This past June, in an essay (“Socks”) in the New York Review of Books, the writer Janet Malcolm, best known for her writing about psychoanalysis and her legal battles with the former director of the Freud Archives, added wood to discussions—some long burning, some more recently ignited—about the ideal approach to translation. The present piece will seek both to uncover Malcolm’s underlying assumptions and to propose alternative perspectives and approaches. The goal is not to insist that there is one right way, or one eternally best translation of any given work, but to continue mapping a wonderfully inexhaustible terrain for brainstorming and dialogue.
Ever combative, Malcolm writes that “a sort of asteroid has hit the safe world of Russian literature in English translation. A couple named Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have established an industry of taking everything they can get their hands on written in Russian and putting it into flat, awkward English.” Most specifically, Malcolm claims that this couple’s, and Marian Schwartz’s, recent translations of Tolstoy are vastly inferior in approach and readability to the classic translations done by Constance Garnett a century ago.
It should be noted that previously, in 2014 and 2015, the putative shortcomings and virtues of these translations, as well as of Rosamund Bartlett’s Anna Karenina, had already been exhaustively discussed by astute bloggers and in the print media. One might see Masha Gessen’s piece for the New York Times Book Review, Bob Blaisdell’s Los Angeles Review of Books piece, and “The Translation Police arrest Anna Karenina,” a blog entry critiquing Gessen’s critique. (To say nothing of Gary Saul Morson’s “The Moral Urgency of Anna Karenina,” which appeared in Commentary in 2015.) Malcolm does not cite any of these pieces but gives the following summary, which, I believe, is inaccurate: “Surprisingly, the latest translations of Tolstoy, far from being rejected by the critical establishment have been embraced by it and have all but replaced . . . the older translations.”
Let us begin our own exploration by noting that this replacing, if real, would not be surprising. There is a great commercial desire to replace, with new, copyright-protected translations, the old ones, which are in the public domain and thus offer publishers but meager profits. And ideally, the higher prices of the new will be justified by claims of superiority. So Tylenol was once marketed as a replacement for aspirin. And as for the “critical establishment,” it is as responsive to market pressures as the medical establishment is.
But none of this can assure us that the old is in fact superior to the new. Malcolm’s judgments seem based on a preference for 19th-century English literature. She praises Garnett’s “fine sense of English, and, especially, the sort of English that appears in British fiction of the realist period.” And for her, this is particularly relevant because, she says, “Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were constantly reading and learning from Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot and others.”
Well and good, but one of the implicit claims—that a translation should be written in a style that the author being translated liked—seems of little weight. Unless, say, the goal of the translation were to remind readers that Tolstoy liked Dickens (or the New Testament, of which he was also a great reader). The other implicit claim is that the style of the translation should be of the same historical period as the original. This makes sense until one’s mind sets to wondering. Would Chaucer in 2016 read best if translated into 14th century French? Would Plato, the Bible . . . ?
Such a claim seems to involve a denial of what translation involves, the sense in which it requires uprooting and transplanting in foreign soil. The reader who would like to read a Tolstoy novel in something like its original form is, of course, well advised to learn Russian. Indeed it was not so long ago that Edmund Wilson was urging his American readers to do just that. (And Tolstoy is said to have learned new languages by reading the New Testament in them.) But, even then, reading in an original language that is not your mother tongue, or even reading a book written in your mother tongue—isn’t every reader engaged subconsciously in a kind of translation, traversing and re-traversing the bridge between his language, experience and point of view and the author’s, or the author and her translator’s?
It has become a commonplace: the ideal translation reads as if it were written in the reader’s own language. And certainly there are translations that have succeeded at that, and perhaps too well! James Strachey’s Freud, Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche, Garnett’s Tolstoy and the standard, unattributed translation of The Communist Manifesto come to mind. While I don’t believe the “fault” is entirely the translators’, the fact remains: these translations have indulged Anglo-American readers’ desire to imagine that these works (all great works?) were written in English. My sense is that for many American readers Tolstoy never wrote any Война и мир; he wrote War and Peace, and in an odd kind of Russian that we are able to read in English. Many, many pages have been written about how Freud’s work and language have been transformed, scientificized (I’ll say) through translation, and about how key concepts such as the “ego” (das Ich; the I) were creations of Strachey and others. (An interesting work on this subject: Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt, Quand Freud voit la mer : Freud et la langue allemande.)
