December 5, 2011

And you thought you like Dostoevsky ....

Suppose you ask me who my favorite composers are, and I respond with the usual trio of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.  I then add that
(a) the only works of these composers that I know are Bach's Cantata BWV 12, Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, and Beethoven's 9th Symphony, and
(b) the only performances of these works that I am familiar with are recordings by Leslie Howard.
       Knowing that Leslie Howard is a pianist, you give me that hard, squinty Dirty Harry look and ask if I'm fucking with you.  I assure you that I am being utterly sincere, and point out that Leslie Howard has recorded the complete piano works of Franz Liszt, among which are
(i)   Prelude for piano after Bach's Cantata BWV 12,
(ii)  Operatic fantasy Réminiscences de Don Juan on themes from Mozart's Don Giovanni, and
(iii)  piano transcriptions of all nine symphonies of Beethoven.
      At this point, if you are a kind and very patient person, your voice will fill with pity as you exclaim: Boom, you hopeless imbecile! These works of Liszt are at best only approximations of the original compositions, and at worst they are outright recreations whose ties to the original music are as tenuous and superficial as your apparent grasp on the concept of authorship in music!

This imaginary exchange is more than an exercise in gratuitous stupidity.  I know intelligent, well-educated people who will readily name Dostoevsky (or Proust, Böll, Moravia, Hemingway, etc.) as one of their favorite novelists, even though these people cannot read Russian (or French, German, English, etc).  They read foreign literature in translation and, as far as I can tell, take it for granted that it is Dostoevsky's literary talent and craft they appreciate when they read a translation of Crime and Punishment.   Why else would they name Dostoevsky as one of their favorite writers, and not, say, Smith or Dostoevsky-Smith - if Smith was responsible for the translation they've read?  Why else would they predictably fail to know (or at least to remember) who translated the foreign novels whose authors' names they have so firmly committed to memory?  And this tells me that such appreciative consumers of translated literature are no less delusional in their attributions of literary authorship than the above imaginary Boom is in his attributions of authorship in music.

To see why lets poke just a little bit at the task of translating something like a Great American Novel - say, Robert Penn Warren's All The King's Men - which exploits, as an important literary component, the phonetic, syntactic, idiomatic, and etymological peculiarities of English spoken in the American South of the 1930s.  Put yourself in the shoes of a Russian (or French, German, etc) translator who, like a deer in the headlights, stares at the mangled phonetics and syntax on page two, where "a nigger chopping cotton" notices the rising column of black smoke from a distant car accident and wearily remarks:  

Lawd God, hit's a-nudder done done hit!  

What I still remember after many years (correctly I hope) as the Russian translation of this utterance is a syntactically and phonetically ordinary Russian sentence - so ordinary that it could have been spoken (if informally) by anyone, from an illiterate peasant to a professor at the Moscow State University:

О Господи, ещё один сковырнулся!
(Oh Lord, another one bit the dust!)

The translator is not at fault.  The Russian language has plenty of regional dialects, professional and criminal jargons, slang expressions, and other sources of phonetic, syntactic, and semantic deviations from the linguistic mainstream.   But using any of them would give the readers a thoroughly misleading and faintly surreal impression that under the skin of a Southern plantation Negro hides a Siberian peasant, a Chechen gangster, or an old Jew from Odessa.
     Never mind such minor issues as that the Russian translation uses the same word - негр (negr) - for both Negro and nigger.  The translator was absolutely right to use an ordinary word (for "Negro") to translate a racial slur ("nigger").  There are plenty of racial slurs in Russian, including those aimed at dark-skinned people.  But none of them can be used the way nigger is used in the inner monologue of Warren's university educated, highly intelligent, and good natured young Southerner: not as a conscious, deliberate insult; not with the slightest feeling of hatred,  anger, or malice; but simply as an ordinary, matter-of-fact word used to refer to blacks in everyday life.
     There are still even more minor issues, such as that the names of the two main characters - Burden and Stark - are meaningful English words, and there is every reason to think that a great writer like Warren chose these names at least in part because of their meaning.   But the major, general problem is that there is nothing in the language of the Russian translation to suggest (as Warren's English does in numerous places) that the novel is first and foremost about the American South.  And this loss obliterates a good deal of Warren's literary craft.

