Nabokov and Robert Lowell
Meyers, Jeffrey, Notes on Contemporary Literature
Robert Lowell's translation of Innokentii Annensky and Boris Pasternak in Imitations (1961) had escaped whipping by Vladimir Nabokov, but he makes five significant references to Lowell in Ada (1969). Vlad the Impaler--superbly trilingual in Russian, English and French, and with a sound knowledge of German--felt justifiably angry about the modern practice, started by Ezra Pound, of poets "translating" with the help of a crib, from languages they did not know. In 1965 Nabokov had been embroiled in an acrimonious dispute with his old friend Edmund Wilson about Nabokov's literal translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. He now felt that Lowell was incompetently poaching on his own territory and ordered him to "stop mutilating defenceless dead poets" (Selected Letters, 1940-1977, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989, 387).
In a letter to the New York Review of Books on December 4, 1969, Nabokov caustically condemned Lowell's translation of a poem by his greatly admired countryman Osip Mandelstam. Lowell, he showed, "misinterpreted, or otherwise mangled" passages, rendered phrases "meaningless, both as translation and adaptation," and was uninformed and even nonsensical. "Besides being absurd in itself," Nabokov continued, Lowell's crude version "totally destroys the imagery of the composition. And a poet's imagery is a sacred, unassailable thing." In Strong Opinions Nabokov deplored, in Auden's translations, "the blunders he so lightheartedly permits himself," and twisted the knife by adding, "Robert Lowell, of course, is the greater offender" (NY: McGraw-Hill,1973, 151).
Nabokov's blast cunningly set up the two poetical translators, conflated as Lowden (Lowell-Auden and its variants), for furious satiric assaults in Ada. In the first lines of Part One, chapter 1, Nabokov attacks "R.G. Stonelower"--a combination of R. Lowell and G[eorge] Steiner, another multilingual polymath, who dared to praise Lowell's translations of Mandelstam--by attributing to him a dreadful translation of the famous opening sentence of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. …