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").

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