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).

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