Monday, December 31, 2012

Reading Danilevsky's Russia and Europe

I have started reading N. Ya. Danilevsky's Russia and Europe [Rossiya i Evropa]. Since, as far as I can tell, there are no translations of Danilevsky into English, I am of course reading the work in its original Russian. Note the facsimile of the 1895 edition here.

The book is an influential treatise that describes a theory of historical and cultural development that is determined by a nation's particular civilizational type. In this way Danilevsky's work prefigures the works of Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, historians of culture who seem to be somewhat forgotten nowadays.

I have come to know of the importance of Danilevsky's book through my study of Dostoevsky. Danilevsky and Dostoevsky were both members of the Petrashevsky Circle, which was a literary gathering of intellectuals and freethinkers that was discovered and broken up by Nicholas I's regime in 1849. Dostoevsky was initially sentenced to execution for his participation in the group, but he was granted a last minute reprieve in which he was sent into a Siberian exile that lasted nearly a decade. Danilevsky was given the much lesser sentence of spending 100 days in the Peter and Paul Fortress, which was largely due to the fact that he wrote a letter to the authorities proving his political innocence. Given the importance Dostoevsky would later give to his time as a prisoner, I am sure that the great Russian novelist would not have found it beneficial to use his writing abilities to extract himself in such a way from this difficult situation.

Russia and Europe, which was originally published in 1869, made a big impression on Dostoevsky. The latter proclaimed that it would become a "bedside book [nastolnaya kniga]" for Russians in the decades to come (Budanova 138).  The particular idea advanced in the book that Russia would create an independent Slavic civilization initiating the next phase of world history informs Dostoevsky's character of Shatov in The Devils (Frank 560). However, Dostoevsky was on the whole dissatisfied with Danilevsky's reduction of the significance of Russian Orthodoxy to a national characteristic, denying its status as a universal embodiment of Christian doctrine suitable for the whole world.

Like so much nineteenth-century expository prose, whether written in Russian or another language, the beginning of Russia and Europe meanders and is in no hurry to get to its thesis. Instead, it gradually works up to its main argument by first positing the question of why Russia is treated like a second-class power by the other great powers of Europe. Danilevsky compares the outcomes of two recent historical events. In 1864 Denmark, a small power, was forced to cede Schleswig and Holstein to two great powers, Austria and Prussia, despite an earlier treaty which guaranteed Denmark these territories. A decade earlier, in 1853, Great Britain and France declared war on Russia because of the latter's insistence that Turkey honor its previous agreement that the Orthodox Church be given supreme authority over the Ottoman Empire's Christians. Danilevsky insists that Russia had no intention or invading or declaring war on Turkey and thereby expanding its own empire. Clearly we are meant to understand a certain continuity here where the great powers are allowed to use arms to seize territory in contravention of a previous treaty, and Russia is also prevented from acting in accordance with its diplomatic agreements with Turkey.

These events testify to the existence of a fundamental civilizational/cultural divide between Latin-German and Slavic civilizations. I will write more about my readings in Danilevsky in future posts to come.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Review of "Is That a Fish in Your Ear"

I have just finished reading David Bellos's Is That a Fish in Your Ear: Translation and the Meaning of Everything, and though it is not exactly a book in Russian studies, the topic of the book touches directly on my career as a Russian translator. In addition, the author does use a number of foreign language examples from Russian (even though Bellos is a French-studies scholar). In what follows I will present what I found to be the most interesting points and passages that I noted down in my digital commonplace book.

Bellos discusses the problem of translating in such a way that the "foreigness" of the source text is preserved. As I discussed earlier this year, the task of trying to preserve the ethnic content of the original in a new language is problematic to say the least. Bellos says that it "runs the risk of dissolving into something different --- a representation of the funny ways foreigners speak." In literary translation, it is hard if not impossible to mark the fact that characters in a foreign-language novel, though they are made to speak the language of the target text, originally spoke a different language.

Bellos makes the interesting point that the English language allows only foreign words from certain cultures that have had a historical relation with an English-speaking nation to be allowed into translations. So the preservation of certain French words in the English translations of French novels in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was an accepted and common practice due to the prestige of the source culture, and modern American English is receptive to the use of certain Spanish phrases in translation since they have been made familiar to a large audience due to the presence of large numbers of Spanish-speakers in the United States.

