Stanley Mitchell: Scholar whose greatest work was his translation of 'Eugene Onegin'

 

The translator and Russian scholar Stanley Mitchell will be remembered for his translation of Pushkin's verse novel Eugene Onegin.

Almost all Russians look on Pushkin as their greatest writer and on Eugene Onegin as Pushkin's greatest work. Mitchell made it possible for an English reader to understand why.

Stanley Mitchell was born into a Jewish family in Clapton in London's East End. His father had been born in Ukraine, his mother's parents in what is now Belarus. Stanley's devotion to his mother's father, who spoke only Yiddish, left him with a lifelong love of the language. After attending Christ College School in North London, he began teaching himself Russian while doing his national service. He then studied French, German and Russian at Oxford. There he met Hannah Brandstein, who had been born in Austria and come to England with her family, as refugees, in the late 1930s. Stanley and Hannah married in 1957.

Mitchell was deeply involved with left-wing politics and began publishing in New Left Review in his late 20s. He began his teaching career at the University of Birmingham and published a translation of Georg Lukacs's The Historical Novel in 1962. In 1965 he became the first lecturer in Russian literature at the new University of Essex.

Professor Angela Livingstone, his colleague there, writes, "I saw how constantly he encouraged students to appreciate beauty, and to think, inquire, judge. These 45 years later I phoned, out of the blue, someone who had been a student of ours in 1967, Mervyn Barker (now a retired English literature teacher), and asked what he remembered of Stanley. Mervyn recalled presenting a seminar paper, to which Stanley had responded by actually clapping his hands in delight at its provocative argument; from that response the young student had gained a self-confidence which lasted throughout his career."

As a young man, Mitchell had seemed destined for a prestigious academic career. He left Essex in 1975 and went on to teach literature, art history and cultural studies at universities and colleges from Camberwell School of Art to the University of California at San Diego and Dar es Salaam Tanzania.

Mitchell's ambition to translate Eugene Onegin probably goes back to his student days. In 1966, he, Angela Livingstone, Donald Davie and others began a series of seminars about the verse novel: it was hoped that this would lead to a collaborative translation. This did not come about, but Mitchell did not abandon the idea. In the mid-1980s, while spending six months in rural Tuscany recovering from a severe depression, he completed a draft of the first chapter. He revised this over at least seven years. A commission from Penguin Classics encouraged him to continue, and in 2008 his complete translation – one of the finest of all verse translations into English – was finally published. As Livingstone has written, "Thus Stanley Mitchell fulfilled the ambition born in the first years of the life of Essex University."

His translation reproduces every facet of the original: the precise meaning, the wit, the lyricism. Not once is there a false note. How this was achieved is best described in his own words: "I had never worked so hard at anythingbefore. [...] Every stanza was a struggle. [...] The process of translating eachstanza resembled a Sisyphean labour except that I was always able in the end to topple the boulder over to the other side. [...] Before translating Onegin I had regarded my life as a failurebecause of the bipolar disorder which nearly ruined me. [...] Since completing the translation, I know that I shall never have to feel a failure again.Repeating Pushkin's self-congratulation on finishing another piece ofwork, I said of mine: 'Well done, you son of a bitch!'"

The last time I heard Stanley read in public was in October 2008, at Pushkin House in Bloomsbury. I was hoping he would read the last stanzas – and he did. Twice he broke down, in tears. It was, I imagine, as hard for him to say goodbye to the poem as it had been for Pushkin himself:

But of those friends who, meeting, listened

To those first strophes that I wrote...

Some are no more now, some are distant,

As Sadi once said in a note.

They've missed the fully-fledged Onegin,

And she, from whom the model's taken

For dear Tatiana, she is gone...

Oh, much by fate has been undone!

Blest who betimes has left life's revel,

Whose wine-filled glass he has not drained,

Who does not read right to the end

Life's still, as yet, unfinished novel,

But lets it go, as I do my

Onegin, and bid him goodbye.

One cannot read the last two lines aloud without faltering and slowing down; the rhythm mimes the difficulty of saying goodbye. Tone, rhythm and meaning are perfectly fused. Mitchell's Onegin is the fruit not only of scholarship and uncommon devotion but also of considerable musical ability – he was an accomplished pianist.

Stanley is survived by his close friend Barbara Rosenbaum, without whose support it is unlikely he would have completed his Onegin.

Stanley Mitchell, scholar and translator: born 12 March 1932; married 1957 Hannah Brandstein (died 1994; one daughter, one son); died London 16 October 2011.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
i100
Sport
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
boxing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments