Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin
Posted on November 4th, 2021

By Dr. Tilak S.Fernando

Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin

The masterpiece of the Great Russian poet Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin’s novel ‘Eugene and Onegin’ is translated into Sinhala for the first time by Dr Athula Withanage, who has written many books in Sinhala and English. Dr Withanage was a senior surgeon who worked for over twenty years in the NHS UK. After a heavy day’s work at the hospital theatre, he took up writing for relaxation. He has published many books in Sinhala and English. His first medical novel, Living Capsule, dealt with a clinical problem that any surgeon had to battle. Recently during the COVID-19 epidemic using his experience, he wrote his latest novel called The Pond, Butterflies and Rainbow

 Pushkin’s novel in verse has been translated into English as many as 45 times since 1800, but this is the first time that it has been translated into Sinhala directly from Russian by Dr Withhange, taking into account the Soviet era in the 1800s. It has taken him six years to do, and Dr Withanage becomes the 46th translator in English, and simultaneously in Sinhala for the Sri Lankan audience. Translators found it challenging to understand the poetic meaning of Pushkin’s words to portray his character and events. It is perhaps why since 1880, translations into other languages were imperfect, especially into English. 

Alexander Pushkin 

Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin was born on 26 May 1799 in Moscow during the Russian Empire. He hailed from the Russian nobility; his father Sergey Lvovich Pushkin descended from a distinguished family of the Russian elite that traced its ancestry back to the 12th century. His mother, Nadezhda (Nadya), Ossipovna Gannibal descended from German and Scandinavian nobility through her paternal grandmother. 

His maternal great-grandfather was Central-African born general Abram Petrovich Gannibal. Pushkin grew up surrounded by maids and French tutors and mainly spoke French until the age of ten. He became acquainted with the Russian language through communication with household servants and especially with his nanny, Arina Rodionova, whom he loved dearly and became more attached to the nanny than his mother. After finishing school, Alexander Pushkin published his first poem at the age of 15 years, as part of the first graduating class of the prestigious Imperial Lyceum in Tsarskoye Selo, near Saint Petersburg. 

The Russian literary sector widely recognised his latent talents after attending the Lyceum. Pushkin plunged into the energetic and harsh intellectual youth culture of St. Petersburg, which was then the capital of the Russian Empire. Pushkin has married his lover, a gorgeous lady, Anna Petrovna, for whom he wrote the most famous love poems in the Russian language. Pushkin was a controversial writer. In 1820 when he published ‘Ruslan and Ludmila’ that challenged the boundaries of prose and poetry and lyrical poetry he faced criticism. In January 1837, Pushkin became famous as a Russian poet, playwright, and novelist. 

He was well known among the most significant Russian poets and considered the Master of Modern Russian literature. Evgeni Onegin, is a novel in verse consisting of three hundred and eighty-nine stanzas and 8 chapters. The entire work is written in 14 line short lyrical poems except for Tatyana’s love letter (3.32) and Onegin’s love letter (8.32). This rhythmic arrangement is a Sonnet. Alexander Pushkin Sonnets originated from the classic Greek tradition closely associated with great poets such as William Shakespeare and John Keats. 

It is commendable how Dr Athula Withanage has translated ‘Eugene Onegin’ while maintaining the same rhythmic style both in Sinhala and English. Upon graduation, Pushkin enumerated his controversial poem Ode to Liberty that led to his exile by Tsar Alexander 1 of Russia. When Pushkin was under severe observation by Tsar’s political police, he could not publish his poems; instead, he wrote an excellent play, called ‘Boris Godunov.’ After his exile in 1820, Pushkin’s friends and family continually petitioned for his release, sending letters and meetings with Tsar Alexander and Tsar Nicholas. 

Authorities summoned Pushkin to Moscow after his poem Ode to Liberty was found among the belongings of the rebels from the Decembrist Uprising. Pushkin obtained his release from exile and began to work as the Tsar’s Titular Counsel of the National Archives. However, because insurgents in the Decembrist Uprising in 1825 in Saint Petersburg, Tsar held Pushkin’s earlier political poems to control everything Pushkin published, and Tsar banned him from travelling at will.  Pushkin gradually became committed to social reform and emerged as a spokesman for literary radicals. 

He was inspired by the Greek Revolution when the war against the Ottoman broke out. That angered the government of the day that led to his transfer from the capital in May 1820. Finally, he became a Freemason. He joined the ‘Filiki Eteria,’ a secret organisation whose purpose was to overthrow Ottoman rule in Greece and to establish an independent Greek state. 

