Zukovskij and Southey's Ballads: The Translator as Rival (1)

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Vasilij Andreevic Zukovskij (1783-1852), whom his contemporary Lord Byron called "the Russian nightingale," has more recently been described as the "most original translator in world literature," (2) and his translation of Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" in 1802 has been said to mark the birthday of Russian poetry. Zukovskij, son of a Russian gentleman and a captive Turkish girl, grew up to become tutor to the future Czar Alexander II and the acknowledged patriarch of the Russian Golden Age of Poetry. The bulk of his work consisted of his translations from the poetry of the Western World, particularly Germany (his German favorites were Uhland and Schiller) and Great Britain. The masterpiece of his old age, however, was a brilliant translation of The Odyssey based on a word-for-word German translation, since he did not know Greek. (3)

Zukovskij said of his own work, "Almost everything I have is someone else's, and yet everything is my own." And his comment on another poet stands as a gloss to the statement about himself: "A poet-translator can be an original author, even though he has written nothing of his own. A translator in prose is a slave; a translator in verse is a rival." (4) Zukovskij's epoch-making translation of Gray's "Elegy" was followed by his translation, in part, of Oliver Goldsmith's "The Deserted Village" in 1805 and then by his versions of poems by John Dryden, Alexander Pope, James Thomson, Goldsmith again, and David Mallet. Southey's "Rudiger" in 1813, Zukovskij's first translation of a poem from the English Romantic Movement, was followed the next year by his translations of Southey's "Lord William" and "The Old Woman of Berkeley." Then, apparently surfeited with Southey, he turned to other writers: "It's always either devils or coffins," he said. "Don't think that I want to be carried down to posterity on devils alone." (5) During the years before his interest in Southey's devils and coffins was revived, he translated works by Lord Byron, Thomas Moore, and Sir Walter Scott, and alter leaving Southey a second time in 1831 he translated a poem by Thomas Campbell and, finally, in 1839, Gray's "Elegy" once again.

Thus Zukovskij, a poet whose translations have won an honored place in Russian literature as poems in their own right, chose to translate three of Robert Southey's ballads relatively early in his career, and he returned nearly two decades later to Southey to translate five more of his ballads. We have elsewhere written about Zukovskij's early translations of Southey's ballads, (6) and it is our purpose here to discuss his 1831 translations of "God's Judgment on a Bishop," "Donica," "Queen Orraca and the Five Martyrs of Morocco," "Mary, the Maid of the Inn," and "Jaspar." These ballads of Southey's, it seems to us, deserve attention in their own right. At his best Southey is unerring in his use of such techniques as dry matter-of-factness in treatment of the supernatural, laconic understatement, and superbly timed use of what in our day has come to be known as the throwaway line. It is true that a too-frequent failure to come up with the sharp, precise image, coupled with a willingness to settle for a blurred abstraction, often mars his work. Sometimes, however, perhaps in part because of his almost invariable habit of culling the plot for a ballad from some obscure chronicler or out-of-the-way annotator of ages past, Southey's ballads do manage to capture the authentic flavor of the folk ballad, with its context of unquestioning belief and piety and of awe in the face of the mysteries of sin and punishment, of life and death, of heaven and hell. In this paper it is our intention to look at the five ballads both in the original and in translation. We will consider, suggestively rather than exhaustively, what Zukovskij does or does not do for, to, and with the originals. We believe that even such a relatively sketchy study as ours of what these ballads become under Zukovskij's hand should be of interest, first, because of what it may reveal about the relationship of Southey and his ballads to the work of this particular pioneer of Russia's Golden Age of Poetry and, more importantly, because of what it may suggest about the workings of the imagination of a master poet-translator. …