I know a guy, who knows a guy, who knows a guy…

Team Pushkin was given the beautiful gift of a person who speaks Russian, so our post used this expertise in our approach to this piece. Here is what we learned. Enjoy.

Translations and imitations are among the large number of works of Alexander Pushkin. These works make up about a fifth of all the works of Pushkin, and can rightly be called magnificent samples of his genius, although they are borrowed from other authors. This is what Pushkin writes on this matter: “Imitation is not shameful kidnapping or a sign of mental poverty, but a noble hope of own strength, a hope to discover new worlds, seeking the footsteps of the genius — or even more sublime feeling: the desire to explore your masterpiece and give it a secondary life”.

A Feast During the Plague (1829) is one of the most famous Pushkin’s “Little Tragedies.” Pushkin’s masterpiece was even adapted to a movie. This the scene where Mary sings.

The originality of Pushkin’s play is still debated among lot of Russian scholars; they argue whether Pushkin’s play is simply a translation of John Wilson’s The City of the Plague (1816) or an independent Pushkin masterpiece. We, Team Pushkin, as “linguistic researchers”, examined three versions of the Plague narrations (Wilson’s, Pushkin’s, and the translation of Pushkin’s work by Anderson) and came up with the conclusion that the last two works slightly differ in terms of word choice and punctuation from the original text, but overall they accurately convey the basic content of the source plays. Here is the example:

Wilson’s The City of the Plague (1816)


O impious table! Spread by impious hands!
Mocking with feast and song and revelry

The silent air of death that hangs above it,
A canopy more dismal than the Pall!
Amid the churchyard darkness as I stood
Beside a dire interment, circled round
By the white ghastly faces of despair,
That hideous merriment disturb’d the grave
And with a sacrilegious violence
Shook down the crumbling earth upon the bodies
Of the unsheeted dead. But that the prayers
Of holy age and female piety
Did sanctify that wide and common grave,
I could have thought that hell’s exulting fiends
With shouts of devilish laughter dragg’d away
Some harden’d atheist’s soul into perdition.

Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague

Безбожный пир, безбожные безумцы!
Вы пиршеством и песнями разврата
Ругаетесь над мрачной тишиной,
Повсюду смертию распространенной!
Средь ужаса плачевных похорон,
Средь бледных лиц молюсь я на кладбище –
А ваши ненавистные восторги
Смущают тишину гробов – и землю
Над мертвыми телами потрясают!
Когда бы стариков и жен моленья
Не освятили общей, смертной ямы –
Подумать мог бы я, что нынче бесы
Погибший дух безбожника терзают
И в тму кромешную тащат со смехом.

Anderson’s A Feast During the plague


A godless feast, befitting godless madmen!
Your Feasting and your shameless songs
Mock at  and profane the gloomy peace
Spread everywhere by death and desolation!
Amidst the horror of the mournful burials
Amidst pale faces I pray at the graveyard,
And your hateful shouts and cries of revelry
Disturb the silence of the tomb – because of you,
The earth itself trembles over the dead bodies!
If the prayers of so many reverend men and women
Had not consecrated the common gravepit,
I would have thought that devils even now
Were torturing some ruined, godless soul,
Laughing as they dragged it to outer darkness.

In all three texts we can see the following pattern of the language use:

Archaic English → Simplified Russian version of the play –> Translation of the simplified Russian version 

Moreover, we can regard A Feast During the Plague as independent work simply because it is not the word-by-word translation of the whole of Wilson’s play, but only a part of it. And why did Pushkin choose exactly this scene from all the play?

According to the Russian scholar, Leo Polivanoff, Pushkin generally chooses to translate to his native language only the brightest part of the original foreign work. This is what happened with A Feast During the Plague: Pushkin chose from all the play the part that interested him most, and thus shifted the focus from describing the horrors of the plague to the conflict.

As for the sources of the tragical story, some evidence indicates that Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) actually inspired John Wilson to write a play. Another famous Russian scholar Yakovlev wrote: “The book of Defoe influenced someone who in turn was a source of inspiration for Pushkin — an English writer John Wilson”. In addition, Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year  was also found in the library of Pushkin, and perhaps he read it as well.

We can definitely notice the resemblance between the play A Feast During the Plague and the tavern scene, where people partied and behave atheistically, in A Journal of the Plague Year. Both scenes essentially have the same settings and major actors. Both scenes are happening at a tavern and the major actors all involves a dead-cart, group of jesting people, and a godly or moral man that tries to correct the group’s way. In fact, even the plot progresses in a similar manner, with the moral person failing to change the behaviour of the group. However both pieces differ in the perspective that the story is told. Pushkin told the story in the form of a play and therefore gave us the perspective of both the priest and the group while Defoe told the story from the perspective of H.F., the moral person.

Given the amazing thread of a creative work such as this one, we could not help but make the connection of a traveling text and a traveling plague. Specifically, the way in which the nature of the plague transforms through communication. The Russian version was slightly more explicit than either of the English versions, be it the original work or the translation. The author’s taste is key. With talk about any sort of contagion, the details one chooses to express or omit will affect hordes of people’s actions and perceptions when it come to the given contagion.The telling and retelling of the horrors of the contagion gives people a sense of agency and authority in a situation that renders them helpless and subject to whatever may come. But to get back to the situation of the authors at hand, their adaptations of this story in effect becomes their own once they allow it to pass through their analytical lens. Thus, the foundational idea may not be original, but the products still stand as a one worth recognizing, one of a unique analytical lens.

