By Art Beck
Recently someone sent me a PEN America YouTube discussion on reviewing translations. The panelists were practicing translators, trade publishers, and reviewers from respected journals. It was, in many ways, a conversation on how to balance various interests. On one hand, publishers—especially of new fiction—are often loath to call readers’ attention to the fact that they’re not reading the original. Translators, of course, would like to get more recognition. But, as one panelist noted, not always, because often when a review focuses on translation issues, the judgment may be less than positive. Conversely, many reviewers are flummoxed by not knowing the original language and/or not having the original text. Should they therefore refrain from reviewing?
With translated lyric poetry, the current convention is for en face presentation of the original text. But even so, one panelist expressed reluctance to review poetry translated from a language she wasn’t proficient in. And then went on, almost as if speaking to herself, to question whether poetry should ever even be translated.
Strangely, I don’t recall any of the panelists offering the thought that the interjected voice of the poetry translator might, in itself, be worthy of primary attention apart from its relation to the original. Or that, generations after Cathay and Imitations, the intent of the poet-translator may not be at least as salient as the intent of the original author.
The professionally well-
qualified panel seemed to come nowhere near consensus. Watching their discussion, I wondered if some examples of what, to me, seemed reviews gone wrong might shed more light on the issues around reviewing translations than more positive examples.
What first came to mind was a smirky San Francisco Chronicle review of Lydia Davis’s 2010 translation of Madame Bovary. The reviewer, Benjamin Ivry, is himself a translator from French, and the review seems an example of why a translator (as well as the publisher) might not want a critique focused on translation aspects. Ivry first notes several existing good and/or “competent” translations. And then goes on,
Enter Lydia Davis, a novelist whose faulty, stumbling 2003 translation of Marcel Proust’s “Swann’s Way” was overpraised by Vanity Fair as “something even more enchanting” than the original. Davis’ introduction strikes some warning notes, as when she describes the obese, bug-eyed Flaubert as “handsome,” making this translation project seem like part of a Harlequin Romance fantasy rather than anchored in reality.
This impression is confirmed when Davis confesses herself a fan of Flaubert’s character Homais, the town pharmacist in “Madame Bovary” who, preceding Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the “banality of evil,” exemplifies the evil of banality … Of this wretched villain, Davis writes: “It is hard not to enjoy [Homais’] cunning, his enterprise, his intellectual explorations, and even to agree with him sometimes.” Flaubert compiled dictionaries of amusing misreadings, but even he never foresaw one of his translators’ being a friend of Homais.
There are fussy tics in Davis’ translation, such as retaining an arcane Norman dialect word for a gig or carriage, boc, when a serviceable English word exists, and not using the widely known French word quadrille, preferring the odd translation “contra dance,” which raises incongruous memories of Iran, Ronald Reagan and Oliver North. There is franglais aplenty, in phrases like “she occupied herself” (for “elle s’occupait”) and most bizarrely, a French term for nuns (les bonnes soeurs) is repeatedly Englished as “the good sisters,” like characters in a J. B. Priestley novel. The expression “une femme de grands moyens” (a woman of great talent; a remarkably gifted woman) is rendered by Davis as a “woman of great capacity,” transforming Emma Bovary into a barrel.
Rather than being persuasive, this level of invective raises my cautionary hackles. Is there a competitive agenda here? And what’s so bizarre about “the good sisters”? In the Irish parishes of my Chicago youth, that sobriquet was ubiquitous.
Whatever may be driving Ivry’s bile, his quibbles evoke the sadistic blue pencils of smug pedants. What is the reader supposed to get from the piece besides a roosterish crow that Ivry is smarter than Davis? A contrary approach was taken by Jane Smiley in the Toronto Globe and Mail:
In her informative introduction, Davis, a respected poet and short story writer whose 2004 translation of Swann’s Way was widely praised, comes close to asserting that her version of Madame Bovary is truer to the Flaubert’s original than those that have gone before; she has even left in careless errors that Flaubert himself made with regard to “pronoun reference and capitalization.” She has also included a very informative set of notes for modern readers who might not understand what Corbeille was, or a “Trafalgar pudding.” But I have to admit that I only found the notes after I turned the last page of the novel.