Eugene Onegin 

His novel, ‘Eugene Onegin’ was serialised between 1825 and 1832. There are many Russian and Hollywood films, stage productions, ballets, operas, and radio shows from the BBC on this remarkable romantic novel. In 1825, Pushkin wrote his most famous play ‘Boris Godunov’ at his mother’s estate. He could not, however, gain permission to publish it until five years later. The original version of the drama was not staged until 2007. 

Pushkin’s Downfall 

In 1836, Pushkin fell into more outstanding debt and faced scandalous rumours that his wife had a love affair. Once he sent a challenge for a duel to Georges d’Anthès, who was supposed to be his wife’s lover, but his friends cancelled the dual. Irritated Alexander Pushkin once again challenged Georges d’Anthès for a pistol duel, which took place at the Black River. During the pistol dual, d’Anthès fired first, critically wounding Pushkin. The bullet entered Pushkin’s hip and penetrated through to his abdomen causing a significant injury. 

D’Anthès was only lightly injured in the right arm by Pushkin’s shot. Two days later Pushkin died of generalised peritonitis (inflammation of the tissue that lines the abdomen, which is deadly serious). The funeral service took place at St. Isaac’s Cathedral where many people attended. Pushkin’s wife’ requested not to place the coffin containing the corpse in a chamber-cadet uniform ( the uniform provided by the Tsar). 

Finally, the coffin having lowered into the basement where it stayed for a while, and later it remained at Pskov province, on the Svyatogorsky monastery, near Alexander Pushkin’s mother’s grave. Many Sri Lankan translators, like K.G. Karunathilake, Dadigama. Rodrigo’ have introduced classics of Russian authors to the Sinhala readers. Pushkin’s poetry was introduced by W. A. Abeysinghe and then by Karunathilake Handunpathirana. However, the Sri Lankan readers did not have the opportunity to reach Pushkin’s point of view of life and his concepts in poetry through his masterpiece ‘Eugene Onegin’ until now. 

It is of great importance to note the valuable literary contribution Dr Athula Withanage has made to Sri Lankan readers by translating this historical Sinhala translation. Dr Athula Withanage believes that the Sri Lankan audience now could learn Pushkin’s point of view of life, his concepts in poetry, Russian national spirit and aristocracy and ‘Pushkin’s beloved Russia’ through his masterpiece ‘Eugene Onegin’. Dr Withanage assures that Sri Lankan readers will enjoy Pushkin’s most remarkable work. The English translation is also available in Sri Lanka translated by Dr Athula Withanage. 

It can use as a comparison, because it suits the Asian audience in the straightforward narrative after freeing himself from the shackles of rhyme, yet retaining the original 14 lines of Pushkin’s stanzas, except in the two love letters in the introductory committed poem. The original Russian explanatory notes at the end of the English translation are helpful to understand the poetic meaning of some of the words. Dr Withanage is a Surgeon by profession and is not fully committed to writing. Nevertheless, he has produced five Sinhala novels, three English novels, one teledrama, two translations and a valuable educational book for any doctor in any field of medicine called Wound Care and Management.” 

He is the brother of actor, Shakespearian writer, author and drama producer of the late Bandula Withanage. ‘Evgeni Onegin’ is the authentic Russian pronunciation, but it sounds feminine. So, Athula Withanage translated the Sinhala version as ‘Evageni Anegini’ to make it sound more Sinhala and Masculine. Translations of both Sinhala and English versions were presented at the Russian Centre Book Festival in Colombo on 27 October 2021 at 3.30. pm, where the First Secretary at the Russian Embassy was present. 

At the Book Festival, all Russian language translators were introduced including Dr Athula Withanage and dramatist Ranjith Dharmakeerthi. A special mention made by the orators was how Dr Athula Withanage took seven years to translate Evgeni Onegin into English and Sinhala, especially the Sinhala version as a ‘historical’ translation. Comments were also made how Dr Withanage, amidst his hospital surgical duties managed to translate into Sinhala and English simultaneously. 

Dr Withanage had to learn the Russian language in the Soviet Union before he embarked on medical studies, for which he earned a gold medal. In the UK, he acquired three FRCS recognitions from the UK, Scotland, and Ireland. He received three nominations for the Golden Scalpel Award ( All Island) in the UK.

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