene Onegin, gave him a copy of Charles Johnston’s brand-new translation as a present. Jim read it, but his reaction was mostly just frustration. In fact, Johnston’s translation fairly drove him up a wall; he felt its defects everywhere — as only someone with a profound sense of the beauty of the original work, as well as of the huge potential of the English language as a poetic medium, could feel.

And soon enough, to his own great surprise, spurred by his disappointment with Johnston, Jim started working on his own English-language translation of Eugene Onegin. He’d never imagined tackling such an Everest-like challenge, and in fact it took him roughly ten years to do it. But in the end he came out with a miraculous translation of stunning beauty.

In 1997, during a fall visit to Stanford University, I somehow got it into my head to give a reading-aloud of Jim’s EO translation. To read aloud the entire book (consisting of roughly 380 14-line stanzas) takes about four hours, split up into two sessions. The act of sharing that beautiful work, jointly produced by Alexander Pushkin and James Falen, with an enthusiastic if small audience at Stanford gave me a thrill that I honestly can’t explain. Through Falen’s translation, I felt that I had come into intimate touch with Pushkin, and through reading it aloud I had shared it with a few dozen other souls. That act was magical.

At that time, it never occurred to me that I might try reading the original work in the Russian language, as my Russian was very weak. I merely thought to myself, “I’ve read Eugene Onegin; what a great work of literature!” But fate takes strange twists. Around then, I taught a poetry-translation seminar at Indiana University, and one of the key examples I used was Eugene Onegin, assigning my students various stanzas (as rendered by Deutsch, Elton, Arndt, Johnston, and Falen) to study and comment on. One day, I asked the class, “Do any of you know Russian, by any chance?” Not a single one of them raised their hand. However, since I myself had studied Russian a little bit, I picked up the original Russian book and just for the fun of it started reading some of my favorite stanzas, slogging through them with difficulty but enthusiasm, and what I gleaned from them I shared with my students.

In the meantime, I had become aware that many Russians spontaneously memorize the entirety of Евгений Онегин from beginning to end. And they don’t do so because they’re required to; they do so out of love. Inspired by this image, I myself started doing something similar, focusing first on a few stanzas that I had come to love through Falen’s translation. By reading those same stanzas in the Russian original over and over again, I gradually committed them to memory, and then I repeated them countless times to myself, making them become deep parts of me.  Of course, in so doing, I was learning lots and lots of Russian ­— realizing a lifelong dream of being able to speak Russian, in fact. To that end, I also sat in on a Russian course and had frequent lunches with Russian conversation partners.

You might be wondering how come I didn’t memorize pieces of Jim Falen’s translation, instead of the Russian original.  Wouldn’t that have been a lot easier? The answer is simple. There are hundreds of millions of people in Russia who love this work in the original, and who will recognize enormous chunks of it if you recite them. In fact, if you start reciting a stanza and stop part way through, they will complete it, just from memory. (I wasn’t kidding when I said that it’s the Russians’ favorite work of literature!)  By contrast, nobody has memorized Jim Falen’s EO. That doesn’t mean that it’s not as beautiful or as deep or as intoxicating as the original — but because it’s a translation, it’s a million times less known than the original. So if you want to connect spiritually with the set of people who love the work, you have to memorize it in its original language . And that’s exactly what I did— or rather, I memorized about one fifth of it (roughly 1000 lines in toto).

At that time I had gotten in touch with Jim Falen — first through letters, then through email, and then by telephone. Eventually, having been so deeply touched by his version, I tried my hand at translating a few memorized stanzas into my own personal style of English. I just couldn’t resist the temptation. It was like being so inspired by one’s favorite pianist playing a beloved work that one craves to tackle the work oneself.  And then one day, after I’d done about six or seven stanzas, having a grand time of it, I asked myself, “Why not do the whole book?  Wouldn’t that be a great thrill?” And before I knew it, I had embarked on this crazy literary voyage. Never had I imagined such a thing, but all at once, it was happening. And to my enormous gratification, Jim Falen himself was very supportive of my effort.