So we say go ahead Pushkin, recreate with your bad self.


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  1. I think there are two issues at hand here. First, is the discussion around if whether Pushkin’s translation/imitation of Wilson can be considered a masterpiece by its own right. Second is the idea of what does the selection of a particular passage in Wilson tells us, and if that hints at any broader themes or issues across narratives of Contagion. I am going to refer to the first issue.

    As you guys said, Pushkin’s work differs slightly from Wilson’s in terms of word choice and punctuation while it still conveys the same general idea and presents the same content. With this idea in mind, I would be eager to endorse the idea that Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague is just a translation of The City of the Plague. I say this on the grounds of content and meaning staying the same. The key element in the merit of Pushkin’s work is on the choice, which you guys mentioned. The fact the Pushkin uses a particular scene is evidence of a distinct analytical process.

    However, this poses an even more complex question. Can we value Pushkin’s work as an isolated play? Or does it become merit-worthy only as we become aware of a wider spectrum (The City of the Plague) of which Pushkin has chosen to represent a particular passage?

    I say this because it seems that the praise for this play comes from the fact that it focus our attention on a particular passage of The City of the Plague and that way it leads us onto thinking about certain aspects of contagion.

    • After the research that we made, we can definitely value Pushkin’s play as an independent work. There are 13 scenes in Wilson’s play, and Pushkin chose only one scene from all. In his translation he removed the minor details, cut the action, reduced the number of characters, introduced two songs of Mary and the Chairman, and changed the title. In the “Feast During the Plague”, Pushkin brought the conflict to its logical conclusion: the Chairman in the end of the play “remains, plunged in deep contemplation” and the feast “still continues”, whereas in Wilson’s “City of the plague”, the feast ends. Based on all that, we can regard Pushkin’s play as an isolated masterpiece.

  2. I concur with the point that’s been made here about how each translation is unique in its own adaptation. This is most notable in juxtaposition of Wilson’s and Anderson’s translations – while Wilson’s adaptation states:

    “Amid the churchyard darkness as I stood
    Beside a dire interment, circled round
    By the white ghastly faces of despair,

    Anderson’s version states:

    Amidst the horror of the mournful burials
Amidst pale faces I pray at the graveyard,

    And your hateful shouts and cries of revelry

    The margin for disparity is great. This applies to diction; no word is the same except “faces.” This applies to the order of descriptions, the tone established through the sentence structure and the varied use of prepositions (while Wilson uses “By”, Anderson uses “And). It is clear that these translations have travelled far and wide originating from archaic English and onto simplified Russian. I’m inclined to question whether these English adaptations are worth literary merit themselves. If much of the author’s original intent has been left at the stake for the translator, whose literature are we reading? I would argue that we are reading more of Anderson or Wilson rather than Pushkin himself, because the dominant factors that reflect the soul of the author have been left for manipulation and interpretation for the translators.

    • I really like this idea of reading Wilson or Anderson more than a Pushkin piece. Language gets tricky like that: one word can change the goal or meaning of a sentence, paragraph, whatever it may be. If we keep your lens going, Anderson’s translation, in addition to her essay on Survival and Memory in my opinion, becomes one big analysis. That being said, can we say we have read Pushkin?

  3. I would like to elaborate on the issues with translation. I don’t think we can use Anderson’s translation to make large conclusions about Pushkin’s play as far as the form is concerned, and this fact restrains us significantly in evaluating the quality of the play. Translation has to make a tradeoff between fidelity, the faithfulness to the original, and transparency, the comprehensibility in the target language. I think in translating “A Feast During the Plague”, Anderson chose to pursue comprehensibility rather than fidelity. We can infer this from Anderson’s language, which is very accessible to the reader. For example, the line “If the prayers of so many reverend men and women” seems a bit bland, and as far as I was able to find out Pushkin conveys the image more powerfully. Although Anderson brings about the content and the general themes of the play very well, I don’t think the form reaches the sophistication of that of Pushkin.

    In fact, Wilson’s original is richer in many aspects than Anderson’s translation. For example, Wilson’s images of “crumbling earth upon the bodies” and “unsheeted dead” in the passage you posted seem more potent than Anderson’s “the earth itself trembles” and “dead bodies.” Also, to me Wilson’s line “with shouts of devilish laughter dragg’d away,” is more powerful than Anderson’s “laughing as they dragged it to outer darkness.”

    • Hi Martin

      While the idea of lost in translation is definitely valid in this translated text, I believe that the translator actually brought in something of their own into the translation. In this sense the translated work becomes richer and richer as it get more and more translated. Take for example, today, in class we talked about Anderson’s interpretation on the Russian translation and her choice of translation. This means that the translated work, in a sense, becomes the explication or the translator’s interpretation of the work. This interpretation not only gives us the insight of the translator’s thought but also the emphasis on the original’s patterns in words which the translator think is important.

      Nevertheless, the richness brought in by the translation and the lose losses caused by it, as Martin mentioned above, is the two side of the same coin. A more personal intervention of the translator will give a different twist to the translation but in the same time will also cause certain looses. But I personally believe that the loose of fidelity in translation also immortalize the work. Just like how a rumour might end up with a complete different story from the original. The addition of small detail as the story passes and the little twist in plot and small exaggeration now and then is the reason why rumours are so captivating and interesting. Its endless transformation makes it feel like it acquire a life of its own. Likewise, a translated piece, though might not be faithful to its original, obtain such transformation.

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