The author states that the translation of poetry, drama, film subtitles and even sometimes literature (as in the case of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) is often a collaborative process. Bellos even confesses that he translates the novels of Ismail Kadare, who writes in Albanian, from a French translation by Tedi Papvrami: in essence a translation of a translation. This is the kind of practice that some critics believe is one of the faults underlying the Google Translate engine, in that most language pairs translated by the machine translation service are translated through an intermediate translation into English (what Bellos terms a pivot language).

I find the author's argument that foreign works of fiction, and even films, are now created in such a way as to facilitate adaption and translation into English, to be quite compelling. In the case of dialog for films this means crafting short dialogue that lends itself to the subtitling constraints of how many characters can be displayed on the screen at one time and the reading speed of the average moviegoer. "Our standard vision of Swedes as verbally challenged depressives is in some degree a by-product of Bergman's success in building subtitling constraints into the composition of his more ambitious international films."

Bellos believes that there is no special mental procedure (other than requisite knowledge of two or more languages) that distinguishes translation from other activities that rephrase and recontextualize language: "[N]o precise boundary can be drawn between translation, on the one hand, and drafting, editing, correcting, reformulating, and adapting a text, whether written in the same or in some other tongue, on the other." He gives the example of the practice of journalists around the world who, while reading one of the major news wires published in French, Russian or Arabic, create news stories for their target markets. They inevitably end up translating the news into their local language, but these journalists do not think of what they do as translation; in fact, what they do is not just servile translation, since they add to and embellish the plain information that is published in the source wires.

The book is not just concerned with written translation, but it also devotes much discussion to oral interpretation. The practice in the West of only translating or interpreting in one's native language (which is what I do as a Russian to English translator) is not universally true. Bellos gives the example of official Soviet interpreters at the UN, who were all native Russian speakers who interpreted into foreign languages. This may have had a political motivation (the Soviets were not going to trust foreigners to do their interpreting), but nonetheless these interpreters supposedly performed just as well as others who interpreted into their native languages. Bellos cites a Soviet-era textbook in interpreting which explicates this method (G. T. Chernov, Osnovy sinkhronnogo perevoda (Moscow: Vysshaia shkola, 1987)), but my hunch is that except in the case of exceptional individuals (e.g., Vladimir Nabokov, who admittedly spent much time in an anglophone environment), it is extremely hard to exercise native command of a foreign language. I encounter English written by native Russian speakers who have university educations in foreign languages, linguistics and translation studies on a daily basis, and though their writing is competent and serviceable, rarely does it seem like it came from the pen (or keyboard) of a native speaker.

Bellos repeats the insights of Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy when he states that "[i]n large areas of national and international affairs, speech has now become a secondary medium, a by-product of writing." The author spells out what this means for the practice of oral interpretation, which in pre-literate times was the only form of translation, sharing with epic poetry the same kind of immediacy of performance and characterized by the same ephemeral, fleeting nature of an utterance that could not be recorded. Today, by contrast, interpreters working at the UN often receive ahead of time the texts of speeches that are to be delivered by delegates.

Indeed, though it is ostensibly just a book about translation, Bellos has plenty to say about the nature of language. For example, much of the active vocabulary of any fluent speaker of a language is concentrated on just the few thousand most common words, and that most other words, such as most of the headwords that can be found in a large dictionary, are used only in rather precise contexts and have recondite meanings. The fact that this is true helped me immensely when I was in the initial stages of learning Russian, since one of the ways that I built up my vocabulary was through studying Nicholas Brown's frequency dictionary of the 10,000 most common Russian words.

Though we tend to think of dictionaries and other wordlists as primarily monolingual constructs, and of bilingual dictionaries as secondary specialist tools of translators and bilinguals, the latter tools preceded the former by many centuries. According to the author, "[a]mong the very earliest instances of writing are lists of terms for important things in two languages." Bellos cites the example of Sumerian-Akkadian bilingual dictionaries from the ancient Near East. By contrast, the first alphabetically complete general-purpose monolingual dictionary was Samuel Johnson's dictionary of the English language, which was published in 1755. Indeed, I remember reading this tidbit before in C. M. Millward's A Biography of the English Language, one of my favorite textbooks from college. (I see that it is now in a third edition, whereas what I used was the second).