A few months later, by some crazy fluke, I received an invitation from Steve Blackwell, a young colleague of Jim’s in Slavic at UTK.  Steve had no idea I was an Onegin fan or a Falen fan; he just wanted me to give a talk about “the absurd” in literature (a long-term interest of mine). My reaction was: “What great luck! I can toodle on down to Tennessee, give a talk on the absurd, and meet Jim Falen — irresistible!” So of course I accepted, and with Steve I arranged to give not just the requested “absurd” talk, but also a two-evening reading-aloud of Jim Falen’s Eugene Onegin. Amazing!  Before driving down to Knoxville, however, I got in touch with the book’s publisher and ordered every single copy they had in stock — nearly 100 — and when I received the big box, I loaded it into my car and took it with me.

At the start of the first evening’s reading, I surprised the audience by saying, “Everyone here gets a free copy!” Roughly 90 people had shown up, so luckily I had enough copies — just barely— to hand out to the crowd.Then I read out loud the book’s first four chapters in the presence of Jim and his wife Eve, which was both a high honor and fantastic fun. And then, two evenings later, 90 people showed up for the second session. For me, managing to lure all 90 people back for the final four chapters felt like a great triumph. My initially tenuous link with Jim and Eve Falen thus turned into a wonderful, profound friendship — probably the best thing that has come out of my interest in translation.

During the rest of that year (1998), I translated stanza after stanza, like mad, in many states and in many lands.  I will never forget translating a stanza while sitting in the fork of a tree high up in a valley in the Sierras in California, nor a stanza that I did in Siena’s Piazza del Campo, just before watching the Palio with my two kids, nor a stanza that I did, while very jet-lagged, in a café in the Quartier Latin in Paris, and most of all I’ll never forget doing the novel’s very last stanza in Pushkin’s own apartment in Petersburg — in fact, while sitting at Pushkin’s desk in Pushkin’s study, right under the gaze of the poet himself, having been left all alone (Боже мой!) for two full hours in that highly sacrosanct of spots in all of Russia.

And also, during that extremely special year of my life, I made a few six-hour jaunts from Indiana down to the Knoxville area — passing through Kentucky’s famously beautiful horse country and Tennessee’s lyrical Cumberland mountains — to visit with Jim and Eve in their gorgeous home perched on the banks of the Little Tennessee River.  On the very last of those visits, just as I was putting the finishing touches on my translation, the three of us spent three unforgettably joyous evenings sipping on sherry and munching luscious chocolates, while reading aloud my entire manuscript, here and there fine-tuning a rhythm or a rhyme, and with Jim on occasion reciting one of his own Onegin stanzas aloud, so that we could savor the comparison.  What a rare treat! One of the highlights of my whole life.

Very early on, I knew exactly to whom I wished to dedicate my translation, and thus it happened that on that final visit, I penned my loving dedication to Jim and Eve Falen — modeled, line by line, on Pushkin’s dedication to his friend Pëtr Alexandrovich Pletnëv.  When I had finished writing it very late one night in “my” bedroom, I tiptoed out to the dining room and left the sheet of paper lying on the table, so that Jim and Eve would find it there the next morning — as indeed they did. It didn’t occur to either of them that I was actually going to include that poem in the book — but of course I did.  How could I not? I thus had two dedications: Pushkin’s, to his friend, and mine, to my friends.  Here they are (and by the way, these 17-line poems are not Onegin stanzas, though their flavor is very similar):

Not aiming to amuse the folk in
The haughty set, but just my friends,
I’d hoped to tender you a token
More worthy of the mingled trends
That make your soul so captivating,
So rife with sacred dreams, and with
Such clear poetic life, pulsating
With noble thought and humble myth;
Oh, well… With your discriminating
Fine hand, please take my chapters eight —
Half-droll, half-sad, at times romantic;
They’re down-to-earth and ne’er pedantic,
These careless fruits I’ve born of late —
My sleepless nights’ bright inspirations,
Through callow and through fading years:
My mind’s detached, cool observations,
My heart’s sad words, distilled from tears.
Not aiming to amuse the folk in
Nabókov’s monde, but just my friends,
I’d hoped to tender you a token
Dear Falens, worthier of the blend
That make your souls so rich and precious,
So rife with sacred dreams, and with
Poetic lines that e’er refresh us,
And lofty thoughts, and charm and pith;
Oh, well… Take what will henceforth mesh us:
This suite of chapters, one through eight —
Half-droll, half-sad, sometimes romantic,
But down-to-earth and ne’er pedantic,
The careless fruit I’ve born of late —
The tossing, turning inspirations,
From greener and from grayer years:
My mind’s chilled white-wine decantations,
My heart’s red wines, distilled from tears.

