Poetry at Gunpoint: Interview with Mark Pettus, translator of Lermontov

96 So, tell me about Lermontov.

MP In some ways there’s not a whole lot to tell—he had a short life. He only lived to be twenty-six. He was born in 1814, and died in 1841, in a duel, like Pushkin. His early childhood was kind of curious. He lived with his mother, a very nervous and sickly woman, who died when he was three. He was raised by his grandmother, his mother’s mother, who doted on him. She was very wealthy, spoiled and pampered him in every possible way. She would, for example, have peasant children herded up to the mansion to serve as soldiers in little Misha Lermontov’s army. When he played was, he had actual peasants to be his play regiment. There was some intrigue between the grandmother,  who was a little bit crazy, and the father. She threatened to remove the boy from her will if her father took him away from her.

portrait of Lermontov

Lermontov didn’t remember his mother well, except for some haunting details. One of his earliest, and best known poems, called “The Angel,” speaks of a child’s soul being brought by an angel to be born, and the angel sings to him. The angel’s song remains in the child’s soul throughout his life on earth. The child always sadly remembers the angel’s song, because he can still hear the music, though he can’t make out the words. The poem seems to refer to Lermontov’s dim memory of his mother’s singing, as the source of his poetic gift.

[ Among the ancillary materials to his textbook, Russian Through Propaganda, Pettus gives the Russian text and his translation of this poem here.]

He went to Moscow University for a while, moved to St. Petersburg to join a prestigious military academy, then joined the army and led the life of a junior officer—a lot of carousing and debauchery. He became known for his scandalous verses, which were not published but distributed informally in manuscript. Many poets of the time, Pushkin included, wrote this kind of vulgar poetry which they were somewhat ashamed of later in life. Lermontov led a double life. On the outside he seemed irritable and isolated—though he did have friends and a normal life. But all anyone knew about his real talents came from the rude poems. Yet he found time, throughout his life, to write serious verse, much of which only came to light in his papers after his death in 1841. Then people realized the degree of his talent—and the degree to which he’d kept it hidden.

 Another turning point of his life was in 1837, after Pushkin died in a duel. Of course Pushkin is now regarded as the father of Russian poetry—he was a towering figure even in his own lifetime and Lermontov idolized him. Pushkin died in a duel, defending his wife’s honor. Some anonymous letters were circulating in St. Petersburg high society, to the effect that she was cheating on him. Pushkin traced these letters to a certain Dantes, whom he challenged to a duel, several times. This drama played out over a number of  months. Pushkin would issue a challenge, friends would intervene, a temporary reconciliation would be effected. Meanwhile, unbelievably, Dantes became Pushkin’s brother-in-law, and Pushkin’s wife continued flirting with him. It was an ongoing scandal. At last the duel took place. Pushkin died.


Lermontov was so devastated by the news that, just days afterwards, he wrote an impromptu poem called ”The Death of a Poet,” in which he blamed all of Petersburg high society, including the royal court, for being complicit. In fact, everyone did know what was going on, that Pushkin’s wife’s honor was being questioned, and he had to duel over it—in that time and place, the only alternative would have been to leave the country in disgrace.

The poem spread like wildfire, and Lermontov was exiled, for his first exile, to the Caucasus. The Russian Empire had been expanding for many years, into the Caucasus region as well, and that mountainous region was a convenient place to exile people, because there was a chance they might be killed there. Lermontov saw a lot of action during his exile—by all accounts he was extremely daring. After returning to St. Petersburg he was exiled again for a duel. During this exile he fought another duel in which he died. This duel, with one Martynov, took place really for no good reason. Martynov liked to dress in the Circassian style and put on romantic airs, for which Lermontov teased him mercilessly. Lermontov was famous for his vicious wit, and the constant needling ended in a duel which began and ended when Mertynov shot first and hit Lermontov in the heart.

Lermontov is now considered the second greatest Russian poet, after Pushkin, and both of them died, long before their time,  in duels.

96 So Lermontov’s novel A Hero of Our Time, with its alienated, self-destructive hero, is really a kind of self-portrait then?

