Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The art of translation, part 2

with 5 comments

Vladimir Nabokov

In one of the wonderful short essays that appear in the anthology Selected Nonfictions, Jorge Luis Borges writes:

Around 1916, I decided to devote myself to the study of the Oriental literatures. Working with enthusiasm and credulity through the English version of a certain Chinese philosopher, I came across this memorable passage: “A man condemned to death doesn’t care that he is standing on the edge of a precipice, for he has already renounced life.” Here the translator attaches an asterisk, and his note informed me that this interpretation was preferable to that of a rival Sinologist, who had translated the passage thus: “The servants destroy the works of art, so that they will not have to judge their beauties and defects.”

Speaking of the experience, Borges concludes: “A mysterious skepticism had slipped into my soul.” That skepticism never left him entirely, and you can see it on full display on his essays—which are among his best—on the translations of the Iliad and The Thousand and One Nights, most of which tell us more about the personalities of their translators than about the work itself. (If you ever want to disillusion yourself on the subject of translation in record time, just try reading a few translations, in parallel, of poetry in an Eastern language. This list of versions of Basho’s famous haiku on the jumping frog is a good place to start.)

And the irony here, of course, is that I’m also reading Borges in translation, in this case filtered through the words of the editor and translator Eliot Weinberger, and I didn’t think twice about it. Nearly every encounter I’ve had with Borges, who ranks among my four or five favorite writers, has been thanks to the midwifery of translators, and although I used to know enough Spanish to puzzle my way through a few familiar stories in the original edition of Ficciones, I haven’t tried this in a long time. And my conscience is clear. My only real firsthand experience with comparing translated texts to their originals was in college, when I studied Latin and Greek, and it left me with a few workable assumptions. Prose in a Western language can usually be translated into English without any devastating loss: Plato or Thucydides in English misses something, sure, but ninety percent of the original’s interest is preserved. Poetry is a different matter, and I never found a version of the Iliad I liked enough to read for its own sake. (I ended up relying mostly on what Borges calls Samuel Butler’s “unruffled” prose version, which renders Homer’s poetry as “a series of sedate news items.”) This is doubly the case with translated poetry from a non-Western language, which turns into a kind of performance art on the part of the translator, and it’s tempting to agree here with Robert Frost: “Poetry is what is lost in translation.”

Portrait of Jorge Luis Borges by Ferdinando Scianna

So what’s a reader to do? I’d been aware of these issues for a long time, but it wasn’t until I read Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau de Marot that I started to piece together my own feelings on the subject. Le Ton Beau is a very strange book, a highly personal work on translation that ranges widely over multiple authors and languages—Hofstadter refers to himself as “pilingual”—while maintaining the chatty, nerdy, occasionally prickly tone of an interested amateur. Hofstadter’s conclusion is that poetry should be translated in a way that honors both the form and the content to the best of the translator’s abilities, even if this inevitably involves compromises in the literal meaning. It’s a sensible stance, and one that allows readers to more or less keep reading the same translations they always have. But it also pits Hofstadter against a formidable opponent: Vladimir Nabokov, whose epic translation and commentary of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin stands as the ultimate rejection of such easy consolations. For Nabokov, any conscious deviation from the literal text is a betrayal, a sop at the expense of the author to readers who can’t be bothered to learn Russian. To prove his point, Nabokov devoted unimaginable effort to a plodding, agonizingly “faithful” translation of Pushkin, published with two massive volumes of commentary. It’s a translation designed to destroy the reader’s very idea of translation itself, as well as the project in which Nabokov most resembles one of his own obsessive characters.

To be honest, I’ve never made it through all of Nabokov’s translation, but I’ve read all nine hundred pages of his notes, in which he lavishes all the invention, wit, and fire that he intentionally drains from the text itself. These notes strike me now as a defiant creative act in their own right, a statement that Nabokov would have been more than capable of blowing us away with a conventional translation if he hadn’t been too principled to do so. And it’s a stance that somehow manages to be unimpeachably correct and spectacularly wrongheaded all at the same time. Nabokov’s argument that fidelity to literal meaning should come first is impossible to refute, but he destroys the village to save it: his translation of Eugene Onegin is an “aesthetic self-wounding,” as Harold Bloom says elsewhere of Shakespeare, and it has little if anything to do with the qualities that draw readers to Pushkin in the first place. That’s a betrayal of its own, and in choosing between the two kinds of compromises, I can only speak from my own experience: reading a few stanzas of Nabokov’s work is enough to put me off Pushkin forever, while James Falen’s sparkling verse translation has made Eugene Onegin, or some version of it, a permanent part of my life—which is all a translation can ever hope to do. It’s hard to reconcile this, and rightly so, with our ideal of what a translation should be. But in response, I can only quote what Borges said, through an intermediary, to a translator who said that it was impossible to render one of his poems into rhyme: “Borges thinks you should try a little harder.”

Written by nevalalee

November 20, 2013 at 8:58 am

5 Responses

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  1. Our VN was a character, wasn’t he? It’s hard to think that Pale Fire doesn’t share some DNA with Oneigin. Vladimir’s arguments with Edmund Wilson on translations from Russian are also pretty good, although those were based — according to VN — on Wilson’s imperfect grasp of language.

    Peter Galen Massey

    November 20, 2013 at 10:27 am

  2. I have never read Hofstader or Nabokov on translation, so I’m sure my observations are very elementary, but what really get me are idioms. I don’t think there’s a simple answer – we have so many idioms that any translation needs to do violence to them if the reader is to understand the translated work- but nothing bothers me more than when the translator tries to substitute different idioms, particularly in dialogue, that end up being cripplingly out of place or anachronistic.

    Nat

    November 20, 2013 at 3:28 pm

  3. @Peter: And Wilson, to put it mildly, was a pretty smart guy. It’s just a reminder not to get on Nabokov’s bad side…

    @Nat: Absolutely. Among other things, it means that any English translation of Aristophanes is really hard to read.

    nevalalee

    November 20, 2013 at 6:38 pm

  4. I remember a radio play of James Morrison’s Lysistrata, and that was hilarious — ploughing the fertile plain, indeed… He managed to cram in loads of double entendres, and it rarely seemed forced. Perhaps with dramas a strong performance can mitigate any clunkiness.

    Darren

    November 20, 2013 at 9:22 pm

  5. @Darren: That’s a good point. I’ve never seen Aristophanes on stage, and I have a hunch that he’s an author who would gain a lot from performance.

    nevalalee

    November 21, 2013 at 9:58 am


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