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.

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