Here’s a passage from Brown’s Mandelstam that strikingly illustrates how presuppositions can affect a translation. He’s discussing the poem “Silentium” from Mandelstam’s first book; here’s his translation and discussion (pp. 165–166):
It has not yet been born,
it is music and the word,
and thereby inviolably
bonds everything that lives.
The breast of the sea breathes tranquilly
but the day is brilliant, like a fool,
and the pale lilac of the foam
lies in a bowl of cloudy blue.
May my lips acquire this
like a crystal note
Remain foam, Aphrodite;
and return to music, word,
and heart, be ashamed of heart
when blent with life’s foundation!
The first word is something of a problem, though it never was until a friend of mine, Richard McKane, presented it to me in a translation different from the one I had always mentally been using. The word is a Russian pronoun that can mean ‘it’ or ‘she’ depending upon the antecedent, which is of course the problem. The ‘it’ of my translation means ‘silence’; the ‘she’ of his meant ‘Aphrodite.’ I discover from this provocative conflict what provocative conflicts are best at disclosing, namely, the assumptions that I had made without being really aware of them. ‘Silentium’ is a neuter noun in Latin, but its Russian equivalent, tishina, is feminine, to which one refers by the feminine pronoun. That is one assumption, that Mandelstam had named his poem ‘Silentium’ but had thought of its subject, ‘silence’ or tishina, in his native Russian. The other assumption is much broader and involves my whole conception of his image of silence as something that pervades and unites everything in existence. That seems to me fundamental…. McKane evidently thought that the reference was to Aphrodite, who is after all the principal feminine person (and noun) in the poem and who has in fact, in the poem’s chronology, not yet been born, for the speaker asks her to ‘remain foam.’ But is she the other things represented by those predicative nominatives? Is she both ‘music’ and ‘the word’? Is she that which connects all living things? Love?
Finally, I am not sure, nor do I believe that anyone ought to be. The argument from the gender of a word that remained merely latent, tishina, is not, now that I am aware of having made it, unassailable. It is — I hesitate to say, knowing that some readers detest even innocent puns — the argumentum ex silentio, a feeble one at best. But the problem, if it is a problem, lies more in the translation than in the original, it being one of the penalties of speaking English that one must resolve an ambiguity of which the Russian reader may hardly be aware. In English the Russian ona is either ‘it’ or ‘she’; it cannot, as in Russian, be both it and she.
(I don’t know which version is better, but I enjoyed the argumentum ex silentio pun.)