One almost workable definition of poetry might be "writing that cannot be adequately translated." Almost. There are, in fact, a few worthy translations, feats in some ways more difficult than those of original creation, since the translator owes fidelity to a foreign text while the creator need follow only his own fantasy.
Sir Charles Johnston's translation of "Eugene Onegin" is one of those miraculous exceptions to the general rule that makes the reading of poetry in translation, on the whole, a rather dreary exercise. It bids fair to become a classic in its highly specialized genre, and it can be recommended almost without reservation to serious readres for whom (as for this reviewer) Pushkin's playful, bitter and delicately ironic classic has until now been a closed book.
Not that the story of Onegin has been previously unavailable in English, prose or verse. There have been several translations of varying excellence, most notably the quirkily literal one of Vladimir Nabokov which sticks to the words, offers copious annotations and (with surprising humility) makes no effort to approximate the poetry. I have begun reading some of these ealier translations, at one time or another, and after a few pages have found no good reason to continue.
For late 20th-century readers, except those interested in literary antiques or the history of fads, the story of Eugene Onegin is rather banal: A fashionable young Russian of the post-Napoleonic ear destroys his own life and those of two others (Tatyana, a whoman who loves him; Lensky, a friend whom he kills in a duel) by his insistence on striking Byronic poses rather than settling into the serious business of living.
To make matters worse, the text is sprinkled like a gossip column with long-forgotten names and clever topical allusions, which might have provided, 150 years ago, the kind of joy that readers get from People magazine. Today, they bring joy only to devotees of footnotes.
The final problem is that of form: "Eugene Onegin" is written in elaborate 14-line stanzas, with a quota of six feminine (two-syllable) rhymes to each stanza -- and in tetrameters, which give the poet less room in which to turn around than the pentameters that Byron (not to mention Pope, Milton, Shakespeare and most of other English writers of long poems) found more congenial.
All of the above add up to a daunting challenge for anyone who wants to produce a readable English text of over 200 pages. Johnston has made it not only readable but often brilliant and sometimes deeply moving. His work is not flawless -- there are no flawless poems of this length, let alone translations -- but it is magnificent. Through it, we can see Pushkin's original on its own terms and enjoy it as petry in our own language. Anyone who has tried to translate a sonnet (or even to write one) will appreciate the work involved in translating the equivalent of more than 400, making tham flow together into a "novel in verse" and doing it with the virtuoso style that Pushkin demands.
Puskin's basic thesis in "Eugene Onegin" is that nature (human nature, particularly in well-off young people) tends to imitate art -- with consequences that can be both silly and disastrous. He treats this theme with a strikingly modern balance between ironic detachment and sentimental empathy for his characters, and he does it in a rich, flexible style that embodies this complex set of attitudes to perfection.
He is clearly aware at all times that his characters are a bit foolish; after all, he designed them that way, and occasionally he inserts a little verse essay on a particular form of foolishness to underline the point. But as the story moves into its climax he cannot help calling the reader's attention to the fact that these cartoon figures are shedding real blood, real tears.
The blend of irony and pathos works most strikingly in Lensky's death scene (which foreshadows, ironically, Puskin's own death in a duel). Lensky is a poet and not a very good one, and Puskin kills him off in deliberately bad verse ("The clock of doom had struck as fated... "'), piling cliche on cliche beyond the point of absurdity. Then comes a stanza of pure, exquisite Pushkin, ending in an unforgettable image in which the poet's corpoe becomes an abandoned house, shuttered and desolate. A hushed pause and then back to satire with an ironic discussion of the pros and cons of shooting one's friend, speculations on what Lensky's life might have been and a matter-of-fact description of the corpse being hauled away -- wit and pathos pell-mell.
The range of style is from an almost Flaubertian realism in the social satire to a pre-Freudian surrealism in the long description of a nightmare Tatyana suffers, and to complicate the translator's job there are also frequent parodies of romantic poetic styles. To Johnston's credit, all of these come through in the translation almost transparently. There are occasional flat lines, now then a too-obvious rhyme or one in which idiomatic English is strained. But the wonder is not that these blemishes exist, rather that are so few. This "Onegin" is a landmark in one of the most specialized and difficult of the literary arts.