Though born and raised monolingual in the United States, I have begun to occasionally write essays and stories in French. Of course I would like them to be mistake-free, but if my French becomes so “good” that I no longer seem to be an American, then it’s not good at all; readers are misled. Among the great accomplishments of Samuel Beckett was his invention of a French that was his own, that came from where he alone was—happily at sea between Dublin and Paris. Thus instead of the blurred quality of, say, the many United Nations documents that are written in English by non-native English speakers, or the falseness of translations of those documents into handsome French or Chinese, Beckett achieves a foreign clarity.
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I am proposing that the chief virtue of Malcolm’s piece is to lead us to think about our standards or desires: what is a good translation? I am particularly interested in “the other”; that is, do we want translators to help us relax, temporarily ignorant of the infranchissable (impassable, insuperable) foreignness of others, and the foreignness of I, myself, to all of them? Or would we rather be encouraged to confront this otherness, to try, again and again, to find our feet in the midst of it?
When in France, I enjoy reading translations into French of English-language classics. Thus, for example, I have read translations of Mrs Dalloway and Goodbye Columbus that seemed to be missing a certain something, something in Woolf’s English and in Roth’s New Jersey Jewish culture. On the other hand, I am tempted to say that Bernard Hoepffner’s Aventures de Huckleberry Finn may be better than the wonderful original. The French text is funnier, more engaging, sharper in its social commentary. In addition to the translator’s skill, this result seems due to some combination of: the weirdness of reading such a colloquial book in translation; a distance and maturity implicit in not reading in one’s mother tongue; and how Hoepffner, inspired by Twain, gives some of his lines just a little extra twist or understatement (see les fenêtres and des anges below).
Nicely, Hoepffner, in an interview, proposed that “une traduction qui est meilleure que l’original n’est pas une bonne traduction” (a translation that is better than the original is not a good translation). And yet, on the other hand, plenty of French readers have been happy to read Baudelaire’s Poe, commonly thought to be better than the original. Or there is Gregory Rabassa’s bestselling “translation” of Cien años de soledad into English, which apparently includes substantial editing of Gabriel García Márquez’s Spanish text, editing that Márquez himself apparently admired. American readers have been happy to read One Hundred Years of Solitude as if the English was the original, unedited and, in a sense, untranslated version.
This may be where Philip Larkin has his mot à dire:
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I don’t see how one can ever know a foreign language well enough to make reading poems in it worthwhile. . . . [D]eep down I think foreign languages irrelevant. If that glass thing over there is a window, then it isn’t a fenster or a fenêtre or whatever. [From interview in The Paris Review: The Art of Poetry No. 30. Larkin has in mind his poem “High Windows.”]
I came to Hoepffner’s Huck Finn because a translator friend sent me a copy of this interview he did while publicizing his book: “Une traduction qui ne vieillit pas est mauvaise”: a translation that doesn’t become outdated is a bad translation. In making his argument, and thus pre-empting Malcolm’s championing of Garnett, Hoepffner uses the following example (which I am glossing in English):
When someone painted a fake Rembrandt in 1880 and tried to sell it, it worked. And fifty years later, an expert could see that this was not Rembrandt but a Pre-Raphaelite painting. The view people had of Rembrandt at the end of the nineteenth century was colored by Pre-Raphaelitism, and now everything has changed. We now see Rembrandt through Mondrian’s eyes, or Warhol’s.
Similarly, it has been written that, for Westerners, African wooden sculpture became something new and different and more wonderful after Picasso.
Malcolm’s perspective is of an ever-unchanging Dickens-Tolstoy and, indeed, of an unchanging world. Of course, in our, in fact, change-addicted world, we can be attached to such a conservative view. Stop change goddam it! But, after Hoepffner, we might say that a Dickens-Tolstoy translation must come—in the wake of Proust? The Great Gatsby? The Sound and the Fury? Lolita?—to seem outdated, if not a mismatch. A claim of this nature is implicit in the work of Pevear, Volokhonsky, Bartlett, and Schwartz, and in the positive responses to their work from readers and critics.