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Review of Andrey Platonov's The Foundation Pit

Andrey Platonov's The Foundation Pit presents a nightmarish world set during the Stalinist drive towards mass collectivization and industrialization. The novel opens as Voshchev (whose name, as Chandler and Meerson note, is perhaps derived from the Russian voobshe, or "generally", hence a Soviet everyman), who has just been dismissed from his job for "thoughtfulness," walks to a neighboring town and joins a group of workers who are digging the foundation pit for an apartment building to house future proletarians. The major irony of this project is that the foundation pit eventually becomes the grave for Nastya, an orphaned girl who throughout the novel represents to all the other characters the hope of the future proletarian generation destined to live in the world of total communism.

Indeed, the thinking of the ardently devoted members of the work crew, such as of Chiklin and Safronov, strictly runs along the lines of Leninist-Marxist dialectical materialism. The engineer Prushevsky, who oversees construction of the foundation pit, understands the construction project not just as an engineering problem, but thinks about the social structure of the project in terms of Marxist
base and superstructure theory (19). Many of the workers seem to be resigned to the fact that they will die in achieving socialist construction in order to facilitate the ultimate transition from capitalism to communism.

The tension of the current moment of socialist construction that the novel captures is so great that even the natural world conforms to the Marxist plan, as though following the animal-world equivalent of Lysenkoist botany. This is particularly true of the part of the novel that focuses on a collective farm located not far away from the foundation pit. For example, a group of rooks "felt like departing ahead of time [i.e., before the normal migration], in order to survive the organizational collective farm autumn in some sunny region and return later to a universal institutionalized calm" (75). Not only does the collective farm contain conscious, collectivized middle and low peasants, but also a group of collectivized horses who are able to equitably distribute hay among themselves according to communist principles. The following sentence describing their behavior echoes the Leninist mantra of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs": "Each animal took a share of nourishment proportionate to its strength and carefully carried it in the direction of the gate from which all the horses had first emerged" (88). And finally, there is a blacksmith bear named Misha (apparently taken at least in part from Russian folklore) on the collective farm who represents a kind of idealized proletarian worker and helps root out kulak peasants.

The novel is heavily grounded in the language of estrangement (ostranenie). (This is a concept perhaps best articulated by the Russian formalist literary critic Viktor Shklovsky.) In the afterword to his translation Chandler emphasizes all the unusual turns of phrase that Platonov employs in Russian in order to make strong allusions to Russian orthodoxy, literature and philosophy. This is certainly true, and I appreciate how Chandler attempts to remain faithful to Platonov's experimental language. 

However, earlier this year I discussed the problem of translating language too literally, so that the resulting English is awkward. It seems the case that there are some rather odd-sounding renderings in the Chandler and Meerson translation where the Russian would seem to justify a more natural English translation. For example, Voshchev refers to the worker's barracks at the foundation pit as "the dwelling place", though the original zhilishche can mean simply "lodging, quarters" (50). At another point near the beginning of the novel Safronov asks Kozlov to "reinforce yourself with physical culture" (24), which sounds like a rather literal translation of the original fizkul'tura. When I am translating texts (which are admittedly much less literary than Platonov) I simply render this word as "exercise" or "physical fitness," which are certainly much more common in English than "physical culture." (But I will also note that "physical culture" was a major theme of 1930s official Soviet culture, as this page from the Seventeen Moments in Soviet History explains, and it is true that Chandler and Meerson include a short note on this as well). And in a scene that takes place at the village church, the translators render Russian khram as temple (93). Though the latter can be translated as a temple, I think the context here dictates that it should be a simple parish church.

Works Cited

Platonov, Andreĭ P, and Robert Chandler. The Foundation Pit. New York: New York Review Books, 2009. Print.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Pushkin, Genre Experimentation and the Creation of the Literary Language

Harsha Ram (in The Imperial Sublime: A Russian Poetics of Empire) demonstrates how a certain set of formal traits pertaining to the ode, and in particular to the victory ode, as written by Mikhail Lomonosov and Gavrila Derzhavin in particular, became subject to formal experimentation by the Romantic poets, and most notably Alexander Pushkin. Thus, Pushkin's first published poem, Memories in Tsarskoe Selo [Vospominaniia v Tsarskom Sele], which Ram notes was declaimed in front of an aging Derzhavin, contains elements of the odic sublime mixed with elegy:
Instead of simply writing a patriotic ode celebrating Russia's victory over Napoleon, Pushkin feels compelled to frame that victory in a remembrance of the past. 'Vospominaniia v Tsarskom Sele' is less an ode, it seems, than an elegiac commemoration of the ode as a genre: the poet's stylistic distance from the ode precisely mirrors the temporal remove that separates him from the victory monuments he so wistfully contemplates (162).
Ram notes other examples of experimentation in different forms: "Pushkin's other political verse of the time is similarly hybrid: 'Derevnia' (The countryside') (1819) begins as a pastoral idyll and ends with an odic denunciation of serfdom (1:359-61), whereas Pushkin's celebrated poem to Chaadaev of 1818 superimposes the imagery of love poetry onto the political theme of liberty (1:346)" (162).