MP Yes, and in this reference we could look at another of Lermontov’s poems, called “A Dream” which describes a person lying in the sand after being shot. Lermontov has several works that foreshadow death in a duel. In retrospect, these seem prophetic. But considering the kind of life Lermontov led, his propensity for dueling and his gift for riling people up, great prophetic powers weren’t needed to foretell his end.

Because he was such a troublesome person, it was hard for people to believe that he had been writing this sublime lyric poetry.

96 There are some interesting parallels between Lermontov and Poe. Their nearly matching dates, the profound effect of the mother’s early death, wild life as a student in a military academy, the influence of Byron—though there the parallels end. There’s even an apocryphal tale of Poe having visited Russia. Had Lermontov ever heard of Poe?

MP No. The only real point of contact was the shared influence of Byron.

Lermontov is viewed today as Russia’s supreme Romantic poet. Pushkin is not without a Romantic side, but he is better known for his classical sensibility, his sense of balance, his seemingly effortless style. Lermontov is more fiery, more rough around the edges, in some ways even more musical than Pushkin.

Lermontov modeled his whole life on Byron; he was a true Romantic in the sense that his life was very performative. He saw himself as an isolated, brooding genius who detested high society—this comes up over and over again in his poetry, especially in “The Death of a Poet,” on the death of Pushkin. And Lermontov was, by all accounts, a dare-devil, he didn’t shrink from danger in combat. So it wasn’t an act, he really lived the myth, in a heroic, or maybe anti-heroic sense.

96 I came upon Lermontov quite by accident. In a Taschen book on Symbolist Art I saw Vrubel’s paintings of The Demon and became curious about the poem that so obsessed this artist. Looking for a translation, there were only five in English, two of which were yours. You made one translations to serve as a trot for the annotated Russian text, and the other in blank verse as a literary production.

Is Lermontov really as unknown in the west as he seems?

MP Relatively speaking, certainly. When we think of Russian literature, we think of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky—even Pushkin is not that well known in the West, though in his case the problem of poetry in translation is an obstacle. Realist prose is much easier to capture, and that’s why the great novelists are well-known abroad.

Then with Lermontov, his life was so short that he wrote very little, though it’s amazing he wrote that much in the time he had—he only lived to be twenty-six. His novel, A Hero of Our Time, with its main character Pechorin, was immensely influential on Russian literature—the brooding anti-hero type Lermontov created is there in Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov as well. And Pechorin in turn is related to Puskhin’s Eugene Onegin.

I especially like The Demon, and I think its being written in verse is the main reason no one’s heard of it. Any translation will pale beside the original, which is very formal rhymed poetry, like most traditional Russian verse.

The first translation I did wasn’t meant to be literary, it was just a learning tool for people who wanted to read the Russian. It was part of a series of parallel text-translation readers. I made it as nice as I could, but I had no poetic aspirations there. So it sticks much more closely to the actual content of the poem, it gives a direct idea of what he literally said in the Russian original.

In the blank verse version, more compromises had to be made with the content. In a blank verse line I had more syllables to work with than were in the Russian lines, and that often meant adding a word here or there, adding a descriptor, an adjective that seemed to fit generally with what he was saying even though it wasn’t literally present in the original. I wanted something that would read nicely, and I picked blank verse because the tone of the poem is so much in line with Milton.

96 A brilliant choice: Milton’s Satan is the literary prototype of the Byronic hero.

MP It was appropriate stylistically, and it saved me from having to come up with rhymes, which Milton detested. He mentions that in his preface to Paradise Lost. He found rhyme cloying. And of course if you don’t have to find rhymes, the work of translating is much easier.

96 I am going to spare you the the eternal question, “Vat about moose and sqvirrel?” But I will ask your advice about translations. Nowadays Constance Garnett comes in for a terrible drubbing in every review of a new Russian novel translation. What do you think. Has this worthy woman been added to the evolution chart?

