A Note on Teaching Eugene Onegin in English

By Rice, Jim | Pushkin Review, Annual 2004 | Go to article overview

A Note on Teaching Eugene Onegin in English


Rice, Jim, Pushkin Review


The Pushkin course introduced at the University of Oregon twenty years ago is designed to accommodate students with or without Russian. Without close reading and discussion of texts, a Pushkin course would lose much of its value. Our compromise has been to focus once weekly (Fridays) on a few short poems, assigned to all students in multiple translations (usually just two or three, but as many as twelve translations in the case of "Ia vas liubil," ). Those who read Russian of course have the Russian original, but they too must address the translations critically, which is only to extend and focus the problem they face in any event: that is, to draw appropriate meaning from the encoded message. Students without Russian are thus confronted routinely with a truism of Pushkinian language, the crux of which is often some strategic ambiguity. As a rule this characteristic feature has escaped some or all of the translators. Work with multiple translations helps alert all of the students to the quintessential manner of Pushkin's verse language. Students with Russian are coaxed to assist their colleagues, as informants, while for pedagogical purposes the teacher is at liberty to play devil's advocate, as usual.

The same principle of multiple translations can be applied to classroom study of Onegin, at least in measure. First, a word about how Eugene Onegin has come to be handled in my course. It is the work that spans the poet's middle years, recapitulates (more than once) his comings and goings, and redeploys lyric ups and downs by the dozen. It is the work of Pushkin, more than any other, that I urge students to read in Russian if at all possible. But the novel is readily dismantled into its eight component chapters. Their serial origin is still obvious in the gracefully and playfully transitional endings, bidding readers adieu (at times indeed for years). And thus Onegin can effectively remain in the classroom, serially assigned with other materials chronologically intervening. Here is the synopsis of a course just concluded in March 2004. We met twice weekly in ninety-minute sessions.

1st week    Onegin I, II, III
2nd week    Godunov 

This allows eight ninety-minute classes in large part on EO, and some portion of the Boldino week for the explosive creativity generated in part by the termination of Onegin. In addition to Onegin and the other major works listed above, fifty-five short poems were chronologically assigned, some discussed in lectures, others in the translation sessions. (When the course was launched two decades ago, 105 short poems were discussed. Now about half of these figure only in an advisory list, which includes multiple translations for each item.)

From the National Union Catalogue Pre-1956 Imprints, various electronic databases, and our own university library I am aware of a dozen EO translations into English, commencing with Lieutenant Col. Spalding's (1881). The others are Elton (1937), Radin and Patrick (1937), Deutsch (1943, recently in print again, Dover Paperback), Kayden (1964), Nabokov (1964), Arndt (2nd ed., 1981), Johnston (1977), Falen (1991), Hofstadter (1999), and two that I have not yet seen: by Craig Wright and Kira Obolensky (Dramatic Paperback, 1996), and by Bayley in The Complete Works of Alexander Pushkin in English (vol. 4, 2002). The Charles Johnston version, in addition to its general reliability (a word, however, to be used with reservation as applied to Pushkin translations), has remained available for purchase in reprints.

Each of these editions has its successes and shortcomings in Englishing Pushkin. …

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