Gessen, a Russian-American journalist particularly known for her opposition to Putin’s regime, observes:
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The Tolstoy of Garnett . . . is a monocled British gentleman who is simply incapable of taking his characters as seriously as they take themselves. Pevear and Volokhonsky. . . created a reasonable, calm storyteller who communicated in conversational American English. Rosamund Bartlett . . . creates an updated ironic-Brit version of Tolstoy.
Malcolm proposes that novels are retellings of universal myths. For George Polti there were 36 “situations dramatiques” (though note that, for the French, trente-six is a way of suggesting an infinite number—“il n’y a pas trente-six solutions”; there are no two ways about it; there’s only one). An American novelist once reduced the number of possible novel plots to two. As I recall, these were: someone goes on a voyage (Huck Finn, Don Quixote) and a stranger comes to town (Anna Karenina? The Idiot).
In a paragraph about readers “of simple wants,” Malcolm proposes that the universality of myths allows what is essential about a novel—its story—to be successfully translated. Is this to suggest, for example, that it would be enough for a translator of Gatsby to convey to readers that it was a story of a poor boy who falls in love with a rich girl? Or for a Romeo and Juliet translator to offer its story of love between members of rival clans? (Cf. Charles Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare or W.H.D. Rouse’s prose translations of Homer.)
And yet, there is a sense in which Malcolm is absolutely right; quite contrary to any infranchissable otherness of the other, translation depends upon and reifies our ideas of the universality of human experience.
Je suis allé au cirque, et j’ai traîné derrière la tente jusqu’à ce que le gardien ne soit pas là, et alors je suis passé sous la tente. J’avais ma pièce de vingt dollars et un peu d’argent à côté, mais . . . Faut prendre des précautions. Je n’ai rien contre l’idée de dépenser de l’argent quand il y a pas d’autre moyen, mais c’est pas la peine de jeter l’argent par les fenêtres. (I went to the circus and loafed around the back side till the watchman went by, and then dived in under the tent. I had my twenty-dollar gold piece and some other money, but . . . You can’t be too careful. I ain’t opposed to spending money on circuses when there ain’t no other way, but there ain’t no use in wasting it on them.)
Tout ce que je dis, c’est que les rois c’est les rois et qu’il faut faire la part des choses. Dans leur plus grand ensemble, ils sont plutôt pas des anges. C’est comme ça qu’on les a élevés. (All I say is, kings is kings, and you got to make allowances. Take them all around, they’re a mighty ornery lot. It’s the way they’re raised.)
Particularly given the American Presidential candidates of 2016, it’s hard not to think that Huck is speaking of universal experiences, and this then makes translating his story so possible.
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Further questions arise when we look at the Russian text for one of the paragraphs Malcolm uses as an example. This is the opening paragraph of Part VII, Chapter 12 of Anna Karenina, which in Garnett’s version begins “After taking leave of her guests.” Tolstoy’s paragraph has a total of two sentences, the first is straightforward and the second runs on, and with several parenthetical remarks, to about one hundred words. This may can make reading the original text difficult, and it makes reading Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation difficult, as their approach to this sentence mimics Tolstoy’s. Garnett, by contrast, divides the sentence into three, and this, naturally, make her text the easiest of the three to read, and its tone more declarative.
However, Tolstoy himself could have used shorter sentences. Why do we think he did not? Eager to write a big book rapidly, he just set down the words as they came to his mind, and he did not pause to reformulate, nor engage an editor to polish his prose? Or, alternatively, did his style seem to him plainer, more rough hewn, moins travaillé? Harder to grasp, easier to feel?
Rosamund Bartlett has proposed that Tolstoy was “often a clumsy and ungrammatical writer.” Gessen refers to Tolstoy’s “purposeful roughness”. Nabokov wrote that it is characteristic of Tolstoy’s style “to admit any robust awkwardness if that is the shortest way to sense.” Marian Schwartz has written, “Beginning with Garnett, English translators have tended to view Tolstoy’s sometimes radical choices as ‘mistakes’ to be corrected, as if Tolstoy, had he known better, or cared more, would not have broken basic rules of literary language.”
