Zukovskij's Translation of "The Prisoner of Chillon" (1)

By Ober, Kenneth H.; Ober, Warren U. | Germano-Slavica, Annual 2005 | Go to article overview
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Zukovskij's Translation of "The Prisoner of Chillon" (1)


Ober, Kenneth H., Ober, Warren U., Germano-Slavica


In the summer of 1816 Lord Byron in the company of Percy Bysshe Shelley visited the Castle of Chillon, situated at the east end of Lake Geneva (Lake Leman) in Switzerland. Shelley wrote: "We ... visited its dungeons and towers. These prisons are excavated below the lake; the principal dungeon is supported by seven columns, whose branching capitals support the roof. Close to the very walls, the lake is 800 feet deep; iron rings are fastened to these columns, and on them were engraven a multitude of names, partly those of visitors, and partly doubtless of the prisoners, of whom now no memory remains, and who thus beguiled a solitude which they have long ceased to feel." He recalled the castle and especially the beam on which prisoners were hanged as "a monument ... of that cold and inhuman tyranny, which it has been the delight of man to exercise over man." (2) Byron, however, was more impressed with the account of one particular prisoner than with the melancholy history of Chillon itself. (3) This prisoner was Francois Bonivard, Prior of St. Victor (a monastery near Geneva), who feuded with the Duke of Savoy over the latter's attempts to tamper with the liberties of the city of Geneva. Captured by the Duke's men in 1530, Bonivard was incarcerated in the Chateau de Chillon in a relatively comfortable room overlooking Lake Geneva and the snow-covered mountains of Savoy. One day, however, Bonivard suddenly raised his fingers to his nose and pinched it in the Duke's presence: "Messeigneurs," he is reported to have said, "excuse me, but my nostrils are very delicate, and I hate the smell of sulphur. Methinks that when you entered a violent effluvium came in with you." This indiscretion resulted in his removal to the dungeon, where he remained until he was freed in 1536 by an invading party of Bernese soldiers. Upon his release he returned to Geneva, lived to marry four times, and died in 1570. (4)

A few days after visiting the castle, Byron completed "The Prisoner of Chillon," which Andrew Rutherford has described as "the best of Byron's verse tales, and indeed the best of all his non-satiric works," and the poem was published in December of the same year. (5) In due course it came to the attention of Vasilij Andreevic Zukovskij (1783-1852), who had already translated works by Thomas Gray, Oliver Goldsmith, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, James Thomson, and Robert Southey. (6) Zukovskij's protracted inactivity had created anxiety among his friends, and they hoped Byron would rouse him from his lethargy. Indeed, Zukovskij experienced a burst of creativity when he visited the Castle of Chillon with Byron's poem in hand on 3 September 1821. (7) Shortly afterwards he wrote to Princess Aleksandra Fedorovna: "On the day I left Vevey I had time to go by boat to the Castle of Chillon; on the way there I read "The Prisoner of Chillon," and this reading conjured up in my imagination Bonivard's prison, which Byron faithfully described in his incomparable poem." (8) Zukovskij worked on his translation of "The Prisoner of Chillon" until April 1822, and it appeared later in the same year. (9)

Although a recent study speaks of the need for a comprehensive analysis of Zukovskij as a translator, (10) all his translations of English poets demonstrate that his practice was not the result of a definable theory of translation which would facilitate such analysis. It was rather the product of his own genius. Zukovskij was moved to recreate a poem in his own language and did so, striving to remain true to its spirit in both form and substance. Nonetheless, he felt at liberty to shape and focus a poem, sharpening and vivifying its imagery and often achieving greater success than the original author. A line-by-line analysis of Zukovskij's "Sil'onskij uznik" substantiates the soundness of his own self-appraisal: "Almost everything I have is someone else's, and yet everything is my own." (11) Consequently, we will make no effort to delineate Zukovskij's "method" of translation.

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