Nabokov’s Theory and Practice of Translation

Joseph Fitzpatrick, Duke University

The publication Nabokov’s translation of Eugene Onegin caused a small sensation in the literary world: critics were affronted by Nabokov’s theoretical polemics advocating rigorously literal translation and bemused by his idiosyncratic execution of his theories. While some isolated attempts have since been made to address these theories and methods critically, the Onegin translation remains a curiosity for Nabokov scholars. More importantly, the emerging field of translation studies continues to ignore the work almost completely: it is treated parenthetically either as a typical example of a “foreignizing” translation (Venuti) or as a hopelessly conservative (even cowardly) submission by the translator to an obviously inadequate or unliterary mode of translation (Robinson, Barnstone). I suggest that Nabokov’s aggressively self-assured tone has distracted critics from the uncertainties and contradictions that make his theoretical writings genuinely useful to contemporary translation (and Nabokov) scholars. In the letters, essays, and notes Nabokov published in connection with his translation we see an evolving and contradictory theory of textual production and a surprising multiplication of the possible translation strategies that can be included in the term “literal.” Contemporaneous with the birth of machine translation and the growing interest in information theory as a critical component of translation studies, Nabokov’s texts explore a field of translation that is at once cutting edge and – it would seem – unliterary. In the hundreds of examples he draws from Puškin, Nabokov addresses questions that translation scholars today often simply ignore: how can a literal translation be considered “accurate” in a literary (rather than a linguistic) sense; how can words that are implicitly translated from one language into a second language (Puškin’s use of Russian equivalents for stock French terms) be translated back into the first language – or into a third language (English); what status can a literal translation have as a work of literature in the target-language? These questions have direct bearing on issues that are central to translation studies today: the preservation or alteration of foreign cultural codes in translated texts; the problem of language's temporality in the translation of non-contemporary texts; and the difficulty in clearly defining “literalism” as a method of translation.

Ultimately, thinking though these specifically translation-studies questions leads to a perspective on Nabokov’s understanding of text and language that will be useful to Nabokov scholars. The possibility of being simultaneously reader and writer – the standard position of the translator – had a profound impact on Nabokov’s view of the interpretation and reception of literary texts. The importance of rewriting and annotation in his American period works can be traced to his experiences translating Puškin. And through his theoretical texts on this translation we can see the fictional or authorial prefaces, afterwords, and annotations that Nabokov appended to most of his later works as an ongoing anxiety over the problems of reception and rewriting that he discovered through his Onegin.


Barnstone, Willis. The Poetics of Translation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Robinson, Douglas. The Translator’s Turn. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Venuti, Lawrence. The Translator’s Invisibility. London/New York: Routledge, 1995.