The great accomplishment of Davis’s translation has nothing really to do with her meticulousness, and everything to do with the spirit and energy that drive the narrative. She has returned Emma Bovary to us as a young woman …
For me, the difference between the reviews isn’t that Ivry’s is negative and Smiley’s positive. It’s that Smiley, herself a fiction writer, focuses on the core rationale for yet another retranslation of Madame Bovary: the voice of the work as a whole conveyed in the inescapable duet that translation entails. If, in fact, Davis’s version is unique enough to warrant our attention, that singularity comes from Davis as reader/performer, not from any “corrections” of previous translations. Ivry, I think, seems particularly tone deaf to this dynamic when he criticizes Davis for implying a more three-dimensional character in Homais than he sees fit. Would anyone criticize a Shakespeare performer for, say, humanizing Iago?
Another retranslation released in 2010 was Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear’s Doctor Zhivago. It was reviewed in the Guardian by Ann Pasternak Slater, Boris Pasternak’s grandniece. It’s a more equable and less pedantic piece than Ivry’s. But it’s also overwhelmingly negative. What primarily offends Slater isn’t inaccuracy or infidelity to the original, but rather a formal equivalency that brings across Russianisms intact. Unlike the 1958 Max Hayward-Manya Harari version which opted for English equivalents of Russian idioms and “explained” with expanded text what the average English reader needed to have explained, the new version takes a foreign-ized, rather than domesticated, approach. Slater points out, what seem to her, clumsy instances, as when Zhivago exclaims, “Ah spit on the rugs and china, let it all go to hell.” As opposed to Max Hayward’s “Do stop worrying about the rugs.”
The domestication/foreignization debate remains a neverending translation theory debate because there are real advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. The characters in the new Zhivago definitely sound Russian. There’s never any doubt they’re not Englishmen. Whereas the Zhivago we’re used to has an English idiom and voice not all that different from the upper-class British accents in the David Lean film.
For me, the Russified voice of the new translation adds a sense of something tangible and alive beneath the translation. Reading it, I find myself not that much concerned with Pasternak as a stylist, but with the raw forces that impelled the work. And for me, neither translation negates the other. They’re simply two versions, each with its own merits. Neither has to be taken as “definitive.”
Interestingly, Edmund Wilson, in his 1958 review “Doctor Life and his Guardian Angel,” faults the Hayward-Harari version for sloughing over “metaphors that could perfectly well have been preserved.” Among several examples he notes, “A similar crisp two-word statement about the playing of a work by Chaikovsky, ‘The trio began to sob,’ is rendered as ‘The music rose plaintively.’ ”
Slater, however, after noting numerous instances of things no native Briton would ever say, ultimately can find no value in, nor need, for the new translation. She expresses a sense of embarrassment at her granduncle being presented as a foreigner writing odd English—even rolling out Joseph Conrad as another embarrassment. Does the family still have a stake in royalties from the 1958 version? In any case, her review, like Ivry’s, rolls out a long list of specific quibbles, but ignores any balanced discussion of the translators’ intent.
II. Russian Wars
In a 1972 interview, Vladimir Nabokov talked about his reasons for refusing a request by a newspaper editor to review Doctor Zhivago when it was released in the 1950s.
What I told him is what I still think today. Any intelligent Russian would see at once that the book is pro-Bolshevist and historically false, if only because it ignores the Liberal Revolution of spring, 1917, while making the saintly doctor accept with delirious joy the Bolshevist coup d’etat seven months later—all of which is in keeping with the party line. Leaving out politics, I regard the book as a sorry thing, clumsy, trivial, and melodramatic, with stock situations, voluptuous lawyers, unbelievable girls, and trite coincidences.