It is interesting that Pushkin, who is regarded as the founder of modern Russian literature and is a Shakespeare-like figure within the Russian canon, began his poetic career by violating established genre boundaries. And this experimentation in mixing the public, high-style elements of the ode with the topoi of private, elegiac reflection, for example, was intimately connected with Pushkin's creation of a unique literary language that would mix elements of the low and high styles. We are told in V. V. Vinogradov's History of the Russian Literary Language, for example, that Pushkin belonged to the Karamzin school, which believed in bringing the Russian literary language into accord with the spoken language of the intelligentsia and opposed the dominant use of the Church Slavonicisms, which was advocated by an opposing conservative camp headed by Admiral A. S. Shishkov. (Of course, Pushkin as a poet would grow to use all the stylistic resources of the Russian language as well as foreign borrowings.) So it is no wonder that a major aspect that bothered Pushkin about the unadulterated odic style was its exclusive use of what Lomonosov termed the high style, which is dominated by the Church language. Ram notes that in a letter to his brother, Pushkin expresses his dissatisfaction with an ode written by his fellow Tsarskoe Selo classmate, Wilhelm Küchelbecker, in which the latter uses "Slavo-Russian verse taken entirely from [the Book of] Jeremiah" to champion the Greek revolutionary cause in the early 1820s.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Tyutchev and the Imperial Sublime

I am just finishing up reading Harsha Ram's The Imperial Sublime: A Russian Poetics of Empire. The book focuses in particular on the evolution of the poetic genre of the ode from Mikhail Lomonosov's Ode on the Taking of Khotin (the archetypal "ceremonial ode" of Russian literature) through to the odes of Pushkin and Lermontov, with some attention to how the meaning of the sublime (as evoked in these works) evolved over this period of Russian literature from being a simple borrowing from Longinus to use as a device of Romantic dissent. And though there is much of interest to comment on from the main arguments developed in the body of the book, I wanted to touch on on some ideas brought forth in the conclusion about Fyodor Tyutchev, one of my favorite Russian poets and someone who admittedly falls outside the author's chronological scope.

Ram concludes that for poets before Tyutchev the ode, in spite of whether it was used to attack or praise the monarch, had nonetheless been "based on an implicit (ideological or structural) identification between poet and monarch as well as with the monarch's expanding realm" (218). However, Tyutchev "identified with a liminal state of inchoate inspiration that no longer found an immediate analogy in the figure of the tsar." So in such poems as Prophecy [Prorochestvo] (1850) (cited by Harsha) or even in Napoleon (1850) (which is not mentioned by the author), Russia is presented and addressed as an independent agent whose historical path and future greatness lie all before her. There is no one appointed person to affect anything, but the country itself is destined to achieve her lot according to the laws of history. (The Russian tsar occurs in the closing lines of Prophecy almost as an afterthought, and even there he bows down at the altar of Hagia Sophia, from which he derives his power). What Ram does not mention, but which might be a determining factor in separating Tyutchev from earlier Russian poets, are his formative years spent in Germany (he attended lectures by Schelling in Munich) and thus his strong intellectual relationship to German philosophy. And it is this particular messianic formulation of Russian geographical expansion and Panslavism that also has particular relevance when trying to understand Dostoevsky's political essays in the Diary of a Writer. In any case, it is important to understand that Tyutchev and Dostoevsky were not simply conservative apologists of the Tsar.

More comments on this book will follow in future posts. I will make a point of taking more time away from translation work to write them.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Review of "The Translator in the Text," Part 3: Narrated Monologue and Punctuation

One of the most interesting sections of May's book on the problems of translating Russian literature into English (also see earlier discussion of this book in Parts 1 and 2 of my review) is how translators should treat what she calls "narrated monologue," which is the equivalent of the Russian literary term skaz. This is basically the phenomenon of a third-person narrator assuming the speech patterns of one of the characters, thus making it hard to distinguish between the thoughts of a character and those of the objective narrator. I remember this topic being treated in my Russian lit courses, and the primary examples that we discussed were from Gogol, Zoshchenko, and, of course, Dostoevsky. As May duly notes, it is mostly thanks to Mikhail Bakhtin, and in particular to his The Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, that we have such a rich literary criticism in Russian literature laying bear the unstable, polyphonic narratives of Dostoevsky's novels.

