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Vladimir Nabokov on the Sins of Translation and the Greatest Russian Short Story
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Vladimir Nabokov on the Sins of Translation and the Greatest Russian Short Story

By Photo: Keystone/Getty Images

"The Art of Translation"

August 4, 1941

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.

The other class of blunders in the first category includes a more sophisticated kind of mistake, one which is caused by an attack of linguistic Daltonism suddenly blinding the translator. Whether attracted by the far-fetched when the obvious was at hand (What does an Eskimo prefer to eatice cream or tallow? Ice cream), or whether unconsciously basing his rendering on some false meaning which repeated readings have imprinted on his mind, he manages to distort in an unexpected and sometimes quite brilliant way the most honest word or the tamest metaphor. I knew a very conscientious poet who in wrestling with the translation of a much tortured text rendered “is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” in such a manner as to convey an impression of pale moonlight. He did this by taking for granted that “sickle” referred to the form of the new moon. And a national sense of humor, set into motion by the likeness between the Russian words meaning “arc” and “onion,” led a German professor to translate “a bend of the shore” (in a Pushkin fairy tale) by “the Onion Sea.”

The second, and much more serious, sin of leaving out tricky passages is still excusable when the translator is baffled by them himself; but how contemptible is the smug person who, although quite understanding the sense, fears it might stump a dunce or debauch a dauphin! Instead of blissfully nestling in the arms of the great writer, he keeps worrying about the little reader playing in a corner with something dangerous or unclean. Perhaps the most charming example of Victorian modesty that has ever come my way was in an early English translation of “Anna Karenina.” Vronsky had asked Anna what was the matter with her. “I am beremenna” (the translator’s italics), replied Anna, making the foreign reader wonder what strange and awful Oriental disease that was; all because the translator thought that “I am pregnant” might shock some pure soul, and that a good idea would be to leave the Russian just as it stood.

But masking and toning down seem petty sins in comparison with those of the third category; for here he comes strutting and shooting out his bejeweled cuffs, the slick translator who arranges Scheherazade’s boudoir according to his own taste and with professional elegance tries to improve the looks of his victims. Thus it was the rule with Russian versions of Shakespeare to give Ophelia richer flowers than the poor weeds she found. The Russian rendering of

There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies and long purples

if translated back into English would run like this:

There with most lovely garlands did she come
Of violets, carnations, roses, lilies.

The splendor of this floral display speaks for itself; incidentally it bowdlerized the Queen’s digressions, granting her the gentility she so sadly lacked and dismissing the liberal shepherds; how anyone could make such a botanical collection beside the Helje or the Avon is another question. 

But no such questions were asked by the solemn Russian reader, first, because he did not know the original text, second, because he did not care a fig for botany, and third, because the only thing that interested him in Shakespeare was what German commentators and native radicals had discovered in the way of “eternal problems.” So nobody minded what happened to Goneril’s lapdogs when the line 

Tray, Blanche and Sweetheart, see, they bark at me

was grimly metamorphosed into

A pack of hounds is barking at my heels. 

All local color, all tangible and irreplaceable details were swallowed by those hounds.

But, revenge is sweeteven unconscious revenge. The greatest Russian short story ever written is Gogol’s “The Overcoat” (or “Mantle,” or “Cloak,” or “She-nel”). Its essential feature, that irrational part which forms the tragic undercurrent of an otherwise meaningless anecdote, is organically connected with the special style in which this story is written: there are weird repetitions of the same absurd adverb, and these repetitions become a kind of uncanny incantation; there are descriptions which look innocent enough until you discover that chaos lies right round the corner, and that Gogol has inserted into this or that harmless sentence a word or a simile that makes a passage burst into a wild display of nightmare fireworks. There is also that groping clumsiness which, on the author's part, is a conscious rendering of the uncouth gestures of our dreams.

Nothing of these remains in the prim, and perky, and very matter-of-fact English version (seeand never see again“The Mantle,” translated by Claude Field). The following example leaves me with the impression that I am witnessing a murder and can do nothing to prevent it:

Gogol: ...his [a petty official's] third or fourth-story flat...displaying a few fashionable trifles, such as a lamp for instancetrifles purchased by many sacrifices. ...

Field: ...fitted with some pretentious articles of furniture purchased, etc. ...

Tampering with foreign major or minor masterpieces may involve an innocent third party in the farce. Quite recently a famous Russian composer asked me to translate into English a Russian poemwhich forty years ago he had set to music. The English translation, he pointed out, had to follow closely the very sounds of the textwhich text was unfortunately K. Balmont’s version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Bells.” What Balmont's numerous translations look like may be readily understood when I say that his own work invariably disclosed an almost pathological inability to write one single melodious line. Having at his disposal a sufficient number of hackneyed rhymes and taking up as he rode any hitch-hiking metaphor that he happened to meet, he turned something that Poe had taken considerable pains to compose into something that any Russian rhymester could dash off at a moment's notice. In reversing it into English I was solely concerned with finding English words that would sound like the Russian ones. Now, if somebody one day comes across my English version of that Russian version, he may foolishly retranslate it into Russian so that the Poe-less poem will go on being balmontized until, perhaps, the “Bells” become “Silence.” Something still more grotesque happened to Baudelaire’s exquisitely dreamy “Invitation au Voyage” (“Mon amie, ma soeur, connais-tu la douceur”) The Russian version was due to the pen of Merejkovsky, who had even less poetical talent than Balmont. It began like this:

My sweet little bride.
Let's go for a ride;

Promptly it begot a rollicking tune and was adopted by all organ-grinders of Russia. I like to imagine a future French translator of Russian folksongs re-Frenchifying it into:

Viens, mon p'tit,
A Nijni

and so on, ad malinfinitum.

