There’s a great thread over at Crooked Timber that starts with a comparison of the English and German versions of the Kant quote from which the blog title is derived (“Aus so krummem Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden”—I’m with Ingrid, the author of the post: I prefer Isaiah Berlin’s memorable English rendering, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made”) and proceeds to all sorts of translation anecdotes and arguments, as well as discussion of which language to read works in when you know the original to some extent. My favorite strand of the discussion took off from the remark that “The first translation of The Master and Margarita allegedly translated ‘dentist’ as ‘Dante scholar'”; Anatoly (from whose Avva post I got this link, and who provided some of the best comments) explained that “dantist is not pretentious in Russian, and it doesn’t transmit French overtones if you don’t already know it comes from French. It’s used alongside ‘tooth doctor’ [zubnoi vrach] more or less synonymously; stomatolog is another word with exactly the same meaning in common speech” but said he couldn’t find dantist in the text of the Bulgakov novel, whereupon WorldWideWeber announced he had found it in the rewritten chapters—and linked to Simon Karlinsky’s 1972 NY Times review of Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, which contains a wonderfully splenetic blast at poor Michael Glenny, the translator:
My spot-checking failed to locate any truly spectacular howlers of the sort that made Michael Glenny’s earlier translations of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novels proverbial among literary scholars (among other gems, he rendered “dentist” as “an expert on Dante,” “saints” as “swine,” “squirrel fur” as “protein,” and, mistaking the Russian word for bathtub, vanna, for a woman’s name, added a new character to Bulgakov’s cast). But I did find one instance of Glenny’s notorious penchant for introducing female anatomy or nudity where there is none in the original: Xenya’s daydream of wearing a locket with a gauzy dress in Chapter Four is expanded into “ethereal in voile with a pendant between her breasts.” This is the same kind of breast fixation with which Glenny had previously saddled both Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn.
(In Glenny’s version of “For the Good Cause” in “Stories and Prose Poems” a “head-and-shoulders portrait of a young woman” is translated as a “bosomy pin-up” and the innocuous description of that portrait grossly and gratuitously sexualized).
The haste with which “August 1914” must have been translated is suggested by the occasionally careless and distorted transcriptions of proper names and place names. “A family that descended from Riurik” (i.e., the dynasty that ruled Russia before the Romanovs) is not very helpfully rendered as “the Riurikovich family” and “Yelena Molokhovetz” the celebrated Julia Child of pre-Revolutionary Russia, for some reason emerges as “Malakhov’s cookbook.”
“August 1914” is admittedly a most difficult text for translation; still, in fairness to the reader, the English version of the novel should have been labeled by the publishers “adapted” or “paraphrased” by Michael Glenny, rather than translated by him. it is hard to think of another recent instance where the old maxim traduttore—traditore would be more apt.
One thing I’m curious about is this comment by Ingrid (the original poster):
My favourite translation blunder, that reproduces itself in all the languages I know, is the title of Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smultronstället”, variously known as “Wild Strawberries”, “Fraises Sauvages”, “Morangos Silvestres”, etc. It totally misses the original sense of that special place in your heart that you visit in your dreams and your nostalgia, your “secret little garden”.
Can anybody provide an analysis of the word smultronstället? I always just assumed it meant ‘wild strawberries.’