My previous understanding of skaz was that it was a technique practiced by a distinct group of writers. However, May does a good job of showing that a large circle of litterateurs have dipped into this narrative style, and not just those from the Golden and Silver Ages or, after 1917, from the Russian emigration. For example, May discusses Yury Trifonov, who was a Soviet writer published in authorized venues and who thus had to deal with the stylistically-constructive demands of the official literary doctrine of socialist realism. But yet even he employed narrated monologue for emphasis, a fact which lends support to the idea that this a not particularly stylistically marked feature of the literary language. May particularly notes that the exclamation mark in the following example from the novel Another Life [Другая жизнь] shows how the narrator assumes his character's anger:

Тогда, на веранде, она почувствовала вдруг бурное отвращение, как приступ тошноты, --- и к нему, и к людям за столом, глазевшим на него с веселым, пьяным дружелюбием, как в ресторане. Как же она разозлилась! 
At that moment on the veranda she suddenly felt a wild revulsion, like a wave of nausea, --- both toward him and toward the people around the table, gazing at him with cheerful, drunken amiability, as if in a restaurant. She go so angry! (92, May's translation)

May translates the last sentence in a way that best carries across the emotional content. However, her major point is that heretofore other translators have been neglecting to properly convey this technique. For example, Michael Glenny translates the key sentence above without the exclamation ("she completely lost her temper"), thus "appropriat[ing] the entire sentence as part of the omniscient narration," and thereby making the narration completely conventional from an English literary point-of-view (93).

Indeed, many of May's more subtle and interesting points cite examples from translators who fail to properly understand the meanings of Russian punctuation, and in particular of exclamation points, ellipses and dashes. Indeed, the chief English-language textbook devoted to the problems of understanding the meanings of Russian punctuation (Edward Vajda and Valentina Umanets, Russian Punctuation and Related Symbols: A Guide for English Students), makes the point that "it is not sufficient to have mastered a large vocabulary, the Russian system of orthography (spelling), and the rules of Russian grammar; you must also learn the system of Russian punctuation. Just as you have already learned the sound value of each letter of the alphabet in various contexts, you must also begin learning the various functions of each mark of punctuation" (xiii). Thus, we might say that for a translator to fail to adequately translate punctuation is more than just to fail to convey a certain marker of style, since it cuts to a more fundamental level of language understanding: it is tantamount to misinterpreting the meaning of a word or the case assignment of a noun.

Friday, February 3, 2012

New Books in History Podcast

I wanted to put in a word about the New Books in History series of book-review podcasts. Marshall Poe, who hosts each podcast, is a noted Russian historian, and I know of his work from A People Born to Slavery: Russia in Early Modern European Ethnography, 1476-1748, which would be an excellent book for me to review on this blog, especially given what I have written so far here about the reception of the West in Russia and vice-versa.

Though there are a number of historians from the various subfields of history and other allied disciplines who appear on the show to talk about their most recent monographs, as you might expect Russian studies features prominently. For example, recent podcasts have featured Rosamund Bartlett's Tolstoy: A Russian Life and Rodric Braithwaite's Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89

One older podcast that I enjoyed listening to featured Abbot Gleason, who is among the founding figures of American Slavic studies. It was interesting to hear him recount his interactions with such legendary figures as Martin Malia and Andrzej Walicki. The latter features very interestingly in one anecdote: apparently Gleason decided to write an undergraduate thesis on Franz Xaver von Baader, a conservative Roman Catholic theologian and philosopher who is perhaps not as famous a member of the Counter-Englightenment as someone like, say, Joseph de Maistre. Gleason clearly was embarrassed about his research topic since it was not as sexy as the projects of his peers, who were writing about things like the rise of German National Socialism and Nietzsche's critique of liberalism. However, Walicki, who was Gleason's advisor at the time, was very enthusiastic about Baader, and he applauded Gleason for picking an understudied topic to research. Walicki also encouraged Gleason to study German, Polish, Russian and other languages so that he could read the existing scholarship on Baader since there was very little in English about him at the time.