Pasternak was, of course, only one of many, including T.S. Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Cervantes, Joyce, and Dostoevsky, whom Nabokov saw fit to disdain. Nabokov’s NYT obituary quotes him as saying,
Many accepted authors simply do not exist for me. Brecht, Faulkner, Camus, many others, mean absolutely nothing to me. I must fight a suspicion of conspiracy against my brain when I blandly see accepted as “great literature” by critics and fellow authors Lady Chatterley’s copulations or the pretentious nonsense of Mr. [Ezra] Pound, that total fake.
Nabokov’s almost visceral reaction to Doctor Zhivago seems pertinent here for two reasons.
One (as noted by his usually quite sympathetic biographer Brian Boyd) was a sense of competition between two Russian writers who found themselves vying for top spot on the bestseller list in late 1958. Boyd quotes a contemporary letter from Nabokov to Dwight MacDonald, “Had not Zhivago and I been on the same ladder … I would have been glad to demolish that trashy, false and inept book.”
It’s hard to know what primarily drove the invective. Whether, to quote Boyd again, the “conviction” of both Vera and Vladimir Nabokov “that the whole history of Zhivago was a Soviet plot,” or the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Pasternak in October 1958. Whatever the mixture, emigre politics and Nabokov’s innate competitiveness seemed to converge.
But secondly and more pertinent here: Nabokov’s reaction to Doctor Zhivago may have had a bearing on one of the great food fights in the history of reviewing translations. It marked the beginning of the rift with his old friend and often mentor, Edmund Wilson. Reacting to Pasternak’s Nobel, Wilson, an anticommunist Russophile who decried both sides in the Cold War, concluded, “Doctor Zhivago will, I believe, come to stand as one of the great events in man’s literary and moral history. Nobody could have written it in a totalitarian state and turned it loose on the world who did not have the courage of genius.”
Some eight years later Wilson and Nabokov would declare hot war on each other in the pages of the New York Review of Books, both declaring that Alexander Pushkin was a genius and the other was an ass.
In the April 1964 New York Review of Books, Nabokov published a review of Walter Arndt’s new translation of Eugene Onegin. It begins, oddly, by noting the title and publishing details of the reviewed book only in an asterisked footnote, akin to “small print,” at the end of the piece:
The author of a soon-to-be-published translation may find it awkward to criticize a just published translation of the same work, but in the present case I can, and should, master my embarrassment; for something must be done, some lone, hoarse voice must be raised, to defend both the helpless dead poet and the credulous college student from the kind of pitiless and irresponsible paraphrast whose product* I am about to discuss.
By presenting his piece as an essay, Nabokov refuses even to give his rival translator the honor of a formal review. Nabokov’s territorialism is understandable (although not excusable). The translation of Eugene Onegin had been a lifetime project, in his mind as much his magnum opus as any of his novels. It consisted not just of the Pushkin translation, but some 900 pages of commentary on every aspect of Pushkin’s “novel in verse.” The four-volume work was finally about to be released by Princeton’s Bollingen Press. But the related Bollingen Foundation had just awarded its prestigious translation prize to Walter Arndt for his version of the Russian classic.
If with Pasternak, whom Nabokov was perfectly willing to praise as a poet, there was the sense of “I’m the Russian novelist here,” with Arndt it seems more like, “You’re not even Russian, how dare you.” Nabokov enumerates twelve translation and/or poetic faults, among them #9:
Inadequate knowledge of Russian: This is a professional ailment among non-Russian translators from Russian into English. Anything a little too far removed from the kak-vy-pozhivaete-ya-pozhivayu-khorosho group becomes a pitfall, into which, rather than around which, dictionaries guide the groper …
Nearly every aspect of Arndt’s version is pummeled with both sharp and blunt stones thrown from Nabokov’s mountaintop fortress of native-speaking erudition. Some of the missiles find their mark, as in:
Pushkin has listless Lenski, on the eve of his duel, “sit down at the clavichord and play but chords on it,” a melancholy image which Arndt horribly transforms into: “the clavichord he would be pounding, with random chord set it resounding.”