MP I should first say that I haven’t read these works in translation in more than twenty years, so my memory of the translations is rather scanty. A lot of the older translations are sound, but they read kind of like Dickens, in an antiquated English that is a bit of an obstacle to readers nowadays. And though there are archaic elements in these older Russian texts, they don’t read to me as stuffy. Though of course there’s a disparity between classical nineteenth century Russian prose and modern colloquial Russian, but a Dostoevsky novel isn’t stuffy, and that was the impression I got from these older translations. It’s not so much a question of whether they’re good translations—in a class, students sometimes have a hard time making sense of the English these days. So if I were teaching a course in translation, I would choose more recent ones.

96 A great motivation for learning a language is simply to be spared translations, not to have one’s encounter with a towering literary genius mediated by a lesser mind. So, how hard is it to learn Russian?

MP It’s quite hard, actually. I try to be very honest with my students about this. Sometime in week one I give them fair warning that it’s going to be quite a difficult task. A lot of people are frightened off by the alphabet. The Cyrillic alphabet isn’t that difficult to learn, and the spelling is, as in most world languages, a lot simpler than it is in English.

But Russian is highly inflected, there are six different cases. In the first year a lot of what we do is just learn all the case endings for the three grammatical genders. There are a lot of forms to deal with. And one of the hardest things about reading Russian is word order. Because Russian is so inflected, the word ending tells you what role that word is playing in a sentence. In English we often depend on word order to tell what’s the subject, what’s the direct object, and so on. But in Russian, we get that orientation from the endings, so in Russian word order is much more flexible.

In Russian poetry, you often have to disentangle the original word order. For example, you might have three lines of poetry and the subject is at the end of the third line. So there’s this suspense. Something is being done, maybe you have a direct object right off the bat, maybe there’s a participial phrase, but you might have to wait to find out the verb or even the subject. Russian can get away with that, because you’re looking for the nominative case ending to know what your subject is. That can make translating poetry complicated.

Another thing is verbal aspect. Russian verbs come with two infinitives, one perfective and one imperfective, so Russians are always choosing between these two forms every time they use a verb. This is an example of a grammatical category that is basically nonexistent in English, and it takes a lot of time to get used to, both in terms of learning the forms and then interpreting them correctly when you hear them.

Those are just a couple of the many challenges of learning Russian.

96 To give some idea of scale, let’s consider Greek or Latin. With these languages it would take at least five years, giving it one hour of study a day, to get to where you could read an easy prose passage with ease, without a dictionary or a trot. Does Russian require a comparable apprenticeship?

MP First of all, Russian is very comparable to Greek or Latin, the case endings and all that stuff. It’s difficult in about the same way. The only difference being the problem with verbs, but verbs are a little bit tricky in any language. In my classes at least, and in the books I write, my ambition is to get students reading real Russian at the end of first year. By then they’re reading Russian poems, unabridged. At that point they can make sense of it grammatically as long as you give them the vocab. At the end of the second year of study, after we’ve gone through participles and the fancier verb forms, it becomes much easier. We spend the second half of the fourth semester reading Crime and Punishment. It’s certainly not easy, but the students enjoy it quite a bit. But in terms of enjoying Dostoevsky effortlessly, we’re talking about three or four years.

96 That is indeed comparable to the trajectory in Greek or Latin, where one is struggling through a passage from Cicero or Plato by the end of semester 2, with tremendous effort, but it the payoff is big: hearing the actual voice from so different a time and place. I must particularly commend you for your innovation of using propaganda posters, with their grammatically simple slogans, from the beginning. Exposure to primary historical documents from the very start is a great reward for the student, before they’re even fairly out of the gate.

MP I’m very happy to hear that. That was the idea, to introduce the student to authentic and historically interesting Russian. And these are of course propaganda posters, so we critique them and try to see them in context. But beyond that, a lot of these posters are really famous and remain a part of Russian pop culture. So it’s part of cultural fluency, as well as having a historical dimension which is fascinating, and disturbing.

