The Translator’s Doubts: Vladimir Nabokov and the Ambiguity of Translation

Julia Trubikhina, Montclair State University

This paper is a fragment of a much larger investigation into the nature of Nabokov’s work as a translator and his metaphysics. It will consider Nabokov’s attitude towards translation by looking closely, line-by-line, at his poem “On Translating Eugene Onegin.” The poem, itself written in the so called “Onegin stanza” (“patterned on a sonnet”), preceded by nine years the publication of his English translation of the famous novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin. Nabokov’s response to the question he asks in the poem (“What is translation?”) is divided into two parts, as is the poem itself, and concerns both theory and practice. I will finally arrive at Nabokov’s derogatory description, in the last line of the poem, of his own, enormously ambitious work as “dove-droppings” on Pushkin’s monument, which strikes one as forced modesty or, indeed, as parody. It brings us to Nabokov’s unorthodox earlier translation of Pushkin’s “Pamiatnik” (“Exegi monumentum”) as a dialogue of two voices the quoted voice of metaphysical certainty speaking of poet’s immortality and the mocking voice of the hidden author, parodying the metaphysical certainty. These two voices, like the two parts of the poem “On Translating Eugene Onegin” (theory and practice), sum up Nabokov’s profound ambivalence about translation. This ambivalence is manifested in the very oscillation between humility and violence within the space of a single poem. It is further seen in the recognition of the inherent failure of untranslatability in theory (the translation is, according to Benjamin, an “exemplary failure”) coexisting with the ambitious insistence nonetheless on the kinship, however impaired, of translation to the original. Finally, this ambivalence is revealed in the Benjaminian reverse formula – the paradoxical combination of scholastic ardor (“scholiastic passion”) and artistic perseverance (“a poet’s patience”) the Translator’s Aufgabe in practice.