The Translator Translated: Zukovskij's "Svetlana" and Bowring's "Catherine" (1)

By Ober, Kenneth H.; Ober, Warren U. | Germano-Slavica, Annual 2005 | Go to article overview

The Translator Translated: Zukovskij's "Svetlana" and Bowring's "Catherine" (1)


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


One of the finest of the many European translations, imitations, or adaptations of Gottfried August Bfirger's ballad "Lenore" (1773) (2) is "Svetlana" (1808-12), by Vasilij Andreevic Zukovskij (1783-1852), who has been described as "the most original translator in world literature." (3) In "Svetlana," the second of his three versions of Burger's ballad, Zukovskij's "efforts to give poetic form to a national Russian theme met with their greatest Success." (4)

In 1823 Zukovskij's "Svetlana" was expertly translated into English as "Catherine" by (Sir) John Bowring (1792-1872), who changed the name, as he explained to his English readers, because the word "Svaetlana does not easily accommodate itself to our organs of sense." (5) Bowring, all but ignored today, perhaps came as close as any nineteenth-century Englishman to being a complete Renaissance man. At various times he translated works from Russian, Gennan, Spanish, Serbian, Hungarian, Polish, Czech, and other languages, wrote a number of hymns including the enduring "In the cross of Christ I glory," edited the Westminster Review, was Jeremy Bentham's intimate friend and executor, contributed to various leading journals, was in demand as a lecturer, acted as "secretary to the commission for inspecting the accounts of the United Kingdom," served as a Member of Parliament, was Britain's "plenipotentiary to China, and governor, commander-in-chief, and vice-admiral of Hong Kong and its dependencies, as well as chief superintendent of trade in China." (6) Bowring notes in his autobiography that in his translations of Russian poetry he gave "the first specimens ever presented in English to the public." (7) With pardonable pride he presented to the Tsar the second of his two volumes of Specimens of the Russian Poets, and Alexander in appreciation sent Bowring "a large amethyst ring surrounded with diamonds." (8)

It will be our purpose here to consider Zukovskij's "Svetlana" in the context of its importance to Russian literature, to juxtapose Bowring's "Catherine" with "Svetlana," and to compare the English translation with the "original" Russian translation.

By the time Bowring published his translation of Zukovskij's "Svetlana," the English public, having long enjoyed the folk-ballad "Sweet William's Ghost," (9) was also thoroughly familiar with Burger's "Lenore." William Taylor's translation of "Lenore," with its striking refrain, "Tramp, tramp, across the land they speed; / Splash, splash, across the sea," had appeared in March 1796 in the Monthly Magazine and established itself as the finest of several versions of "Lenore" in English appearing at about the same time. (10) (One of the other translations was that of Walter Scott, who apologized to Taylor for pre-empting Taylor's refrain for his own version, entitled "William and Helen," and yet another was that of J. T. Stanley, which contained illustrations designed by William Blake.) (11)

In Burger's ballad the heroine, afflicted by disturbing dreams, waits in vain for the return of her beloved Wilhelm from the wars. It seems that all the soldiers, old and young, have returned to their homes and loved ones--all, that is, except Wilhelm. In her despair Lenore, to the horror of her mother fluttering helplessly at her side, laments the loss of Wilhelm and the mercilessness of God ("Bei Gott ist kein Erbarmen."). Her mother then attempts to shield her from her blasphemy:

   "Hilt, Gott, hilf! Geh' nicht in's Gericht
   Mit deinem armen Kinde!
   Sie weiss nicht, was die Zunge spricht.
   Behalt' ihr nicht die Sunde!
   Ach, Kind, vergiss dein irdisch Leid,
   Und denk' an Gotl und Seligkeit!
   So wird doch deiner Seelen
   Der Brautigam nicht fehlen."--

   "O Mutter! Was ist Seligkeit?
   O Mutter! Was ist Holle?
   Bei ihm, bei ihm ist Seligkeit,
   Und ohne Wilhelm Holle!-Lisch
   aus, mein Licht, auf ewig aus!
   Stirb hin! stirb hin in Nacht und Graus!
   Ohn' ihn mag ich auf Erden,
   Mag don nicht selig werden. … 

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