Douglas Hofstadter

On “poetic lie-sense” and translating Pushkin
(from Eugene Onegin, Translator’s Preface)

I would propose an alternate name for the art of compromise in poetry translation — I would say that poetry translation is the art of “poetic lie-sense.” Yes, one is always lying, for to translate is to lie. But even to speak is to lie, no less. No word is perfect, no sentence captures all the truth and only the truth. All we do is make do, and in poetry, hopefully, do so gracefully.

I do not, I freely though ruefully admit, have a mastery of all those subtle nuances of the Russian words I was translating. I have, rather, a basic sense of what each one means — I know the ballpark it’s in. Thus благородный, for example, which occurs in a few of the stanzas that I’ve memorized, means to me “noble,” and I can also see inside it to its roots, which tell me that it originally meant “well-born” (and [...] so does the name “Eugene”).  But I don’t feel, when I hear it, the rich resonances that a native speaker of Russian must feel; I just think to myself, “noble,” and then let any synonym or even roughly related word spring to mind.  “Aristocratic”?  Fine.  “High-born”?  Fine.  “Fine”?  Perhaps.  And so forth.

What matters is not getting each and every word to match perfectly in connotations, but getting the overall sense and the overall tone of a line across, and doing so with an elegant rhythm and a high-quality rhyme, to boot.  That’s what matters.  Rhythm, rhyme, sense, and tone — all of them together are what Eugene Onegin is about, and not just literal meaning.  To throw any of these overboard is to destroy the poem utterly.

I have exploited poetic lie-sense so many times in making this translation that it’s almost silly to try to pick examples — just take any line whatsoever!  For instance, line 1 of stanza I.1.  In the original, it runs as follows: Мой дядя самых честных правил, which could be literally rendered as “My uncle, of most honest principles,” and phonetically rendered as Moj dyádya sámykh chéstnykh právil.  But my translation’s opening line runs this way: “My uncle, matchless moral model.”  As you see, already in line 1 of stanza I.1 I have introduced alliteration where there is none, I have used concepts like “morality” and “role model” that are not spelled out explicitly in the original, and with my choice of the word “matchless” I have perhaps wound up somewhat overstating the uniqueness of the speaker’s uncle’s admirable character traits.  Compromise lies everywhere.


For one last example, let’s look at the concluding line of the novel’s second stanza: Но вреден север для меня (No vréden séver dlya menyá — “But harmful is the North to me”).  Here, Pushkin is subtly (or not so subtly) alluding to the fact that it was from the northern town of Petersburg that he was sent by the czar into exile in southern Russia, for nothing more serious than having written a few slightly irreverent poems.  Falen says here, “But found it noxious in the north,” thus using poetic lie-sense by introducing alliteration where there was none, and also — if you want to be nitpicky — by having the chutzpah to change present into past.  Arndt says, “The North, though, disagrees with me.”  Johnston: “but I’m allergic to the North…”  Elton/Briggs: “But baneful is the North to me…”  And finally, here is Deutsch: “But find the North is not my style.”

By contrast, my translation says: “The North was, shall I say, ‘severe.’”  By golly, I don’t just toy around with tenses; I also sin in a big-time way by playing on the fact that the Russian word for “north” is pronounced “séver.”  To some readers, this flippancy of mine will come across as so irreverent towards Pushkin that they would exile me to Bessarabia if they had the chance; to others it will merely seem amusing.  As for me, I see it as just another typical example of poetic lie-sense, and a quite Pushkinesque one, if I don’t say so myself.

My translation abounds in this kind of thing....

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A tiny portion of Doug Hofstadter's “semantic network”
(from Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid)