Caroline Lemak Brickman

Reading in Good Faith


“We are translators of God’s creation, his little plagiarists and imitators, we dress up what he wrote, as a charmed commentator sometimes gives an extra grace to a line of genius.” - Vladimir Nabokov in a letter to his mother, October 1925.


I’ve read a lot—and heard more—about how the burden of responsibility rests on the translator. Walter Benjamin's famous 1923 essay places the “task” at hand on the translator; dust jackets proclaim that a translation has (often “finally”) “captured” or “conveyed” the “sense” or the “tone” or the “rhythm” of the “original.” There are a lot of strains in the polemical history of translation theory but they all seem to agree on the stakes of their argument. (How literal should a translation be, should it eschew or embrace rhyme and meter, will footnotes only distract the reader. Should an old text be translated into contemporary lexicon, should a translator revolutionize her own language the way Dante, Shakespeare, Sappho, and Dostoevsky transformed theirs, how much “meaning” should he preserve and how much “poetry” should she sacrifice. Should a translation be “readable.” “Musical.” “Exciting.” What on earth should be done with wordplay.) In other words, regardless of where precisely on the spectrum they lie, theorists and critics seem to agree that the stakes of the spectrum are this: what ought a translator do? What are the debts he owes to the author of the original and to his readership? And given this impossible bind, how can she translate most faithfully?

Fidelity, faith. Fascinating vocabulary we use to judge an art. Do we mean that the less a translation creatively strays from the original, the more it merits a reader’s trust? But in what other genre or form of art and literature is it appropriate to say that we are uninterested in reading into deviations and strangenesses and unexpected moments or techniques? Is “fidelity” merely an unexamined impulse toward uniformity? An abstraction that encourages lazy reading?

What would it mean to shift the burdens of responsibility and rigor onto the reader?

It would mean deciding how to read. Figuring out what a translation wants from its reader. So as to determine the poetics of the thing. It would mean considering a translation neither as a “secondary” text (a facsimile of the original) nor as a “primary” text (forgetting, whether willfully or in ignorance, about the original), but instead as a text whose very concerns with such hierarchies absolve it from them. A text that can simultaneously be itself, be another text, and be about that other text.

It would mean that it is possible, although not necessary, to read a translation qua translation without recourse to the original. That this is possible without re-establishing its status as an original “in its own right.” That this is possible without doing violence—and sometimes necessary in order to avoid doing violence.


Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov translated Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin’s 1829 love lyric “Ya vas lyubil” three times: once in 1929 (as “I worshipped you”) and twice in 1949 (as “I loved you” and “I you loved”). While composing “I worshipped you,” he was on a butterfly safari in the French Pyrenees, where he and his wife were taking a vacation from literary émigré life in Berlin.

I worshipped you. My love’s reluctant ember
is in my heart still glimmering, may be,
but let it not break on your peace; remember,
I should not want to have you sad through me.

I worshipped you in silent hopeless fashion,
shy was my love, jealous, but always true;
I worshipped you with such a tender passion
as I should want all men to worship you.

What is this poem about? Love, romantic love, a love so strong the speaker says “worship.” A verb we usually save for matters of faith. Love that appears in the guise of devotion, positing the addressee as an object who merits unwavering fidelity (“shy was my love, jealous, but always true”) in the “passion” of more than one subject (“as I should want all men to worship you”), yet is not expected to return that passion. The vector of the Passion, after all, only points in one direction: skyward. And whoever heard of reciprocal worship?

And these rhymes. Nabokov ends the first quatrain with “me” and the last with “you,” but he rhymes “may be” with “me,” and “always true” with “you.” These rhymes—extragrammatical links between words and concepts in the lyric—work to distance the speaker from the addressee. Students of Nabokov will know well his thematic tendency towards thwarted desire. Time and again he invokes obstacles to stand between subject and beloved. Often these obstacles take the form of perversion or pathology (Humbert’s pedophilia, Kinbote’s narcissistic homosexuality, Van Veen and Ada’s incest, Luzhin’s dense madness). Often they involve another set of Nabokov’s chosen themes: memory, loss, time, exile (Ganin’s Mary; Krug’s dead wife; Nabokov’s own lost loves, irrevocably linked with his lost homeland, as portrayed in Speak, Memory). In this vein, I wish to consider yet a third set of distinctively Nabokovian motifs: reflection, symmetry, illusion, play. Often these result in obstacles between lover and beloved that speak more explicitly to the presence of the author’s hand in the text (consider Nabokov’s reputation as a “tricky, “controlling,” often “cold,” “cruel” author, as we find his shadowy, anagrammatic doubles throughout his oeuvre, as we read the fates of Cincinnatus C., of Albinus, of Krug’s son). Should we not consider his translation of a lyric treating unrequited love—that is, his adopting the pre-inscribed words of another auteur—a move analogous to adopting the voice of a pedophile, or adopting the setting of a nightmarish totalitarian regime, in order to challenge the limits of representation and desire?