But many more of Nabokov’s howls of outrage might seem overexcited quibbles to a general reader, e.g, “Transformation of Names: ‘Prince N’ … turns into ‘Prince M’ … ‘Chatski’ into ‘Chaatsky’ … ‘Pelageya Nikolaevna’ into ‘Pelya’, an insufferable diminutive … ”
Nabokov’s tone becomes especially niggling when he discusses Arndt’s introduction.
Mr. Arndt’s notes to his translation are lean and derivative but even so he manages to make several mistakes. The statement … that the third edition of Eugene Onegin “appeared on the day of Pushkin’s death” is wrong: it appeared not later than January 19, 1837 Old Style, that is, at least ten days before the poet’s death. He began writing Eugene Onegin not “on May 28, 1822,” as Arndt (led astray by another bungling commentator and adding his own mistake) notes, but on May 9, 1823.
The average reader might wonder, why is this minutiae worth the rant? But Nabokov then goes on to assail the average reader:
Mr. Arndt’s most bizarre observation, however, comes on page VI, towards the end of his Preface: “The present new translation … is not aimed primarily at the academic and literary expert, but at a public of English-speaking students and others interested in a central work of world literature in a compact and readable form”—which is tantamount to proclaiming: “I know this is an inferior product but it is gaily colored and nicely packaged, and is, anyway, just for students and such people.”
He then reaches a climax with,
It is only fair to add that this “brilliant” (as said on the upperside of the volume) and “splendid” (as said on its underside) new translation has won one half of the third annual Bollingen prize for the best translation of poetry in English.
In the style of a legal indictment, he then lists the names and affiliations of everyone connected with the Bollingen award and ends, “One cannot help wondering if any of the professors really read this readable work—or the infinitely remote great poem of their laureate’s victim.”
Arndt replied to Nabokov in a letter to the NYRB. Under the circumstances it’s a surprisingly civilized response which both acknowledges and values Nabokov’s work on Pushkin, while quietly pointing out some of the inanity of his venom. Arndt, for those not familiar with him, was a polyglot with a background almost as exotic as Nabokov’s. A half generation younger, his crisis wasn’t the Russian Revolution, but Hitler. In 1939, he renounced his German citizenship and joined the Polish army. Escaping the Nazis by the skin of his teeth, he eventually ended up working for the OSS, before finally settling down to academic life in postwar America. He doesn’t seem someone easily intimidated. And, of course, he’d just won the Bollingen, so why not be gracious?
But the “real” response came in Edmund Wilson’s review of Nabokov’s version of Eugene Onegin in the NYRB’s July 1965 issue. The NYRB has accorded it rare open access and for those who haven’t already read it, here’s the link.
In his initial critique, Nabokov had managed to insult everyone connected with the positive reception of Arndt’s Eugene Onegin. His old friend “Bunny” Wilson opens by seizing on this:
Since Mr. Nabokov is in the habit of introducing any job of this kind which he undertakes by an announcement that he is unique and incomparable and that everybody else who has attempted it is an oaf and an ignoramus, incompetent as a linguist and scholar, usually with the implication that he is also a low-class person and a ridiculous personality, Nabokov ought not to complain if the reviewer, though trying not to imitate his bad literary manners, does not hesitate to underline his weaknesses.
