Book review: Alexander Pushkin Seleted Poems

Portrait of Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) a Russian poet, playwright, and novelist. Dated 19th Centu

Portrait of Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) a Russian poet, playwright, and novelist. Dated 19th Century When: 17 Oct 2016 - Credit: Archant

Islington-based Antony Wood’s supple translations pulsate with life and offer “an emotional diary” of the Russian writer from precocious teen to political exile

Selected Poems by Alexander Pushkin translated by Islington author Antony Wood

Selected Poems by Alexander Pushkin translated by Islington author Antony Wood - Credit: Archant

Translators of prose usually deserve more praise than they get.

But how much more extraordinary it is to translate poetry into English, from languages widely different in sound and structure. Antony Wood’s very readable translations of Alexander Pushkin’s poetry were published in April. Along with much other creative work, it arrived at a bad time. But at least, being a book, it is here, you can get a copy, and best of all, you can keep on reading it for as long as you like.

Pushkin may be Russia’s most revered author, but that does not mean he is heavy going. To judge from this collection, the reverse is true. It is of (1) lyrics, (2) narratives and (3) fairy tales, all in verse. Some are told with lightness and irony, but anger, seriousness and melancholy are in the weave as well.

Islington-based Wood has arranged the poems in chronological order in each section, starting the lyrics in 1814 with To a Young Beauty who has Taken Snuff, written when Pushkin was fifteen, finishing with “I have made myself, but not with hands, a monument”, written not long before he died, of a duelling wound, aged thirty-seven.

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The six narrative poems included begin with The Fountain of Bakchisaray, written in 1823, set in the Crimea, and end with The Bronze Horseman of 1833, set in St Petersburg. The four fairy tales cover a shorter timespan, from The Tale of Tsar Saltan in 1831 to The Tale of the Golden Cockerel of 1834.

Given that Wood says of the short poems, the lyrics, “are typically of the present moment … a kind of emotional diary throughout his life”, it is good to be able to move with Pushkin through his tempestuous, precocious youth and away into political exile, for writing against autocracy.

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Then we follow him back to Moscow and St Petersburg, where the complications of his adult life, relieved by occasional, creative spells in the country, play themselves out.

“The biggest problem for the English translator of Russian verse,” writes Wood, “is that Russian abounds in long, sinuous words..whereas English words are shorter and abound in monosyllables.”

Not being able to read Russian, I cannot comment on the loss of those long, sinuous words, but nor will I grieve over them.

These rhythmic, supple translations open up a whole world, pulsating with life, beauty, absurdity, and the love of freedom.

Wood backs them up with interesting notes. The lockdown prevented a launch party, but here, in imagination, let us raise a glass to all translators, and in particular, Antony Wood.

Penguin Classics £10.99

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