Look at the rhymes again: “my love’s reluctant ember” resolves in “remember.” In addition to establishing an intersection between the old-hat Nabokovian poetics of “reluctant” eros and the import of memory, this rhymed linkage of the ember of desire to the injunction to remember reveals another layer in the poem. The choice to invoke Mnemosyne (mother of the Muses and so grandmother of the arts) at such a rhyme juncture establishes a correspondence between the lover, who holds desire of the object, and the translator himself, who keeps faith by holding memory of the original. Such a correspondence suggests that the unrequited-love-plot of the lyric is an allegory for the impossible mission of the translator, who must simultaneously faithfully “remember” an unfaithful object and generously, jealously, relinquish his exclusive rights to that object. An allegory for the translator, whose work depends upon belief, the translator who must have faith in the sanctity and value of his memory.

The poem is faithful, insofar as it is concerned with blurring those three areas of discourse—religious veneration, erotic love, and translation—to which the concept of fidelity is relevant.


The next two translations were completed twenty years later, by which time Nabokov had already left Europe and was two years into teaching Russian to American university students. The shift from his concerns as a member of prominent émigré literary circles to the more practical concerns of a pedagogue are apparent, as he loses the rhymes and begins to lose the meter—and even seems to forget the rules of written English:

    I loved you: love, perhaps, is yet   I you loved: love yet, maybe,
    not quite extinguished in my soul;   in soul mine has gone out not quite;
    but let it trouble you no more;   but let it you more not trouble;
    with nothing do I wish to sadden you.   I not wish to sadden you with anything.

    I loved you mutely, without hope,   I you loved mutely, hopelessly,
    either by shyness irked or jealousy;   now by shyness, now by jealousy oppressed;
    I loved you so sincerely, with such tenderness,   I you loved so sincerely, so tenderly,
    as by another loved God grant you be.   as give you God to be loved by another.

It is worthwhile to take up some space shuffling these versions around a little bit, for purposes of comparison. Here’s “I worshipped you” facing “I loved you”:

    I worshipped you. My love’s reluctant ember   I loved you: love, perhaps, is yet
    is in my heart still glimmering, may be,   not quite extinguished in my soul;
    but let it not break on your peace; remember,   but let it trouble you no more;
    I should not want to have you sad through me.   with nothing do I wish to sadden you.

    I worshipped you in silent hopeless fashion,   I loved you mutely, without hope,
    shy was my love, jealous, but always true;   either by shyness irked or jealousy;
    I worshipped you with such a tender passion   I loved you so sincerely, with such tenderness,
    as I should want all men to worship you.   as by another loved God grant you be.

Perhaps at this point it will not surprise us that the primary differences in word choice between these two poems seem to pertain entirely to the realm of faith. “I worshipped you [full stop]” has become “I loved you [colon]”; the speaker’s bodily “heart” has become his ethereal “soul”; the injunction to “remember” has vanished entirely (and with it its rhyme), as has our semper fi friend “always true.” Gone, too, is the “passion” of his ardor—but come to take the place of “all men” in line 8 is the more chaste (or weightier?) “another.” The most remarkable difference between these two poems, however—almost more pronounced than the formal differences—is God’s cameo in that last line of “I loved you.”

His presence alters the geometry of the poem. Instead of the lonely speaker, the desired addressee, and the amorphous masses of “all men” cited in “I worshipped you,” “I loved you” has four sharply delineated players: I, you, God, another. They form a lopsided triangle, with God standing just behind another. The speaker’s faith is reluctant in this poem: his object of desire is no longer an object of worship; the rival triangulating between him and his beloved is backed by God’s grant.

The shift in faith echoes a shift in tone. This poem tells a different story. “I worshipped you [full stop]” looks like a complete action; “I loved you [colon]” wanders distractedly up to the threshold of the present. Like a rhyme at the end of a couplet, the injunction in “I worshipped you” to “remember [+ narrative]” seals the past and insists that it be intact, perfected, gemlike. In “I worshipped you,” the past is rendered an object itself (perhaps “objectified”), existing only so that rays of memory might illuminate it. And the speaker has his finger on the on/off switch, holding the rights to the story. What an anxious, controlling way to treat your beloved. What an anxious way to honor the original. In both poems, the speaker is sanctioned as a lyrical subject by desire for his beloved, sanctioned as a translator by the dexterity of his memory. But only in “I worshipped you” is the beloved sanctioned by that same desire; only in “I worshipped you” does her lovability exist contingent on his ability to love. The beloved in “I loved you” can be loved by another, and God affords him that love. If the beloved’s status as beloved is sanctioned by the speaker’s desire in “I worshipped you,” then in “I loved you” it may be granted by faith in God.