Over the course of the long review, Wilson goes on to maul Nabokov’s version every bit as savagely as Nabokov laid into Arndt’s. Significant space is given to Nabokov’s penchant for “rare and unfamiliar words” which require the reader’s “recourse to the OED for an English word he has never seen and which he will never have occasion to use … He gives us, for example, rememorating, producement, curvate, habitude, rummers, familistic, gloam, dit, shippon and scrab … ” Wilson also cites mollitude and dulcitude and stuss as examples of Nabokov’s use of obscure English. And giving tit for tat to Nabokov’s criticism of Arndt’s comprehension of Russian, Wilson rolls out his own not inconsiderable Russian language skills and questions the validity of some of N.’s choices.
Nabokov, of course, had to reply and did so with gusto. The back and forth argument engendered a plethora of letters to the editor taking one side or the other. Those with a subscription to the NYRB can idle away an afternoon enjoying the feud in their archives. But at this point I’d like to step back a bit to explore just what light (or lightning) all this sturm und drang might shed on the topic of reviewing translations. And perhaps diverge from these battles into the more interesting byways a less combative approach might explore.
III. Theory and Practice, a Direction I Wish Wilson Had Taken
While Wilson’s scathing review exceeds the boundaries of collegiality, he was also conscientious in framing the core issues. He’s in part commenting on Nabokov’s comments on Arndt’s version, so he begins by talking about it. He notes that “Professor Arndt had attempted the tour de force of translating the whole of Onegin into the original iambic tetrameter and rather intricate stanza form.” For Wilson, this didn’t quite come off—not because of mistranslation but because Arndt “is no great poet.” Arndt’s stated task wasn’t to replicate Pushkin, but to translate poetry into poetry. And Wilson correctly judges him on that basis, even factoring in some grade points just for making the attempt.
Conversely, Wilson notes Nabokov’s intent was to produce a literal versus poetic translation, a resource rather than a poem. (Nabokov himself used the word “pony.”) To be fair, Wilson gives Nabokov full credit for his scholarship and for the utility of his copious notes. But from the first he seems reluctant to judge his old friend simply on how well he achieved his stated end. He wants more. For Wilson, Nabokov’s “results … have been more disastrous than those of Arndt’s heroic effort. It has produced a bald and awkward language which has nothing in common with Pushkin or with the usual writing of Nabokov.” (italics mine)
This observation is where Wilson’s review both gets it right and then, alas, proceeds to indulge in a morass of minutiae and rancor. Instead of going on to enunciate the litany of Nabokov’s quirky verbal oddities, I find myself wishing Wilson had noted the lyric grace Nabokov had already shown himself capable of with lines from Pale Fire such as,
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane
I was the smudge of ashen fluff—and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky …
and then just concentrated on the still open and fertile question of why Nabokov didn’t make his own “heroic attempt” at translating poetry into poetry.
Nabokov did address this in his foreword by differentiating between three types of translation: paraphrase, lexical word for word, and “literal” equivalence. He then proclaimed that “literal” translation was the only valid method. But this oddly strict aesthetic seems almost a crutch coming from a writer as iconoclastic as Nabokov. When presented with Nabokov’s classifications, most poetry translators (as opposed to theorists) would shrug and confess to using all three methods, and more. Not unlike improvised music, translating poetry is a pragmatic art.
And as Wilson notes, if anyone had the tools and capacities to recreate Eugene Onegin as a poem in English, it was Vladimir Nabokov. Reading Nabokov on Pushkin, one gets the stubborn sense he didn’t attempt to do it because he didn’t want to do it.
In Poetry and Translation: The Art of the Impossible, Peter Robinson compares Nabokov’s “literal” version of Eugene Onegin Stanza 3:26 with a poetic rendering by Charles Johnston. Nabokov’s version reads,
Another hindrance I foresee:
saving the honor of my native land,
undoubtedly I’ll be obliged
Tatiana’s letter to translate.
She knew Russian badly,
did not read our reviews,
and expressed herself with difficulty
in her native tongue;
hence wrote in French.
What’s to be done about it! I repeat again;
as yet a lady’s love
has not expressed itself in Russian,
as yet our proud tongue has
to postal prose not got accustomed.