I have a vital sympathy with this approach to scholarship, since in my own plan of study I chose to research one of the most understudied corners of Fyodor Dostoevsky's output, namely his journalistic pieces that were published throughout the 1870s as The Diary of a Writer; the Diary features some of the famous novelist's more unsavory and reactionary opinions about European politics and the Russian Jews, while at the same time containing some celebrated vignettes and other fictions (such as, for example, "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man"). The lack of monographs and journal articles on the Diary (in contrast to the huge scholarly attention that Dostoevsky's major novels have enjoyed) as well as on figures like Baader may be attributed to the fact that there are always fewer scholars who are interested in studying the more reactionary aspects of intellectual history.

At any rate, the New Books series has been a satisfying way for me pass the time when I am out of the office and taking walks around the parks and other natural areas of scenic Tucson.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Review of "The Translator in the Text," Part 2: The Reception of "Abusive" Translation

May talks about the problem that twentieth-century translators who make the most efforts in their translations to preserve the distinctive stylistic features of the Russian language are often forgotten and uncelebrated. She notes the following translators and their respective translations: Robert Maguire and John Malmstad (Andrey Bely's Petersburg), Hugh Mclean (selected short stories by Mikhail Zoshchenko), Leonard Stanton (Victor Erofeyev's "The Parakeet") and T. H. Willetts (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich"). On the other hand, those translators who follow in the footsteps of Garnett by making Russian literature conform to English literary stylistic norms are praised:

Paradoxically, as translations bring more obvious innovations into English, translators seem to be becoming more anonymous. The supposedly 'invisible' translation strategies of earlier times, that smoothed and packaged the work for general consumption, made celebrities of the translators, while much more daring translations now appearing are the work of unassuming scholars and writers who are willing to bring language out into the open in all its materiality while themselves 'disappearing' behind it (52).

If readers could only become familiar with some translation theory, then perhaps they would be receptive to these more avant-garde translations. In particular, Lawrence Venuti in his The Translator's Invisibility: A History of Translation has contributed the notion of "abusive translation," meaning translation that deliberately subverts English stylistic conventions, in providing an academic framework in which to appreciate translations that privilege fidelity to the original text's linguistic structure over all other considerations. Such a technique is ultimately bound to contribute more to the literature of the target language: "If a work is worth translating, then it should not just slip unobtrusively into the target language. It should be allowed to stretch and challenge that language with the same vitality that its original possesses--- possibly even a greater vitality, born of new linguistic and metaphorical contrasts" (8). The problem is, however, that most English-language critics and readers, and particularly those monolingual readers who have no way of understanding or appreciating how the target-language translation mimics the source-language text, will naturally privilege fluency, comprehensibility and even some stylistic normativity over experimentation.

It seems that many critics, even bilingual ones, find abusive translation to be bad. Like I mentioned in my previous post, May wrote before the advent of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky as the most recognizable (and even acclaimed) current translators of Russian literature into English. P. & V. have often been criticized for using unnatural English, whether or not such English usage carries across more literally Russian lexical or syntactic content. For example, in her recent review of P. & V.'s translation of Doctor Zhivago Ann Pasternak Slater points out just some of the problems of literalism in the translation:

Sustained, low-level unease is intensified by un-English word-order. "Yura was pleased that he would again meet Nika." Inversions (ubiquitous in early Conrad) are natural to foreigners speaking English and a mistake in translators. The inversion of subject and verb, aggravated by an invasive parenthesis, is an elementary translator's error. "At the turn there would appear, and after a moment vanish, the seven-mile panorama of Kologrivovo." It is quickly apparent that Volokhonsky-Pevear follow the Russian very closely, without attempting to reconfigure its syntax or vocabulary into a more English form.

So, in the end, we as readers in English want to read translations that adhere to John Dryden's "imitation" principle of translation, that is we want to read what Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Pasternak would have written had they been born in England or America, and not in Russia. (In the preface to his translation of Virgil's Aeneid, Dryden wrote: "I may presume to say. . . I have endeavoured to make Virgil speak such English as he would himself have spoken, if he had been born in England, and in this present age").