Of course translators, if good, try to compensate for this kind of loss in some way: by choosing appropriate idiomatic expressions, inventing colorful turns of phrase, perhaps employing non-standard phonetics here and there - anything that will augment the translation with some  "local" linguistic colors and flavors in place of the irretrievably lost colors and flavors of the original.  Which means that good translators of literary works always end up doing some amount of rewriting, with the newly generated literary flesh being grafted on the skeleton of the original work.  (Boris Pasternak's Russian translations of Shakespeare is one example that readily comes to mind.) 

All this is a rather trivial "lost in translation" stuff, but I am not concerned here with the legitimacy or usefulness of literary translations, or with the criteria for judging one translation as being better than another.  I am only interested in the following simple and straightforward question:

Why the fuck is there no explicit acknowledgment of joint authorship for literary translations, the way it is explicitly acknowledged for musical transcriptions?

After all, the world of music never had any problems with "hyphenated composers" being prominently listed on the concert programs, Lp covers, or CD booklets: Bach-Vivaldi, Liszt-Schubert, Brahms-Schoenberg, etc.  Yet in the world of literature we're lucky if we notice the  translator's name printed in a tiny font at the very bottom of the book's cover.  All too often, however, the translator's existence is not acknowledged on the cover at all:

To me book covers like these are instances of consumer fraud, pure and simple.  And if you, my dear reader, sincerely believe that you appreciate Dostoevsky's literary talents without being a fluent reader of Russian, I have a sobering news for you.  You don't.


Ranapipiens said...

Corollary to your hypothesis: Even if I were to learn Russian, I would still not understand Преступление и наказание the way a native speaker would. There's little help for it, I fear.

NB: All too often (especially in cheap editions of older translations of "classics"), the translator's existence is not acknowledged at all.

laybl said...

My Jewish-Ukrainian mother, a gifted linguist,always pointed out the crevasse that separated Tolstoy from his translators. Listening to her recite endless reams of Pushkin, I became aware of the lost music, when his verses were "transmuted" by some academic hack.

The same epiphany occured for me when my prof, while discussing Socrates, digressed into a couplet from the Iliad in the original Greek...the words described mounted horsemen galloping on the strand, but the original, produced the rhythm and motion of the horses.

A few years ago, Kundera wrote a lengthy piece regarding translations of his works, particularly a French translation of "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" in which, he decided the literary alchemist had obviously read or employed the original.

I've loved Shakespeare since I was eleven--63 years ago...I made it my business to read and learn as much as possible about the Elizabethan ethos, its characters, source material, idioms, is at best,for me, an approximation.

We admire the "Rhapsody in Blue" but ignore its Mehitabel said, "wotthehell,wotthehell."

davidm said...

You may be familiar with the multi-volume translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin by Nabokov (which contains Nabokov's extensive notes about his translation and many other things). Nabokov's wife once wrote to a friend (who found an error in a translation: "fly" instead of the correct "mosquito" I think) that the error was minimal compared to one translator who put an elephant in an American national park.
Best regards from over here,
David Mendes

laybl said...

I omitted "not", re Kundera's comment...I need a scribe.

Caleb Deupree said...

Then there's second gen translations -- the I Ching that Cage used was a translation from German, not from Chinese. I've also read Stanislaw Lem novels that were translated (anonymously) from French. I sometimes wonder how much of the 'original' remains?

Douglas Hofstadter wrote a fascinating book on translation, Le Ton Beau de Marot, 'in praise of the music of language.'

Boom said...


I think Hofstadter is simply crazy. What he, with his pathetically inadequate grasp of the Russian language, did with Pushkin's "Onegin" is - to my mind - delusional hubris.