Charles Johnston acknowledged his 1977 Eugene Onegin translation is heavily indebted to Nabokov’s groundwork. Here’s his version of the same stanza:
I see another problem looming;
to save the honour of our land
I must translate—there’s no presuming—
the letter from Tatyana’s hand:
her Russian was as thin as vapour,
she never read a Russian paper,
our native speech had never sprung
unhesitatingly from her tongue,
she wrote in French … what a confession!
what can I do? as said above
until this day, a lady’s love
in Russian never found expression,
till now our language—proud, God knows—
has hardly mastered postal prose.
Nabokov’s stanza seems pretty much as described by Wilson, “bald and awkward” and certainly not on the level of fluency one would expect of him. Johnston may take some liberties, but if we accept the Nabokov version as literal, it’s hard to see where Johnston’s lyricism significantly bends anything. Arndt’s translation of the same stanza begins:
I can foresee a complication
My country’s honor to defend,
I’ll have to furnish a translation
Of Tanya’s letter in the end.
She knew our language only barely,
Read Russian magazines but rarely;
In her own language she was slow …
Arndt’s versifying is clunkier than Johnston’s, but there also doesn’t seem to be any divergence in meaning or image equivalence here. And both of the “paraphrased” versions just point up, rather than address, the unanswered questions: what could Nabokov have produced if he’d given himself permission to? And why didn’t he?
I think there are several dynamics converging here. One, as Nabokov notes, is that trying to bring across the idiosyncratic “Pushkin Sonnet” form in a poem of this length would necessarily entail undue sacrifice of imagery and nuance for the sake of rhyme. The novel in Pushkin’s “novel in verse” would have to play second fiddle to the verse. Nabokov did, however, find himself slipping into a sort of iambic metrical translation. Surely he could have managed a blank verse version closer to poetry, or even good prose, than evidenced by the stanza above.
As he himself describes in Speak Memory, he had probably the best 19th-century education that could be had. Sure, he was born in 1899 and grew up in the 20th century, but he spent his formative years cradled in the entrenched ancien regime. Did he ever take unrhymed poetry seriously? He certainly didn’t credit the aesthetic of “Mr. Pound” that “total fake.” So perhaps, the concept of an unrhymed Pushkin just set his creative teeth on edge.
Beyond the inherent difficulties of a rhymed translation and Nabokov’s probably innate disdain for free verse, there’s a third, “global” issue. Native speakers are notoriously unsuccessful at translating poetry out of, rather than into, their language. This despite whatever level of skill they’ve attained in the target language. And Nabokov may be a prime example that the root cause of this often noted phenomenon may lie elsewhere than in language skills.
Pushkin’s friend and literary executor, the poet and translator Vasily Zhukovsky, observed that “the translator of prose is the slave of the author, and the translator of poetry is his rival.” This is a pragmatic acknowledgment, by a noted 19th-century Russian practitioner, that poetry translation essentially entails appropriation. That it’s a distinct creative act that, when successful, rewrites rather than replicates the source poem.
Marina Tsvetaeva, Nabokov’s sometime emigre acquaintance, touched on something similar in a 1926 letter to Rilke when she exclaimed, “Writing poetry is in itself translating from the mother tongue into another, whether French or German should make no difference. No language is the mother tongue. Writing poetry is rewriting it.”
She wasn’t talking about translation, per se, rather responding to Rilke’s question as to whether he should be writing poetry in French. But I think her observation resonates with an admittedly esoteric feeling, often expressed by working translators, that the translated poem needs to start where the original began to take form, with the roots that preceded its flowering.
In Zhukovsky’s sense, most successful poetry translations can be viewed as acts of appropriation. Poems like “The River Merchant’s Wife,” or Yeats’s “When You Are Old,” claim their own nativity in the English language. They’re self-, rather than source-referential, even though neither would exist without their Chinese or French prototypes. The “theft,” of course, is illusory. Unlike the Elgin Marbles, Li Bai and Ronsard remain untouched on their native soil. Their transplants have taken root, but the originals haven’t been uprooted. Still, no one asked for permission.
