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).