Puskin and Southey: Russia's Greatest Poet Translates England's Poet Laureate (1)

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In his truly pioneering achievement in editing the recently published history of Russian literary translation through the eighteenth century, (2) Jurij D. Levin has presided over a project of inestimable value to Russian literary scholarship. Literary translation in Russia throughout its modern history has occupied a position of vital importance probably unique among the major Western literatures, although political ideology has controlled it and officially minimized its importance. Respect for translated works can be traced back to the time of Peter the Great, who recognized the backwardness of Russian technology and industry and initiated a flood of translations of Western technical works. Through diligent and accurate translations of foreign models, Russian literature, in spite of its late beginnings (compared to English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish literatures, for example), has managed to introduce into Russia the literary movements and genres of the West and to compress them, and thus in the nineteenth century to overtake Western literatures in development. The most apt quotation Levin could find to introduce his history of translation project was one from 1857 by the much-cited social and literary critic Nikolaj Gavrilovic Cernysevskij (1828-89):


("Translated literature in every new nation has had a very important share in the development of national self-consciousness or [...] in the development of enlightenment and esthetic taste. For this reason works of literary history will no longer suffer from harmful one-sidedness only when much more attention is paid to translated literature than is the case now.") (3) As Levin points out, this statement still applied to Russia up to the publication of his own project. Repeatedly, when a writer was muzzled by the authorities, he or she turned to literary translations in order to remain creatively--and sometimes physically--alive. From Zukovskij (4) to Axmatova and Pasternak, the leading literary artists have produced translations equal in polish and beauty to their own original productions; moreover, at times their translations of their models have even been esthetically superior to the foreign originals. In contrast to Western creative writers in general, Russians have not considered their translation as inferior to their original work.

The outstanding Russian literary translator of the early nineteenth century --and perhaps of all time--was unquestionably the great poet Vasilij Andreevic Zukovskij (1783-1852), but he was by no means the only noted translator of his time. Among others, his protege, Aleksandr Sergeevic Puskin (1799-1837) also made noteworthy poetic translations, though translation never occupied him to the extent that it did Zukovskij. For several years Puskin, like Zukovskij, was interested in the works of the English Poet Laureate Robert Southey (1774-1843), and eventually made several partial translations from the works of that poet. These translations have until now largely escaped scholarly notice. (5)

Zukovskij apparently introduced Puskin to Southey's name as early as 1822, probably in conversation, since Puskin spelled his name "Sauvey." Puskin at first evidently did not approve of Zukovskij's spending time translating Southey, for on 27 June 1822 (dates of all letters are according to the old style), he wrote a letter to Nikolaj Ivanovic Gnedic (1784-1833), a poet and himself a noted translator, in which he airily deprecated Zukovskij's choice of works for translation, among which he included those of Southey:


("... Incidentally, I think it is vexing that he [Zukovskij] translates, and translates in fragments. Tasso, Ariosto, and Homer are one thing, and the songs of Matthison and the deformed tales of Moore are another. Once he spoke to me of Southey's poem 'Roderick;' give him my request that he leave it in peace, notwithstanding the request of a certain charming lady. …


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