In a biographical note to his own translation of a Zhukovsky poem, Nabokov made a point of tsk-tsking Zhukovsky’s recreation of English poems into Russian. But interestingly, Nabokov, when young, seemed capable of a Zhukovskyesque approach to Pushkin. In his posthumous collection of Nabokov’s translations Verses and Versions, Brian Boyd notes a progressive tightening from an earlier “paraphrasing” approach to increasing “literalism.” Boyd spends a good deal of his foreword discussing Pushkin’s “Ya Vas Lyubil” (I Loved You), an often translated chestnut, and the volume sets Nabokov’s 1929 translation alongside his final 1949 “literal” version and a “lexical” draft.
At least to me, Nabokov’s early version seems the finished poem, the “successful” translation, while his later version has a preliminary feel.
Here’s Nabokov’s “juvenilia” version:
I worshipped you. My love’s reluctant ember
is in my heart still glimmering, may be,
but let it not break on your peace; remember,
I should not want to have you sad through me.
I worshipped you in silent hopeless fashion,
shy was my love, but always true;
I worshipped you with such a tender passion
as I should want all men to worship you.
And his “mature” 1949 version:
I loved you: love perhaps, is yet
not quite extinguished in my soul:
but let it trouble you no more;
with nothing do I wish to sadden you.
I loved you mutely, without hope,
either by shyness irked or jealousy;
I loved you so sincerely, with such tenderness,
as by another loved God grant you be.
Boyd seems somewhat taken aback by the young Nabokov substituting “worshipped” for “loved,” but I think whatever energy the translation has stems from the translator inserting himself here. One gets a sense not only of a relationship gone wrong, but of what went wrong with it. The translation becomes a conversation between translator and author, a real duet. With a sly Nabokovian twist, this seems a woman who wants not just love, but to be idolized. And god willing, may get just what she wants with the emptiness that implies. Is any of Nabokov’s 1929 spin in the 19th-century original? I don’t know, but are there other nuances the “literal” rendering may not convey?
The “final” version seems wooden, and, worse, sentimental. The earlier version reads like Nabokov, hesitantly and lovingly, reading Pushkin aloud. And his “imitation” is a double appropriation, because the translator can only possess when he allows himself to be possessed.
The Nabokov translations in Verses and Versions include icons like Blok, Lermontov, Mandelstam, Pushkin, etc. Following them chronologically, the tightening into literalism Boyd describes becomes evident. After about 1950, Nabokov abandons rhyme, but also seems to abandon his own interjected voice. He no longer seems willing to “appropriate.” The translations may provide more accurate information, but less poetry.
Edmund Wilson, who knew Nabokov so well for so long, wondered in that NYRB review whether his tormented rendition of Onegin might have had something to do with the nostalgia of the exile. As if it were no longer just Pushkin the mature Nabokov was struggling with, but his own lost cultural heritage.
Translating Russian poetry was a source of income for Nabokov. For an emigre, translating out of his own language, does the sin of translation go beyond the appropriation that occurs with the theft of another culture’s treasures? Is it, rather, something more akin to treason—the selling of one’s own childhood tongue? This is, I think, the real reference of the Italian phrase traduttore, traditore, translator/traitor.
Along these lines, it seems notable Boyd’s collection of Nabokov’s translations ends with some lyrical, late-Nabokov translations from French. His French approach here seems the polar opposite from the austere renderings from Russian and the theories set forth in his Onegin foreword. In a 1962 translation of Henri de Regnier’s “Odolette” (retitled as “Passing of Youth”), Nabokov even offers an “alternate, prettier paraphrase of the first stanza” as an improvement on the original poem:
What sweetness in my every thought
On this soft morning, pure and bright,
Before those rocking barks with nought
In their extinguished lamps but night.
