I’m finally getting around to reading one of those pdf files that have been cluttering up my Kindle, Robert A. Maguire’s “Translating Dead Souls” (Ulbandus Review 6, 2002: 13-35) (JSTOR); I have problems with some of his decisions, but I thoroughly approve of his main one, which is to try as far as possible to preserve Gogol’s repetitions and provide equivalents for his effects — as he summarizes it on p. 26, “to translate and not merely paraphrase.” I was struck by a passage about “the enormous range of lexicons, styles, and even syntaxes” Gogol uses (p. 24):
I doubt that a scholar of the caliber of Viktor Vinogradov exaggerates when he says that the age of Gogol is “a new age in the history of the Russian literary language,” and that Gogol’s own language, throughout his work, is “the fullest system of literary expression, including as it does not only the styles of the literary language of a preceding age, but also reflecting the complex stream of the literary language of social and group dialects of the town and country.” All these currents come together in Dead Souls to form “a structural unity of various stylistic layers, each of which corresponds to a particular plane of artistic reality and to a particular character, or to the persona of the author.” Among those that Vinogradov identifies are: Ukrainianisms, earlier literary styles, especially from Romanticism, Sentimentalism, and the eighteenth-century odic and rhetorical corpus, conversational Russian from every social level, official jargon, Church Slavonicisms, technical and scientific terms, foreign words, sometimes russified, sometimes not. The translator’s first duty to himself is to identify which is which.
A daunting task, but he’s right, that’s how you have to approach it. (He started off translating a sample passage, thought “This isn’t so bad,” and agreed to do the whole book, only to discover that the farther he went in it the harder it got…)
Addendum. A nice companion to the Maguire piece is Adam Thorpe on translating Madame Bovary, which I’ve just plucked from the dusty December reaches of my inbox (sorry, Rick, and a belated but heartfelt thank-you!); Thorpe “made a decision equivalent to climbing without oxygen in 19th-century gear: I would stick to period language,” using Spiers’s French-English dictionary, published in 1853, and his discussion of Flaubert’s styles makes an interesting parallel to Maguire’s of Gogol’s:
Inch by inch, I would cover the ground, only to slip back when, for example, I realised that Flaubert had been using an extended metaphor (military, legal, whatever) for an entire paragraph. There were times when I tumbled into the crevice between the two languages, lost all sight of a natural English sentence, felt myself turning into the constituent molecules of a linguistic object – a pattern of auxiliaries, participles, pronouns.
Like Joyce, Flaubert can be drily comic, but humour is dependent on a precise selection of words, registers and double meanings, so I had to take an irony geiger count of every sentence – whose “right” translation lurked just around the corner. This was the version that combined accuracy, naturalness and musicality. The problem was the lack of corners: as in a dream, there would be one long traverse with nothing on it. The solution would appear (sometimes the novel felt like a vast crossword puzzle) through a combination of experiment, meditation and lateral thought: I had to step firmly away from the French and face a contrary direction – another track entirely. The solution usually had only two out of the three essential elements, and more work had to be done: less a path to climb than a Rubik’s Cube of words to be twisted about or thrown at the wall.
And of course I enjoy the nitpicking:
Historical details took hours of research: for a debauched night, Emma sports a “lampion” on one ear: not the unlikely “paper lantern” (Wall), nor a “cocked hat” (Eleanor Marx Aveling, Russell and Davis), but a suitably Gypsy-like “lantern earring” – fashionable at the time.
I’d actually like to take a look at his translation sometime; he seems to have the right idea of how to do it. (Hmm, the Kindle edition is only $2.99 — maybe I’ll just spring for it…)