Revisiting Parnassian Affinities: Nabokov and Heine

Stanislav A. Shvabrin, University of California, Los Angeles

Heinrich Heine occupies a special place in the history of Russian letters. Translated by Tiutchev, Lermontov, Fet and Blok (to mention only a few potent representatives of a legion of the German poet’s Russian translators, imitators and mockers), Heine’s poems exerted a singularly strong influence on Russian poetry, broadening its thematic range, contributing to a fuller realization of its formal potential (Gordon 1973, 1979; Ivanov 2003: 433-34, 439).

In 1918, Vladimir Nabokov, unhindered by his poor knowledge of German, successfully translated into Russian the lyrics of Schubert and Schumann’s settings of Heine’s poems, to be performed by the contralto Anna Yan-Ruban to the ovations of her Yalta audience the same year (Boyd 1990: 145). Five Russian translations from Heine’s Buch der Lieder (“Ich will meine Seele tauchen,” “Und wüsstens die Blumen, die kleinen,” “Still ist die nacht, es ruhen die Gassen,” “Am fernen Horizonte,” “Hör ich das Liedchen klingen”) were chosen by Nabokov for a cycle “Iz Geine,” dated September 1918 (Vladimir Nabokov Archive, Montreux). In his October 1971 interview with Bayerischer Rundfunk, Nabokov recalled translating Heine’s “Ich grolle nicht” as “Net, zloby net” – this departure from the original resulted from Yan-Ruban’s desire to have “the musically significant vowels [of the translation] coincide in fullness of sound” with Heine’s German (Nabokov 1990: 189).

Nabokov’s translations of Heine differ significantly from what Elizabeth Klosti Beaujour terms his early translating “bravura performances” (Klosti Beaujour 1998: 714), while the link between Nabokov and Heine was firmer than might have been suggested by the brevity of the Yalta episode. By translating Heine Nabokov not only contributed to the rich corpus of existing Russian translations of the German poet, but also entered into a dialogue with a greater Russian literary tradition. Apart from testifying to the young poet/translator’s mastery of dolnik, Nabokov’s translations of Heine pay a kind of tribute to his predecessors among Russian translators of Heine, implicitly evoked by these texts’ formal features.

This paper will seek to place Nabokov’s early translations of Heine against the background of his mature view of the art of translation. A discussion of one striking example of how the Heine tradition functions in Nabokov’s original work, the poem entitled “Kol’tso. Iz Geine,” should help to enrich our appreciation of the delicate nature of the affinity linking Vladimir Nabokov and Heinrich Heine.

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Klosti Beaujour, Elizabeth. “Translation and Self-Translation.” In: The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov. Ed. by Vladimir E. Alexandrov. New York: Garland, 1995: 714-724.
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