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Verses and Versions: Three Centuries of Russian Poetry Selected and Translated by Vladimir Nabokovby Vladimir Nabokov
THE ART OF TRANSLATION
(I: A FEW PERFECT RULES”)
I thought I might say a few words about this pathetic business of translating, and I thought I might compare the various types of translators to the various types of teachers. I should warn you that I am not a teacher of any language myself—in fact there is a kind of iron curtain painted green, or let us say a green velvet curtain, between Goldwin Smith Hall where I teach literature and the remote Morrill Hall, where the Russian language is taught. But since in my literature classes I am constantly faced with the problem of translating Russian and French into English, I think I have a fair idea of the difficulties an expert in language encounters.
I am not speaking of the difficulties that the student encounters when taught to say, for example,—this is one of the nicest tongue twisters I could invent: Vï´karabkavshiesya vï´hoholi okoléli u koléblyushchegosya kolokololitéyshchika—the martins that had scrambled out died a beasts death at the hesitating makers of church bells.
Translation is a controversial subject. In one camp, we have the scholar, the artist, the reader. In the other camp we have the ill-paid drudge, who translates as best he can, the cautious humbug, who does not know the foreign language and cannot write his own, and the publisher who does not give a damn for such niceties and always prefers an adaptation anyway.
Can we do without translators? Can every educated man know at least five foreign languages besides his own?—and as well as his own,—that is the point. English, mainly because of its poetry, obviously heads the list. French and Russian compete for second place. Italian, Spanish and German come next—which makes in all six languages that a man must know in deep and exquisite detail in order to enjoy Shakespeare, Flaubert, Tyutchev, Dante, Cervantes and Kafka. And there are other languages, other great poets in those languages.?And what about Latin, what about Greek? How then can one do without translators?
I know of one old gentleman now dead, head of a Slavic department in a great university not necessarily in this country who could not utter or write a single Russian sentence without making a mistake, and whose translations from the Russian, published under his name, were written by anonymous natives. This is the common ground where the incompetent teacher and the incompetent translator meet—the man who for years conceals the treasure of his ignorance and lives in solecism as others live in sin.
Three grades of evil can be discerned in the queer world of verbal transmigration. The first, and lesser one, comprises obvious errors due to ignorance or misguided knowledge. This is mere human frailty and thus excusable. The next step to Hell is taken by the translator who intentionally skips words or passages that he does not bother to understand or that might seem obscure or obscene to vaguely imagined readers; he accepts the blank look that his dictionary gives him without any qualms; or subjects scholarship to primness: he is as ready to know less than the author as he is to think he knows better. The third, and worst, degree of turpitude is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public. This is a crime, to be punished by the stocks, as plagiarists were in the shoebuckle days.
The howlers included in the first category may be in their turn divided into two classes. Insufficient acquaintance with the foreign language involved may transform a commonplace expression into some remarkable statement that the real author never intended to make. Bien-être general” becomes the manly assertion that it is good to be a general”; to which gallant general a French translator of Hamlet has been known to pass the caviar. Likewise, in a German edition of Chekhov, a certain teacher, as soon as he enters the classroom, is made to become engrossed in his newspaper,” which prompted a pompous reviewer to comment on the sad condition of public instruction in pre-Soviet Russia. But the real Chekhov was simply referring to the classroom journal” which a teacher would open to check lessons, marks and absentees. And inversely, innocent words in an English novel such as first night” and public house” have become in a Russian translation nuptial night” and a brothel.” These simple examples suffice. They are ridiculous and jarring, but they contain no pernicious purpose; and more often than not the garbled sentence still makes some sense in the original context.
Compilation copyright © 2008 by Estate of Vladimir Nabokov, Brian Boyd, and Stanislav Shvabrin Introduction copyright © 2008 by Brian Boyd
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