Sunday, June 23, 2019

252: A Mathematician Translating Pushkin?

I just finished reading an English translation of Alexander Pushkin’s famous 19th-century book-length Russian epic poem, Eugene Onegin, a classic tale of tragedy and lost love.    This might seem like an odd topic for a math podcast, except for the name of the translator:  Douglas Hofstadter.   If you’re a fellow math geek, you may recognize him as the author of “Godel Esher Bach”, “Metamagical Themas”, and several other of the greatest modern books in the popular math genre.    Now it’s not totally unprecedented for him to translate a poem, as you may recall that in episode 125, we discussed his book “Le Ton Beau de Marot”, which discussed many mathematical aspects and artistic choices made in translating a short French poem.   Still, taking on the translation of such a famous book-length poem is a major undertaking.   What is it about Eugene Onegin that would attract a mathematician?

Aside from the general qualities of the poem and the classic story, one of the major factors that attracted Hofstadter was the several levels of intricate patterns embedded in Eugene Onegin.  Pushkin created a very original rhyme scheme, with the poem divided into 14-line stanzas of the form ABAB CCDD EFFE GG.   If you look at those first three sets of four lines, they might look a bit familiar from other discussions we’ve had in the podcast:   they are the three possible patterns you can get by flipping four coins, and resulting in two of each side:  ABAB, CCDD, or EFFE.   It seems odd at first that you can’t put your four coins together without getting something that looks like a pattern— no matter how you arrange them, they won’t look random!   Perhaps this is part of what attracted Pushkin to the scheme.

But there is yet another layer of patterns imposed on top of this:  what is called “feminine” and “masculine” rhymes.   A masculine rhyme is a single stressed syllable at the end of a line, like “turn” and “burn”.  In a feminine rhyme, there are two syllables involved, with the stress being on the first:  “turning” and “burning”.   The unstressed syllables may rhyme or be identical.   The pattern of masculine and feminine lines in each stanza is FMFM FFMM FMMFMM.

And on top of this, the poem is in iambic tetrameter, with the stress always falling on even numbered syllables, and exactly 8 or 9 syllables per line:  8 in the lines with masculine rhymes, or 9 in the lines with feminine ones.

With all these restrictions, you can see why it’s quite a mathematical puzzle to grab a set of words from your vocabulary and put together anything like a coherent Pushkin stanza.   On top of that, imagine having to translate another language, and try to come up with something roughly equivalent in English that fits all these patterns!   Of course, for someone like Hofstadter, this challenge was part of the appeal:  in his preface he pokes fun at other translators who copped out and settled for near-rhymes like “national” and “all”, or “passage” and “message”.   The price he pays for being able to match the rhyme scheme exactly, of course, is that he often needs to paraphrase, rather than exactly communicating the corresponding English word for every Russian one.   

The well-known Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov, probably rolling in his grave after his spirit heard this translation, famously claimed that a translator has no right to do such paraphrasing.   He insisted that one must strictly translate word-for-word, with no regard for rhyme schemes or other aspects of poetry.   But I think that makes the translation a bit boring.   For example, would you rather listen to this translation by Nabokov:

  Hm, Hm, great reader,
  is your entire kin well?
Allow me, you might want perhaps
to learn now from me
what “kinsfolks” means exactly?
Well, here’s what kinsfolks are:

or this version from Hofstadter:

Hullo, hulloo, my gentle reader!
And how’re your kinsfolk, old and young?
Pray let me tell you, as your leader,
Some scuttlebutt about our tongue.
What’s “kin”?  It’s relatively subtle,
But you’ll tune in if I but scuttle.

I think Hofstadter’s version is much more pleasant to read.   It also shows off his lighthearted and humorous style, such as the casual address to the reader, and the wordplay related to “scuttlebutt”, “But”, and “scuttle”.   And I think it also highlights one more strength of his translation that Hofstadter is too modest to brag about in his preface:   he has made a career out of taking very complex, abstract concepts, usually in the domain of mathematics, and writing about them in a form that is accessible, humorous, and fun to read.    Thus, it isn’t very surprising that these skills can also serve him well when translating classic 19th-century Russian literature.   If you have any interest in such topics, I highly recommend this translation.

And this has been your math mutation for today.



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