I have until now refrained from discussing Nabokov’s poems in light of Pushkin’s, preferring to confront each one head-on and uncontingent on its ancestry. However, it seems that “I you loved” was composed as a pedagogical aid designed to help struggling American students of Russian get through the lyric in the original. In order to give the poem the most grace as we read it, I would like to introduce Pushkin’s words, romanized through Nabokov’s own system of transliteration. As one such struggling student, I will say that constructions like “I you loved,” “in soul mine has gone out not quite,” “let it you more not trouble,” “I not wish,” etc., all suddenly lose their strangeness if considered in the following context, where each word literally transliterates, then translates, the word sitting just above it:

Я вас любил: любовь еще, быть может,
Ya vas lyubíl: lyubóv' eshchó, bït' mózhet,
I you loved: love yet, maybe,

В душе моей угасла не совсем;
V dushé moéy ugásla ne sovsém;
in soul mine has gone out not quite;

Но пусть она вас больше не тревожет;
No pust' oná vas ból'she ne trevózhit;
but let it you more not trouble;

Я не хочу печалить вас ничем.
Ya ne hochú pechálit' vas nichém.
I not wish to sadden you with anything.

Я вас любил безмолвно, безнадежно,
Ya vas lyubíl bezmólvno, beznadézhno,
I you loved mutely, hopelessly,

То робостью, то ревностью томим;
To róbust'yu, to révnost'yu tomím;
now by shyness, now by jealousy oppressed;

Я вас любил так искренно, так нежно,
Ya vas lyubíl tak ískrenno, tak nézhno,
I you loved so sincerely, so tenderly,

Как дай вам Бог любимой быть другим.
Kak day vam Bog lyubímoy bït' drugím.
as give you God to be loved by another.

This one is kind of a headache but I like it. I like it because we can see the rhyme scheme but the translation doesn’t have to rhyme. And because it shows us where the affinities between Russian and English are, and where the two tongues begin to diverge in their methods of organization. For instance, we can see how a word-for-word translation of the instrumental case in Russian does look remarkably like poetry in English (“now by shyness, now by jealousy oppressed”), but the sacred strangeness of the construction “as give you God [+ infinitive]” does not quite convince us. And in the first quatrain, how odd to see those qualifiers—so weak and doubtful!—trailing off at the ends of their lines: “love yet, maybe”; “gone out not quite.” Is this poem more coy than the first two? Or does it merely realize in English the Russian potential for coyness? Despite the work we have to do to make these lines make sense, it is downright luxurious to read a poem in English where verbs come after objects, nice to see that “I you,” “I you.”

Each poem spins the past tense in the title verb differently. “I worshipped you” gives us a complete action; “I loved you” does not. But “I you loved” is so strange that in waiting for the words to organize themselves into some semblance of sense in my head, while casting about for meaning, I land briefly on the possibility that it was “I [whom] you loved,” so that the past tense does not suggest that I have stopped loving you so much as that you have stopped loving I.

They’re all sad poems, of course. Sad because here, the corollary to desire is lack; despite the abundance of poems one little eight-line-lyric spawned, this cornucopia of words never equals satiety. Sad because here, the corollary to memory is oubli; three poems composed across continents and decades—three poems and an interlinear transcription—will not recall Nabokov’s lost Russia. Sad because the corollary to prayer is God’s silence, or His choosing to back “another”; just as the translator can only re-translate, translate again (Russian pere-, pere-, perevodit’), so the worshipper, praying in vain, can only try to find refuge among the multitudes of men who resemble him, “all men” who worship. Sad because here, the corollary to belief is always betrayal; and to faith, infidelity.

They’re all sad poems but “I you loved” is the saddest of the bunch for me. I think it’s because the very language of desire breaks down on the page. So that even the illusion of referentiality is lost. Even the meanest criterion of a Russian-to-English translation—that it be legible to those who read English—is not met, and we have to think like students of Russian, like people with broken Russian, in order to read it well. Another victory for those entropic forces keeping “I” from “you,” another defeat for harmony. Or maybe it’s the saddest because it comes last, and reading 24, 32, 40 lines of love unrequited is sadder than reading eight. I don’t know how faithful this translation is, but it is certainly honest. Miserably, self-defeatingly so. “I you loved” doggedly airs the most dirty laundry of the three poems, and in return, demands something rare from us. This poem does not ask us to read blindly, trustingly, or naively; but rather carefully, generously, with interest. Not to read faithfully so much as in good faith.


My editor asks me, what does it matter that they’re translations?

But this is like asking, what does it matter that he loved her?


I have argued that the concerns of a translator are embedded in Nabokov’s versions of this lyric. It’s in fashion to argue that a love poem is “actually” about the inevitable failure of language. But I don’t just mean to say, look, if we clasp our hands in prayer and get down on our knees, we’ll see that these translations of a love poem are really theorizing their own necessity-cum-impossibility as translations. My point here is that the creative principles governing a translation can and should be revealed through reading practices that neither forcefully include nor exclude the original. The faculty of memory is sacred to Nabokov; his translations of a love poem are about faith in memory. Or better: his translations of a love poem are about love. The love itself in those translations is about faith in memory.