If, reader, I have made you curious to read Eugene Onegin, and if you don’t know Russian, then I would suggest that an ideal way of doing so is to do just what Carol and I did so many years ago — namely, to read two versions alternatingly, and to compare them, stanza by stanza. However,as you might guess, I would not recommend using Charles Johnston’s translation. Instead, I suggest you use the translations by Babette Deutsch and James Falen, both of which I deeply love (or, if you insist, dear reader, feel free to take Jim’s translation and my own — which, by the way, was published in 1999, exactly 200 years after the birth of Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin).

Falen’s and Deutsch’s translations are very different, but that doesn’t mean they can’t both be wonderful. In fact, they are wonderfully different. And how do they compare with the original? Well, the original is a stunning work in all sorts of ways, but so are both of these translations. I have no qualms in saying that each of them is, in its own way, just as good, just as sparkling, just as deep as the original. But for me, that kind of comparison is not the point. For me, the real point is this: Do they make you fall in love with the work? Do they make you become as profoundly intoxicated with the work as the most intoxicated Russian is?

I feel that through Jim Falen’s English translation of Eugene Onegin, I became as intoxicated as any Russian soul ever was about the original work — or pretty damn close, anyway. And even after 25 years of profound devotion to EO, I’m still intoxicated with it.  Today I know the work intimately not only in English, but also in Russian — and also (though not as intimately) in beautiful, flowing, lyrical verse translations into German, French, and even Swedish. (By the way, of the four German translations I own, my favorite is the one by Rolf-Dietrich Keil.)

To conclude, let me stress that it was only through acts of creative translation that I fell in love with this great work of literature. That’s the amazing power of superlative translation à la James Falen or à la Babette Deutsch. Long live the great and subtle art of translation!

A German translation of this essay is available here.


Douglas R. Hofstadter is College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Comparative Literature at Indiana University, Bloomington, where, for some 30 years, he has directed the Center for Research on Concepts and Cognition. He is best known for his books on minds, thinking, consciousness, and computers, the most famous of which is Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 and still sells well. He regrets that he is a bit less known for his literary translations, such as of Eugene Onegin, and for his writings about the art of translation, such as his 1997 tome Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language. These two books and his other translation-related writings come from a lifelong love for languages; in fact, Hofstadter describes himself as “π-lingual”, meaning that the sum of his various language fragments is roughly 3.14159265358979…


Alexander Pushkin/James E. Falen: Eugene Onegin. A Novel in Verse (Russian Original: Евгений Онегин)

Oxford University Press ⋅ 288 Pages ⋅ £ 8,99



Further Reading:

Douglas R. Hofstadter. Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise Of The Music Of Language. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

Александр Сергеевич Пушкин. Евгений Онегин. Собрание Сочинений в десяти томах (Том четвертый). Москва: Государственное издательство Художественной Литературы, 1959.

Translations (sorted by translator):

Arndt, Walter: Eugene Onegin. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1963.

Deutsch, Babette: Eugene Onegin. In Poems, Prose and Plays of Alexander Pushkin, edited by Avrahm Yarmolinsky, 111-311. Modern Library. New York: Random House, 1936.

Elton, Oliver: Evgeny Onegin. London: The Pushkin Press, 1937.

Falen, James E.: Eugene Onegin. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.

Hofstadter, Douglas R.: Eugene Onegin. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Johnston, Sir Charles: Eugene Onegin: A Poetic Novel. London: Private Printing, 1977.

Keil, Rolf-Dietrich: Jewgeni Onegin: Roman in Versen (Translation into German). Gießen: Wilhelm Schmitz Verlag, 1980.

Nabokov, Vladimir: Eugene Onegin. Bollingen Series LXXII. New York: Pantheon, 1964.


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