Review: Alma Classics' New Series of Pushkin Translations

Alexander Pushkin. “The Captain’s Daughter” and “A History of Pugachov. Translated by Paul Debreczeny. Richmond, UK: Alma Classics, 2011. 358 pages. ISBN-13: 9781847492159. Paper.

Alexander Pushkin. “The Queen of Spades” and Other Stories. Translated by Paul Debreczeny. Richmond, UK: Alma Classics, 2011. 352 pages. ISBN-13: 9781847491817. Paper.

Alexander Pushkin. Ruslan and Lyudmila. Translated by Roger Clarke. Richmond, UK: Alma Classics, 2012. 256 pages. ISBN-13: 9781847492968. Paper.

Alexander Pushkin. Love Poems. Edited by Roger Clarke. Translated by Roger Clarke et al. Richmond, UK: Alma Classics, 2013. 224 pages. ISBN-13: 9781847493002. Hardcover.

 

With this new series of translations, Roger Clarke has taken on the Herculean task of producing the complete works of Pushkin in English. Published by Alma Classics (formerly One World Classics), the series thus far consists of seven volumes—the four listed above plus “Boris Godunov” and Little Tragedies, Eugene Onegin, and Belkin’s Tales. They are a welcome resource to those who would teach Pushkin in translation and a wonderful option for anyone interested in reading Russia’s most esteemed poet through the medium of English.

Although not the first of its kind, Clarke’s project shall upon its completion constitute an important landmark in making Pushkin available to readers of English. Its predecessor, Iain Sproat’s edition of the Complete Works of Alexander Pushkin (Milner & Co., 1999–2003), never made a significant impact and is already out of print. Published exclusively in hardcover and sold only as a complete set, it was prohibitively expensive and thus inconvenient both for most individuals and for classroom use. Moreover, a number of the translations Sproat used were and still are readily available from other publishers.

Most of the translations in the Alma Classics series are new, many of them by Clarke himself. The series includes some amended reprints from Sproat’s edition, but by and large Clarke is building an improved, more accessible collection on the foundations of that earlier project. Each volume in the series is to be issued as a stand-alone paperback with a reasonable price tag, and each comes furnished with excellent supplementary material, such as a biographical sketch, ample commentary, and English renditions of textual variants when necessary.

Perhaps in keeping with a prudent marketing strategy, Clarke deviates from the traditional approach to organizing Pushkin’s oeuvre. While the standard practice of arranging the lyric poems in a Complete Works is to sequence them chronologically (as accurately as possible) in volumes devoted to certain spans of years, for example, Clarke has begun to compile them by theme, dedicating the first volume of lyric poetry to Pushkin’s Love Poems. The poems are then arranged chronologically within the volume, thus maintaining a connection to Pushkin’s biography while appealing to readers interested in a particular theme. Indeed, Clarke’s principle of organization well serves readers who are not familiar enough with Pushkin’s oeuvre to select love lyrics from among hundreds of poems arranged solely according to year of composition.

Yet one wonders how Clarke will group the rest of the lyrics and whether his organizing principle will leave some “outliers” that do not fit into any of the rubrics he establishes. Perhaps it was in planning for such a contingency that he has interestingly chosen to include in the Love Poems excerpts from longer works, such as the epilogues to Ruslan and Lyudmila and The Fountain of Bakhchisaray and the dedication of Poltava. Such a practice may help fill future tomes dedicated to a theme or genre with fewer representative poems, but it also has other distinct advantages. The dedication of Poltava, for example, is itself a complete poem to an unidentified woman, whom Pushkin apparently loved (perhaps Maria Volkonskaya, who followed her husband into exile), and thus it fits perfectly with the other love poems.

Another example of effectively grouping texts may be seen in Clarke’s decision to publish Paul Debreczeny’s translations of The Captain’s Daughter and A History of Pugachov in one volume. This pairing, in conjunction with the robust commentary included in the appendices, makes the volume in question an excellent teaching tool and thus gives it an edge over other available translations that are of similar or slightly better quality (see my review of Robert and Elizabeth Chandler’s The Captain’s Daughter in SEEJ 55: 1). Originally published in Alexander Pushkin: Complete Prose Fiction (Stanford University Press, 1983), the Debreczeny translations featured Walter Arndt’s renditions of the verse passages, which Clarke has notably replaced with his own superior versions. With the exception of the Belkin tales, Clarke has similarly amended and reprinted the rest of the texts from Debreczeny’s Complete Prose Fiction in Alma Classics’ “The Queen of Spades” and Other Stories.

Pushkin’s verse, of course, poses a greater challenge to translators than his prose, but Clarke performs admirably in his version of Ruslan and Lyudmila. His rendition of Pushkin’s rhymed iambic tetrameters into unrhymed lines of the same meter gives a more accurate impression of how natural the poem sounds in Russian than a rhymed translation likely would have. Avoiding syntactic distortions and stylistic oddities, Clarke delivers a well-paced narrative poem that sounds as if it were originally written in English. At the same time, it is impressively accurate on the lexical level, and each line usually closely matches the corresponding line in the original, which appears on facing pages.

There is, however, a flaw that recurs frequently enough in Clarke’s verse to deserve attention, namely his tendency to fill ictuses with articles, prepositions, conjunctions, or other monosyllabic words that natural syntax would deemphasize. As a consequence, some of the lines acquire a strangely jolting rhythm. For example, opening the book at random, we find that in lines 233–34 of canto 4 Clarke renders Pushkin’s

Иль волю дав своим мечтам,
К родимым киевским полям
В забвенье сердца улетает.

as:

Or, giving free rein to her dreams,
she’d fly back in oblivion
to her dear Kiev countryside. (104–05)

The first of the translated lines quoted above would make a perfect truncated amphibrachic trimeter (“Or, giving free rein to her dreams”), but Clarke aims for iambic tetrameter throughout the poem and thus the line resonates oddly because of the accents falling on “free” and “to” (“Or, giving free rein to her dreams”). The next line has the same problem: “she’d fly back in oblivion.”

Despite this drawback, the translation is good and certainly to be recommended on its own merits, notwithstanding the fact that it is the best English version I have read. The series as a whole deserves similar commendation and, with the intention of collecting every volume, I eagerly anticipate the release of the next.

 

Ivan Eubanks
New Economic School, Moscow