But I wasn't surprised. After all, the man has spent decades massaging the notion of self-reference (which so impressed him when once encountered Goedel's incompleteness theorem), hoping that somehow all this superficial metaphorical talk of "strange loops" will yield an understanding of how consciousness arises from neural processes.
To me, Hofstadter's decades long superficial obsession with self-reference was borderline delusional as well...

laybl said...

Back in 1969, at an apartment complex in Beacon, NY, with most of our neighbors, techie emigres working for IBM...our Argentine friend said to my (then) wife--"You should have known me in Buenos Aires...I was very funny." We need more than dictionaries to truly understand each other.

Boom said...

Blogger laybl said...

Back in 1969 ... techie emigres working for IBM...our Argentine friend said to my (then) wife--"You should have known me in Buenos Aires...I was very funny."

I hope that techie Argentine friend of yours from Watson IBM center was not Gregory Chaitin...

david said...

Ah yes, Hofstadter's Onegin, the worst translation of anything ever. I don't know Russian, yet somehow I still know this is an atrocity that would make Pushkin roll over in his grave.

"My uncle, matchless moral model,
When deathly ill, learned how to make
His friends respect him, bow and coddle --
Of all his ploys, that takes the cake.
To others, this might teach a lesson;
But Lord above, I'd feel such stress in
Having to sit there night and day,
Daring not once to step away.
Plus, I'd say, it's hypocritical
To keep the half-dead's spirits bright,
To plump his pillows till tehy're right,
Fetch his pills with tears veridical --
Yet in secret to wish and sigh,
'Hurry, dear Uncle, up and die!'"

Boom, are there any Russian-English translators that you think well of? I believe Nabokov is actually on record as having complimented Guerney's Gogol.

laybl said...

No, the Argentinians were named at the tango...there were many Turks, Koreans, a brace of Norwegians, etc.

My children, Laura, Andy and Joe, were deemed to have odd names by their friends, Feza, Soonil, Imad and Ramsey.

I learned Russian profanity sitting in my father's '42 Hudson, primarily," hyup tvoie maht!"

Boom said...


You nailed Hofstadter for a far more serious offense than ignorance of the Russian language. He is a lousy writer in his mother tongue (and that was the verdict of a review I once read long ago), and if he knew Russian well enough he could clearly see how inadequate his command of English is to do justice to a poet like Pushkin. (Assuming, pace Roman Jakobson, that it makes sense to translate poetry in the first place).
The miracle of Pushkin's "novel in rhyming verse" is in one sense akin to the miracle of Mozart's late piano concertos: not a single phrase feels FORCED. Ever. Regardless how semantically unfaithful Hofstadter's translation is, it is unbearable because just about every line feels forced, awkward, contrived, fake.
One could go on forever pointing out that Pushkin's Russian is remarkably "colloquial" (hence its utterly natural feel despite its submission to meter and rhyme). So, for example, using the word "ill" - as DH does in translating the very first sentence - is already a sign of semantic ignorance. Pushkin used past tense of what is much closer to the everyday expression "not feeling well" (zanemog) than to the more formal term "ill".

I wish I could help you with your question about Russian-English translators, but, alas, I never had any reason to read Russian literature in translation...

david said...

Boom, was it this review?

It's hilarious.

"In the end, however, it is Hofstadter's ignorance of English, the English of poetry, that dooms his translation. The result is tortured syntax, groan-inducing rhymes and a language unlike that ever spoken by anyone on earth. Discussing love with the heroine, Tanya, her peasant nanny says:

''Oh, Tanya, stop! Your picture's hazy
Of love and marriage yesteryear.
A romance would have driven crazy
Mother-in-law, the late poor dear.''

"He mistakes the word-game surface aspect of poetry -- alliteration and wordplay -- for the thing itself, and when he combines the two the result can be dreadful, as in this line describing a ball: ''And flashy belles flash fleshy feet.''"


With music it's a different matter because every performance requires interpretation, and the insistence of HIPsters and the like that they're somehow creating a better performance through fidelity to a partial set of instructions rather than a total coherence of the whole is something I can't abide. (Of course, HIP still hasn't brought back improvisation, which was a key part of performance back in the day, so they're also hypocrites.)