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Review of "The Translator in the Text," Part 1

I just finished Rachel May's The Translator in the Text: On Reading Russian Literature in English. It reads as a collection of independent essays; the first of them provides a short history of the translation of Russian literature into English, and the remaining describe the characteristic features and devices of Russian literature and the difficulties translators encounter when Englishing them. There are also two short appendices that provide case studies. There are many excellent insights that are laid out in a very compact fashion. In this first post I will note what I found most striking about May's concise history of Russian translation. Naturally, Constance Garnett dominates the discussion, since there was no other Russian-English literary translator of note until the twentieth century.

The history of Russian translation in Great Britain (and America) is very close to the history of the reception (Rezeptionsgeschichteof Russian literature. Early translations addressed the British public's interest in gaining information about Russia, and early translators of Gogol and Lermontov distorted and added to the original texts in order to confirm popular stereotypes about the shortcomings of the Russian character and the backwardness of Russia. Artistic appreciation of Russian literature, and with it a demand for more accurate translations, came only in the late Victorian era in Britain (and in particular after 1885). French criticism on Russian literature was translated into English to address the lack of native works on the subject, and de Vogue's Le roman russe was the most popular such work (21).

The "informational" attitude to translation so prevalent in Britain in the nineteenth century once again took hold during the Cold War. The first English translation of Doctor Zhivago was rushed and did not attempt to convey Pasternak's style. "In other words, the literary qualities of the work had to take a back seat to its political importance. Curiously, despite the universal dissatisfaction with this translation, no other version has yet appeared [circa 1994; since then Pevear and Volokhonsky have translated the novel]" (47). Indeed, it was this Max Hayward and Manya Harari translation that I read when I first read the novel as a high school student, and when I read it again for a course as an undergraduate. (It's funny that I chose this translation mostly because I liked the production values of the book, which falls within the Everyman's Classics Library series: all the books in this series come exquisitely bound in cloth. However, perhaps this publisher did not make it a policy of always choosing up-to-date or artistically accomplished translations (with perhaps the exception of John Edwin Woods' new translations of Thomas Mann's novels. I really like that translator, though it is true that I have no way of judging the fidelity to the German)).

May describes the formation of the canon of Russian Golden Age writers in translation: "The darlings of the English literati of the late nineteenth century were Turgenev and Tolstoy, in that order. Dostoevsky remained too foreign for even late-Victorian tastes; his moment was not to come until a quarter of a century after Turgenev's" (22). Turgenev, or more accurately Constance Garnett's translations of Turgenev, set the normative expectations in Britain about how a Russian novel should read in English: "Though British readers recognized Russian novelists as having something special to contribute to world culture Turgenev helped them to believe that Russian literature could fit into the stylistic mainstream in England, and subsequent translations increasingly forced Russian novels into this mold" (22). Constance Garnett began her career as a translator with Turgenev, and she was perhaps most successful translating him because his style was already close to that of nineteenth-century English novelists. At least one of the latter group found Turgenev easy to appreciate it: Joseph Conrad was very impressed with Garnett's translations, and to him she and Turgenev are inseparable (25).

May notes: "Turgenev also appealed to literary purists, perhaps because his style was less convoluted than those of other Russian writers" (23). Yet Pushkin stands at the head of the strand of Russian literary tradition to which Turgenev belongs (Pushkin - Tolstoy - Turgenev - Chekhov, which is defined in binary opposition to the Gogol - Dostoevsky strand). However, May reserves no place in her book for a discussion of the translation of either Pushkin's poetry or prose into English

Early translators of Dostoevsky treated the Russian author "as a rough-hewn writer in need of stylistic assistance" (28). "Dostoevsky simply was not sufficiently genteel for the late Victorian audience. They looked on Dostoevsky, as on Gogol earlier, as a curiosity or a window onto Russian life, but not as an artist" (29). (Robert Louis Stevenson, however, was an early admirer of Dostoevsky nonetheless.) Garnett had to make Dostoevsky acceptable, and to transform his style into the same that she used for Turgenev: "Amidst the general acclaim for Mrs. Garnett's translations of Dostoevsky, we can detect hints that her triumph lay partly in adapting him to the aesthetic demands of the English reader. Mrs. Garnett wrote, 'Dostoievsky is so obscure and so careless a writer that one can scarcely help clarifying him --- sometimes it needs some penetration to see what he is trying to say'" (32). By contrast to Dostoevsky, Chekhov was much easier to translate for Garnett: "Chekhov's writing lends itself to translation in much the same way as Turgenev's: it has simplicity and grace, it tends to use a single perspective and little extraneous detail" (36).