18 December 2008

Gained in translation

Several times over the years I've been writing this weblog, I've translated some of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom's warm, clear, unpretentious Russian into English for posting here. And once, as a favor to a friend, I translated a chapter of a Russian historical novel in hopes of helping the author find an English-language publisher. And, aside from a few other fragments in connection with work, that's about it for my career as a translator.

In my search for interesting English-language texts to use in the classroom, I came across a couple of articles about the husband-and-wife translation team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, best known for their new translations of some of the major Russian classics, including the Oprah-selected Anna Karenina by Tolstoy (and hopefully soon to be known for bringing Leskov back to the notice of English-speaking readers). I first saw David Remnick's "Translation Wars" in the New Yorker three years ago when my colleague Patti Crane drew it to my attention, and was delighted to see, just yesterday, that it is available online. And a more recent article appears on the Barnes and Noble Web site--an interview with Pevear and Volokhonsky about their new War and Peace. Finally, I enjoyed Sam Tanenhaus's lively and straightforward defense of the author-driven philosophy of Pevear and Volokhonsky in the New York Times about a year ago.

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are clear that their task as translators is to deliver the original to the reader as faithfully as possible, without making the reader's job any easier than reading the original would have been for the author's own earliest readers. If the original writing is awkward or experimental, they seek an English word or phrase that parallels the author's attempt as closely as possible. They don't use words in English that were not in existence at or near the time of the original writing in Russian. They also don't make their authors into paragons of literary style, when in actual fact external stylistic expectations were the last thing on those authors' minds. For example, drawing on the Barnes and Noble interview:
[Interviewer (James Mustich)] ... You spoke in an interview recently about going back into Tolstoy's prose as a specific artistic medium. What is that prose like?

LV: I'll start and Richard may finish. First of all, you are absolutely right that Dostoevsky can be occasionally more strange than Tolstoy, because he plays with language-he takes liberties. He makes puns. All his characters are part of a great drama, they're dramatis personae-including the narrator. Dostoevsky's narrator is always one of his most telling characters, and he has his own specific type: is usually a mediocre writer, some local person who writes down this chronicle.

RP: He says, "I'm not a real writer, but I have to say..."

LV: This method allows Dostoevsky to be very free with language.

Now, with Tolstoy, it's very different. The narrator is always Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, who does not play with language the way Dostoevsky does. And yet he is linguistically very free, sometimes unexpectedly so. He is often very ironic, again, unexpectedly so. And while it's true that he allows himself less liberty than Dostoevsky, he can be pretty wild. Let's say he always stays within a certain norm, although the limits of this norm are very wide.

It is very interesting that he has a way of entering his characters' minds. All of a sudden, this omniscient narrator takes a back seat, and we see something happening through a hero's eyes. Tostoy goes in and out of his heroes in this way all the time.

RP: The way Dostoevsky structures it, it's always dialogue. If there are three ideas, he has three characters -- each one embodies an idea and argues with the other. So his points of view are always in conflict, whereas Tolstoy's narrative flows into and out of all his characters. Even the mind of Napoleon, for instance: Napoleon sitting, watching the Battle of Borodino, which he is about to lose, and saying, "Hmm, what's going on here? It was never like this before." Tolstoy is extremely attuned to his character's perceptions. He does it with -- I'm trying to remember the name for these little fuzzy things that cells have on them, these little hairs - the cilia? It's like Tolstoy's covered in them. He's so sensitive to people.

And what makes him a really great novelist is that although he has such strong opinions of his own, he was able to live into the hearts and minds of other people he disagreed with, whom he hated. Like Karenin, Anna's husband. Tolstoy despises Karenin. The reader can tell the narrator doesn't like this man. But suddenly, he's inside of him and, seeing him from inside, he can't condemn him.

So Tolstoy has this wonderful combination. He wants to condemn, he wants to judge -- "vengeance is mine" and all this. Yet, he can't judge anyone, because they all become a part of him, they all become alive. But it's not the same as Dostoevsky's play with different persons, with different individual voices....
PhotobucketAll this reminds me of discussions we had when Tatiana Pavlova was translating John Woolman's Journal and Plea for the Poor into Russian. Not only did Tatiana's amazing knowledge of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English allow her to choose the Russian rhetorical and vocabulary range for Woolman, she also worked hard to give him a clear Russian voice for his earnest urgency.

Being aware of the demands of conscientious translation, we don't read translated books with blind trust; we're aware of the complexity of the choices a translator has had to make. Can we do the same for our translations of each other across the linguistic lines of religious commitment? Words such as "salvation" and "redemption" and "inward Light" and "that of God" spark circuits of automatic, uncritical loyalty or reassuring group identification or, on the other hand, incomprehension and suspicion. I'm not advocating just "let's find the acceptable synonym"--sometimes there simply isn't one. Instead, let's go deeper and try to engage with those terms that are the most awkward for us with, at the very least, the same earnest urgency that John Woolman and Tatiana Pavlova were able to communicate across the centuries.

Righteous links: (not many today--I have just a few moments of Internet time left....) Arundhati Roy on Mumbai and the "war" on terror. ~~ On my reading wish-list: W.E.B. Dubois and faith. ~~ Un-realignment in Friends United Meeting? Read this open letter. More about this next week if I feel up to it.

I don't know about you but I need some dessert. And it doesn't get much richer than this: (I believe it's from one of the American Folk Blues Festival broadcasts in Germany.)

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