I'm not against translations of poetry, but the translator has to have a pretty good instinct as to what can and can't survive in the translation. Dante, for example, does not seem to do well when translated into rhyming English. has a bunch of translations of the first stanza. (Most of them use "ill"!)

welker said...

What has been omitted from consideration in this very interesting discussion is what has been called "imitation". Alexander Pope's Horatian imitations are a classic, and rather extreme, example (Jonson had been at it before him, using Horace as a poetic persona); Robert Lowell called his book of versions of European poetry "Imitations", though they sometimes hardly go beyond cribs; the late lamented Christopher Logue's "overwriting" of the *Iliad* - all these and more come to mind. The point is that most of these Nachdichtungen *are* regarded as collaborative exercises, just as Maxwell Davies' Renaissance and Baroque Realisations are. And in fact reviewers of translations of such canonical works as *Eugene Onegin* nearly always refer to the translation history of the work. Here in Germany people I know are always very enthusiastic about the brilliance of the latest translation of *Moby Dick* or whatever - I never get that sense you convey that people are indifferent to such things. - On the other hand - to respond to Ranapipiens - native speakers are often insensitive to the historical usage of certain words in their own language, being constricted in their understanding by their local usage and thus understanding less than an informed foreigner. And laybl - do we really ignore the arranger of *Rhapsody in Blue* (Grofé), who is always mentioned in the CD booklet (and produced two orchestrations)?

Guillermo said...

There is yet another facet of translations which hasn't been jostled: the reinvigorating anomaly. I'm thinking of Daniel Ladinsky's series of book transaltion the poetry of Hafiz here, the best of which I believe to be "The Gift".
To be clear, far be it from me to have an inkling of the linguistic ideosynchrasies that span Persian slang, devotional subtext, references, allusions, and the rest from about 800 years back to now. However, a quick read of the koan-style work in these translations gives rise to a whole host of feelings which makes me wonder if the pairing of translator and poet resulted in a rare creative feat.

I have a thing about translations, always have. Got to have at least 2. Had a devil of a time with my recent Vassily Grossman obsession, with only one version. another facilitator gives one another mirror angle to look into the room with.

Being a fluent Spanish speaker, I have yet to find a translation of Neruda into english that I can stomach. Such heavily mystical work as his (and Hafiz's, I suppose) presents a geometrically compounding challenge to the 'interpreter'.

Guillermo said...

DRAT! I HATE when I get to the party too late and crickets.

Boom said...

Blogger Guillermo said...

Being a fluent Spanish speaker, I have yet to find a translation of Neruda into english that I can stomach.

Perhaps the same deficiencies are present in all other translations you've read, but which are from languages you aren't fluent in... :)

Speaking of poetry (Neruda), I personally think that the very notion of "translated poem" is incoherent. (So here I obviously agree with the linguist Roman Jakobson).

Rian Harrigan said...

music is different. it is mathematically represented, pitch is measurable and can be approximated by perfect pitch, rhythmic variation is minor, but if the metronome setting is there it can be approximated degree zero. reading notation isn't the same as "translation" ecause music is a computational language that is not the same as a natural language. a B-flat is a B-flat in russian or english or whatever... in music. it is an issue of interpretation rather than translation. your argument is based on false premises.

Boom said...


I am not talking about "reading notation" regarding music. I'm talking about "transcriptions", which is clear if you read the post. And when you make a piano transcription of a symphony, you lose a lot of music - instrumental timbres, their combinations, plus some notes that simply can't fit into ten fingers, plus some instruments that can't be transcribed at all (unpitched percussion).
The "mathematically representable" aspect of music is akin to "semantic content" of sentences in natural languages, and this content can be captured (to various degrees) by different syntactic constructions. But literature, as is music, is NOT all about semantics. It is about specific ways of coding meanings (in music - pitch, duration, intervalic combinations) into particular "syntactic" forms. And the parallel between literary translations and musical transcriptions is unmistakable. (And this is not an argument, by the way, but simply an observation.)

I suggest you re-read the post more carefully and find objections (if any) based on what I actually say.