96 So what is it with the Russians? They appear on the stage of world history in the nineteenth century, and whatever they believe, and especially the ideas they get from the West, they embrace with a passion and a literalness that would have horrified the European creators of those ideas. Byron’s doomed romantic characters were meant as highly-colored entertainment, but Lermontov looked to them as an owner’s manual for human existence. The “cursed questions” of nineteenth century Russian thought were cafe conversation in Paris, hardly more than a way to show off one’s cynicism—but in Russia they defined a national existential crisis. Why? Were the Russians just civilized late and badly, so they brought a barbaric energy and Zen “beginner’s mind” to the tasks of culture?

MP These are huge issues. There’s a long history or Western ideas penetrating Russia, and they’re embraced with a zeal that can be shocking, even in its consequences—Socialism and Communism being the most obvious examples. And the zeal is really a religious zeal. That’s one of the first things I would point to. I think the seriousness with which many Russian intellectuals and politicians have regarded Western philosophy comes from a historically religious sensibility, stemming from Russian Orthodoxy. Even people who are militant atheists, like the radical Socialists and Communists, coopted a lot of practices from the Orthodox Church. As when you have the icons of the beloved leaders paraded across Red Square, or preserving the body of Lenin for all to see, like a saint whose holiness so far transcended the mortal condition that his lifeless body did not decay as an ordinary sinner’s would.

But vis-a-vis European civilization, there’s a skepticism along with the zeal. One of the things that always fascinated me about the Russians is the way they can be infinitely knowledgeable about Western culture, to a degree Europeans often aren’t—a lot of the great writers and thinkers of Russian history knew and read widely in several European languages. What makes this interesting is their skepticism regarding European ideas. A nineteenth century Russian writer like Dostoevsky is very skeptical about rationalism, and the idea of progress marching humanity off towards utopia. Russian writers and philosophers invite us to think in a radical way about ideas we have inherited uncritically in the West. It’s hard to sum things up though, it’s a very complex culture.

96 Russian is just one of the many languages you have learned. How did this come about?

MP I fell in love with languages in middle school, I learned Latin—we had to, I wasn’t very good at it really. But I enjoyed it, and I went on to study German in high school, and as an undergrad. When I was a freshman I signed up for course on Dostoevsky in translation, sort of unwittingly. I didn’t know anything about him except that he was a great novelist. I was just swept away by his ideas and his narratives. I decided I had to learn Russian to read these in the original. Then after my undergraduate studies I spent a year in Russia. I loved Russia and the people there, I learned the language better, became more deeply in love with the literature and the intellectual history.

In grad school I expanded my range, studying different Slavic languages like Czech and Polish, and since then it’s been like an addiction, I can’t stop trying at least to learn additional languages. For me it’s mostly about reading some novel in the original. Lately I’ve been learning Hungarian, and I’ve been getting to the stage where I can read it more or less comfortably. But that’s taken a few years—it’s not an easy language.

One motivation for my study of these languages is a course I teach here at Princeton on Easter European literature, and I’ve been trying to pick up the languages so I can give more adequate treatment to some of these traditions. In that course we juggle everything, Czech, even Austrian literature, Polish, South Slavic from former Yugoslavia, and Yiddish. One fun fact there is that Yiddish has a lot of Slavic borrowings, including the little emphatic particle zhe, which is ubiquitous in Slavic languages.

96 My last question is bibliographic. Could you recommend a good general history of Russia?

MP Russia and the Russians by Geoffrey Hosking is quite good, it’s a pretty solid overview.

96 What about a cultural history? Orlando Figes’ Natasha’s Dance seems to be the current favorite. I’ve heard good things about Bruce Lincoln’s Between Heaven and Hell, and then there’s Billington’s venerable The Icon and the Axe.  

MP I prefer the Billington. It’s kind of old fashioned, and it goes into a lot of detail which might not be the most interesting for the average reader. But it stands the test of time pretty well.

Mark Pettus’ translations of The Demon, both the literary and the literal versions, along with his Russian language textbooks, and his recommended readings of Russian literature in translation, may be found here. The mainpage of his website is well worth exploring, since he has posted, in Russian and English, a remarkable selection of Russian poetry. We unequivocally endorse his translations as the most accurate and elegant in English.

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