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112. Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin, translated into English by Vladimir Nabokov, with frontispiece artwork by Stan Washburn.

Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin, translated into English by Vladimir Nabokov, with the Russian in Cyrillic and transliteration by Stanislav Shvabrin, and with an introduction by Brian Boyd; frontispiece by Stan Washburn portraying Pushkin and Nabokov, June 2018.


Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) is not only Russia’s greatest poet, but also, to those in a position to judge, the greatest poet since Shakespeare. His novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, stands at the center of Russian literature in a way that nothing else in world literature dominates its tradition. By common consent Pushkin is also the most untranslatable of writers. Dante and Shakespeare have long been admired across linguistic borders, but because Pushkin’s unique harmony of rhyme and reason defies translation, his reputation outside those who knew Russian remained pallid or merely notional for more than a century after his death. His quality did not become apparent to the English-speaking world until Nabokov’s 1964 Eugene Onegin translation and commentary, revised still more stringently in the 1975 version that this edition follows.

Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) has been called “God’s own novelist”. He was not only one of the greatest writers of all time but also one of the most astonishing translators. Far surpassing his other translating was the effort he expended on Pushkin. He once predicted: “I shall be remembered for Lolita and my work on Eugene Onegin”; and later wrote: “The greatest reward I can think of is that students may use my work as a pony”.

Pushkin-Nabokov portraitBut the publication of Eugene Onegin in four volumes by Pantheon Books in the Bollingen Series was not what Nabokov had envisioned. The translation was presented in the first volume, followed by his commentaries in the next two volumes, and in volume four an index and a reprint of the minuscule 1837 edition at the back of the book, so small as to be unreadable even for those who could read Russian in Cyrillic type. Nabokov had hoped for his translation to be faced line for line with the Russian original and a transliteration, with stress marked in all words of more than one syllable. But his publishers found the cost, on top of that of the luxuriant four-volume set, to be prohibitive. Nevertheless, the set, as designed by Bert Clarke for the 1964 editon, is one of the most handsome publications ever produced in the United States. Clarke was an eminent typographer and this must be his greatest achievement as a book designer.

As Brian Boyd declares: “Nabokov would have been thrilled to see this Arion edition, which solves these problems of presentation so elegantly: the English translation with, beside it, the Cyrillic original interlineated with an indented stress-marked transliteration (prepared by Stanislav Shvabrin, the leading scholar of the finer points of Nabokov’s verse), both original and transliteration set in type small enough that their two versions of the line match the placement and numbering of the lines of the translation, so that the eye can easily skip from English to Russian.

“But what difference could a mere typographic arrangement make? In this case, all the difference in the world. It allows Pushkin to leap into sharp focus; it allows Nabokov’s aims in translating the poem as he did to become instantly clear; it allows readers to see the essential modesty and solicitude that drove Nabokov’s method.”

Nabokov began to think about translating Eugene Onegin as soon as he settled in Ithaca at the end of the summer of 1948 and started preparing for his first year of teaching Russian literature students at Cornell. All too aware that Eugene Onegin was “the backbone of the study of Russian literature”, he read the existing translations in disgust and despair, finding himself obliged to revise every line. His wife Véra asked him “Why don’t you translate it yourself?” He soon realized there was no viable alternative.

Not only does Nabokov place first the purity of Pushkin’s language and the clarity of his thought, he also lets readers who do not know the Russian enjoy the architecture of the whole work. Eugene Onegin changed course in the long process of composition, and could have followed further along unfinished side-roads it began to explore, but as the published novel stands it forms a wryly harmonious whole. Even without a knowledge of Russian, readers eager to see the interplay of Pushkin’s sense and his words, word order and sounds will soon grasp recurrent words and start to navigate for themselves in Pushkin’s clear and sparkling waters. And most astonishingly, as Stanislas Shvabrin notes, even native Russians who know English well will understand many patches of Pushkin better for having Nabokov at their side.

Brian Boyd is University Distinguished Professor in the Department of English at the University of Aukland, New Zealand. The foremost authority on Vladimir Nabokov, he is the author of a two-volume critical biography and other books on Nabokov’s novels Ada and Pale Fire.

Stanislav Shvabrin is Assistant Professor of Russian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was co-editor with Brian Boyd for Verses and Versions, a selection of Russian poetry translated by Nabokov.

THE EDITION

In a tour de force of typography and letterpress printing, Nabokov’s English is presented along side the original in Cyrillic, accompanied by a transliteration. The paper is Italian mould-made Magnani, the types are Bembo for the English translation, 16 point; Modern 8A for the Cyrillic and transliteration, 12 point; and Ariston script for display in various sizes. The format is folio, 15-5/8 by 11 inches, 256 pages.

The frontispiece reproduces a painting by Stan Washburn, portraying Pushkin and Nabokov side by side. It was painted especially for this edition. Devotees of the author and translator might be interested to know that original painting is available for sale, framed, at $5,000.

The book is sewn by hand with linen thread over linen tapes, with handsewn bands at the head and foot in three colors of silk thread. The cover has a brown goatskin spine with gold foil-stamped titling and tan cloth over boards. The book comes in a slipcase.

Each copy of the Arion edition is accompanied by the two-volume Princeton University Press edition of Eugene Onegin that provides additional material and commentaries by Nabokov.

This is the one-hundred twelfth publication of the Arion Press. The edition is limited to 300 numbered copies for sale and 26 lettered copies hors de commerce. The price is $1,650.

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Edition:

In a tour de force of typography and letterpress printing, Nabokov’s English is presented along side the original in Cyrillic, accompanied by a transliteration.  The format is folio, 15-5/8 by 11 inches, 256 pages. The frontispiece reproduces a painting by Stan Washburn, portraying Pushkin and Nabokov side by side. It was painted especially for this edition. The book is sewn by hand with linen thread over linen tapes, with handsewn bands at the head and foot in three colors of silk thread. The cover has a brown goatskin spine with gold foil-stamped titling and tan cloth over boards. The book comes in a slipcase.

Each copy of the Arion edition is accompanied by the two-volume Princeton University Press edition of Eugene Onegin that provides additional material and commentaries by Nabokov. The edition is limited to 300 numbered copies for sale. The price is $1,650.

Purchase the book securely online now:

Reserve the book and pay offline (checks preferred):

Reserve your copy