When it comes to French, Zhukovsky would be justly proud of his non-pupil.
But perhaps translator/traitor is too emotional and esoteric an explanation? Maybe it’s simpler to look at the difficulties of translating out of rather than into one’s native language with a more commercial, import-export analogy. It’s impossible to export a cathedral. The best one can do is take photos and measurements and ship some deconstructed stones. The importer is the one who has to build it anew on the other side with fresh mortar, timber, and unshattered glass.
IV. So How Do You Review Poetry in Translation?
Preferably humbly, I think, and without smugness. Wearing your poet, not linguist, hat. Like anything impossible, translating poetry is complicated enough without setting out rules. Finding “howlers” is beside the point.
None of this is as simple as a paint-by-numbers copy of the original. Poetry is a language that makes its home in the spaces between words. Its translation, every bit as much as its creation, resists a straight line. It exists in every culture and, when we’re lucky, it almost miraculously travels across time and continents to where it wants to go. In doing so, it confounds scholarship and cultivates flight. In the anarcho-edenic logic of poetry, only poetry makes sense. Linguists, who may be Francophiles, Russophiles, Anglophiles, whatever, should keep Marina Tsvetaeva’s outburst to Rilke in mind.
Dear Rainer: Goethe says somewhere that one cannot achieve anything of significance in a foreign language—and that has always rung false to me … Writing poetry is in itself translating from the mother tongue into another, whether French or German should make no difference. No language is the mother tongue. Writing poetry is rewriting it. That’s why I am puzzled when people talk of French or Russian, etc., poets. A poet may write in French; he cannot be a French poet. That’s ludicrous …
I am not a Russian poet and am always astonished to be taken for one and looked upon in this light. The reason one becomes a poet (if it were even possible to become one, if one were not one before all else!) is to avoid being French, Russian, etc., in order to be everything … Orpheus bursts nationality …
In her 1937 essay, “My Pushkin,” translated by Sasha Dugdale, Tsvetaeva talks about playing around the Pushkin Memorial in St. Petersburg as a girl too young to even know who Pushkin was, just a statue, “a black figure, higher than everyone else, and blacker than everyone else, with his head bowed and a hat in hand.” Tsvetaeva expounds the story of Pushkin’s quadroon ancestry as an anti-Nationalist foil, “living proof of the base and moribund nature of racial theory, living proof of the opposite. So children growing up in the shadow of the Petersburg Bronze Horseman were also growing up in the shadow of a memorial against racism—and to genius.”
But the thrust of her short essay might be summed up by her first lines—and the last:
And ever since then, ever since when Pushkin was killed right in front of me, in Naumov’s picture, daily, hourly, over and over, right through my earliest years, my childhood, my youth, I have divided the world into the poet and all the others, and I have chosen the poet …
You’re no longer just Pushkin, you’re my Pushkin …
Was a “personal,” English speaking Pushkin, driven by this kind of emigre energy, what Edmund Wilson may have hoped for from his own exile sidekick, Volodya? An Onegin reinvented in English as fertile as the one Nabokov reinvented himself in?
That hope turned out to be futile. However cosmopolitan a writer Nabokov himself became, he didn’t seem about to allow Pushkin to be fluent in anything but Russian. If Wilson was disappointed, Nabokov’s own disappointment at the praise others were garnering for blithely ignoring his territorial admonitions, was every bit as great. But despite all the sound and fury, I don’t think there was any right or wrong here. Just the imp of human perversity, and human limitations.
And since any review should always credit the translator, I should note the Tsvetaeva-Rilke letter above, originally written in German, was translated by Walter Arndt.
And of course remind myself and others that, despite her outburst of world-citizenry, it was an ill-omened return to Mother Russia that ultimately cost Tsvetaeva her family and life. A tragedy that, perhaps as much as anything, enshrines her in the eyes of the world as a Russian poet.