Barring downright deceivers, mild imbeciles and impotent poets, there exist, roughly speaking, three types of translatorsand this has nothing to do with my three categories of evil; or, rather, any of the three types may err in a similar way. These three are: the scholar who is eager to make the world appreciate the works of an obscure genius as much as he does himself; the well meaning hack; and the professional writer relaxing in the company of a foreign confrere. The scholar will be, I hope, exact and pedantic: footnoteson the same page as the text and not tucked away at the end of the volumecan never be too copious and detailed. The laborious lady translating at the eleventh hour the eleventh volume of somebody's collected works will be, I am afraid, less exact and less pedantic; but the point is not that the scholar commits fewer blunders than a drudge; the point is that as a rule both he and she are hopelessly devoid of any semblance of creative genius. Neither learning nor diligence can replace imagination and style.

Now comes the authentic poet who has the two last assets and who finds relaxation in translating a bit of Lermontov or Verlaine between writing poems of his own. Either he does not know the original language and calmly relies upon the so-called “literal” translation made for him by a far less brilliant but a little more learned person, or else, knowing the language, he lacks the scholar’s precision and the professional translator’s experience. The main drawback, however, in this case is the fact that the greater his individual talent, the more apt he will be to drown the foreign masterpiece under the sparkling ripples of his own personal style. Instead of dressing up like the real author, he dresses up the author as himself.

We can deduce now the requirements that a translator must possess in order to be able to give an ideal version of a foreign masterpiece. First of all he must have as much talent, or at least the same kind of talent, as the author he chooses. In this, though only in this, respect Baudelaire and Poe or Joukovsky and Schiller made ideal playmates. Second, he must know thoroughly the two nations and the two languages involved and be perfectly acquainted with all details relating to his author’s manner and methods; also, with the social background of words, their fashions, history and period associations. This leads to the third point: while having genius and knowledge he must possess the gift of mimicry and be able to act, as it were, the real author’s part by impersonating his tricks of demeanor and speech, his ways and his mind, with the utmost degree of verisimilitude.

I have lately tried to translate several Russian poets who had either been badly disfigured by former attempts or who had never been translated at all. The English at my disposal is certainly thinner than my Russian; the difference being, in fact, that which exists between a semi-detached villa and a hereditary estate, between self-conscious comfort and habitual luxury. I am not satisfied therefore with the results attained, but my studies disclosed several rules that other writers might follow with profit.

I was confronted for instance with the following opening line of one of Pushkin's most prodigious poems:

Yah pom-new chewed-no-yay mg-no-vain-yay

I have rendered the syllables by the nearest English sounds I could find; their mimetic disguise makes them look rather ugly; but never mind; the “chew” and the “vain” are associated phonetically with other Russian words meaning beautiful and important things, and the melody of the line with the plump, golden-ripe “chewed-no-yay” right in the middle and the “m’s” and “n’s” balancing each other on both sides, is to the Russian ear most exciting and soothinga paradoxical combination that any artist will understand.

Now, if you take a dictionary and look up those four words you will obtain the following foolish, flat and familiar statement: “I remember a wonderful moment.” What is to be done with this bird you have shot down only to find that it is not a bird of paradise, but an escaped parrot, still screeching its idiotic message as it flaps on the ground? For no stretch of the imagination can persuade an English reader that “I remember a wonderful moment” is the perfect beginning of a perfect poem. The first thing I discovered was that the expression “a literal translation” is more or less nonsense. “Yah pom-new” is a deeper and smoother plunge into the past than “I remember,” which falls flat on its belly like an inexperienced diver; “chewed-no-yay” has a lovely Russian “monster” in it, and a whispered “listen,” and the dative ending of a “sunbeam,” and many other fair relations among Russian words. It belongs phonetically and mentally to a certain series of words, and this Russian series does not correspond to the English series in which “I remember” is found. And inversely, “remember,” though it clashes with the corresponding “pom-new” series, is connected with an English series of its own whenever real poets do use it. And the central word in Housman’s “What are those blue remembered hills?” becomes in Russian “vspom-neev-she-yesyah,” a horrible straggly thing, all humps and horns, which cannot fuse into any inner connection with “blue,” as it does so smoothly in English, because the Russian sense of blueness belongs to a different series than the Russian “remember” does.

This interrelation of words and non-correspondence of verbal series in different tongues suggest yet another rule, namely, that the three main words of the line draw one another out, and add something which none of them would have had separately or in any other combination. What makes this exchange of secret values possible is not only the mere contact between the words, but their exact position in regard both to the rhythm of the line and to one another. This must be taken into account by the translator.

Finally, there is the problem of the rhyme. “Mg-no-vainyay” has over two thousand Jack-in-the-box rhymes popping out at the slightest pressure, whereas I cannot think of one to “moment.” The position of “mg-no-vain-yay” at the end of the line is not negligible either, due as it is to Pushkin’s more or less consciously knowing that he would not have to hunt for its mate. But the position of “moment” in the English line implies no such security; on the contrary he would be a singularly reckless fellow who placed it there.

Thus I was confronted by that opening line, so full of Pushkin, so individual and harmonious; and after examining it gingerly from the various angles here suggested, I tackled it. The tackling process lasted the worst part of the night. I did translate it at last; but to give my version at this point might lead the reader to doubt that perfection be attainable by merely following a few perfect rules.

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