6 February 2020

Take the Weight Off Your Psyche

Mary Hobson, The Feast; An Autobiography (London: Thorpewood Publishing, 2015), p. 76:
The person who benefits most from any translation is the translator. By the time you have sucked the juice out of every last Russian idea, thrown all the English words into the air which are in any way connected with it, found two that rhyme (sometimes three in Pushkin’s case), shunted them along to the end of the line, while attempting to preserve the music of the thing and rejecting anything that Jane Austen could not have said naturally in prose, continually asking yourself ‘How would Pushkin have said that if he’d been an Englishman?’, you feel as close to the poem as you're likely to get. And to the poet with whom you have now formed a relationship. It is addictive. Somewhere between a crossword and fine art. You'll never stop once you've started. And it has this additional advantage; you can take the weight off your psyche for an hour or two by trying to inhabit someone else’s.

Why is Jane Austen my standard? Because both Pushkin and Jane Austen wrote on the cusp of classicism and romanticism, and they took the best from both. Because they express so much in so few words, because they can both write with such wit and such grace that their profundity is sometimes overlooked.
Hobson began studying Russian when she was 56 and earned a PhD in the subject from London University when she was 74. She offers some advice about learning the language here. Those who speak Russian may be interested in her interview with the BBC World Service; it's beyond me. What little Russian I know comes from watching Leningrad videos: Где же Пушкин в кителе?

Valentin Serov, Alexander Pushkin on a Park Bench (1899)