I would go further: I am sure real mistakes can be found in Tolstoy (as in Huck Finn). Allen Tate once defined the novel as a long prose work with at least one mistake. And any number of other “mistakes” may emerge if we insist that a novel—and particularly a lengthy one written in installments—should have some great unity. But insofar as we correct and impose unities (as is typically done in contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare), we are reducing the work. (See John C. Meagher’s Shakespeare’s Shakespeare: How the Plays Were Made, e.g.: “[W]e tend either to contrive ways of reading Shakespeare that keep him within the bounds of a central plan to which everything is subordinated, or (more rarely) we acknowledge that he did not stay within those bounds and pardon him for his inconsistencies on the grounds that he wrote in a pre-critical, pre-sophisticated, pre-Enlightenment time.”)
My teenage son’s room with the clothes and dirty dishes and half-eaten peanut-butter sandwiches picked up is certainly neater and better organized and more “presentable,” but it is not as fully my son’s room. Chekhov on Tolstoy: “Enormous sentences, one clause piled on top of one another. Do not think this is accidental, that it is a flaw. It is art, and it is achieved through hard work.” (My son might say the same of his room.)
Bob Blaisdell (editor of Tolstoy as Teacher: Leo Tolstoy’s Writings on Education):
As absolutely masterful as Tolstoy was in finding the exact words, he sometimes banged up his writing, in order for it to be more like speech, more natural. He so enjoyed the rough and ready voices of peasants and non-literary people. Too much fuss over language made Tolstoy grimace, made him too conscious of the author trying to pull something over on him.
All of these possibilities are excluded from translations—e.g. Garnett’s—that seek to conform to an extrinsic model such as nineteenth-century English fiction.
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In general, translation is a reduction (“plus simple que l’original,” is Hoepffner’s phrase). This is because an original work of literature encourages, rather continuously, a multiplicity of interpretations. Tolstoy (or a translator) once wrote of how novels should evoke an “endless stream of thoughts, images and explanations.” But the translator must continually pluck pebbles from this stream to build her or his own, drier, less dynamic collection of choices.
In her Times Book Review piece, Gessen devotes several paragraphs to whether, at a key moment in Anna Karenina, Anna thinks Vronsky is repelled, repulsed, disgusted or offended by how she is sipping her coffee. Tolstoy has made room for all these possibilities, and a reader of the original text may float among them; but a translator has to make a choice, and her or his reader is left with this choice.
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A last set of suggestions. First, it would seem the word “translation” has come to have a misleading connotation, as if it meant a “perfect rendering,” as if perfect renderings were possible. (An easy way to remind oneself that they are not: re-translate a sentence from a foreign translation back into English and compare your text with the original.) Often we would be better off using a word like “interpretation,” “adaptation,” “rendition,” or “gloss” instead of “translation.” There have been many wonderful adaptations of Aesop in various languages, and they have the advantage of not having tried to be “translations.”
Further, I note the value of two other, insufficiently explored approaches to the translation of novels. One of these would seek to engage readers in the original text and to help them develop sufficient literacy so as to read it. See: the many wonderful bilingual editions of poetry; the bilingual editions of short stories and novel excerpts prepared for language students; and the side-by-side Russian-English versions of Анна Каренина and Война и мир that MasterRussian.com has put online.
Another insufficiently explored approach is monolingual, but includes footnotes discussing difficult to translate words and customs. These latter texts can, inter alia, help us appreciate that we are indeed reading a translation or adaptation, and not the original. Among other things, in the place of simplicity, they may get us in touch with our ambivalence about foreignness, about how distant from us an other may be, and how not-quite-knowable others are. Thankfully and unfortunately, or unfortunately and thankfully.
William Eaton is the Editor of Zeteo, for which he has written a series of pieces on the translation of poetry into French. A collection of his essays, Surviving the Twenty-First Century, was published in 2015 by Serving House Books. A second collection, Art, Sex, Politics, is due out in 2017. He has won awards for editorial column writing and investigative journalism.
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