THE TRANSLATOR IN THE TEXT.

I’ve finally gotten to Rachel May’s The Translator in the Text: On Reading Russian Literature in English, which Noetica gave me for Christmas, and it’s just as good as I expected. I’ve read the first of its four chapters, a history of Russian translation into English, and I thought I’d share some of the nuggets that made me put a pencil mark in the margin. On the difference between the English (who tended to get excited about Russian lit when the Russians did something to attract their attention, and then drop it) and the Americans:

The American response to Russian literature followed a different chronology…. There were neither the great surges of russophobic curiosity nor the periods of indifference, but rather a steady increase of interest, particularly in Turgenev. Americans had earlier access to Russian literature: in the 1870s there were probably three times as many American as British translations, and their quality was generally superior as well. Many works by Gogol and Tolstoy and several novels by Turgenev, including Dmitri Roudine, Fathers and Sons, and Smoke, appeared in New York in the 1860s and 1870s, a decade or more before London publishers brought them out. What is more, they were reviewed in all the major American journals. Especially in the case of Fathers and Sons (trans. 1867), the reviews were enthusiastic about the novel’s aesthetic as well as documentary merits. …
Americans’ affection for Russian literature was not only more constant but more broadly based. George Sand once commented to the itinerant Russian intellectual M.M. Kovalevsky that the English praised Turgenev highly but read him little; Kovalevsky found, on the other hand, that “even middle-class Americans” knew Turgenev’s works.

But even some Yanks had strong negative reactions; Maurice Thompson called Tolstoy “a rich man who prefers to live in brutal vulgarity” and his novels “as dirty and obscene as the worst parts of Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass.’” (I wonder if that sold some extra copies?)


Dostoevsky was little known until Constance Garnett (long idolized for her Turgenev translations) got around to him; “when Garnett’s translation of The Brothers Karamazov finally appeared in 1912, it caused an enormous sensation,” and she followed it with “eleven more volumes of Dostoevsky’s works in the next eight years. ‘Constance Garnett’s translations of Dostoyevsky’s major works was, at least in its immediate effects, one of the most important literary events in modern English literature,’ her biographer wrote.” And then she did the same for Chekhov: “As with Turgenev and Dostoevsky, Garnett did not limit herself to a few of Chekhov’s works but heaped upon the English reading public thirteen volumes of stories, two of plays, and one of letters, thereby creating a rich humus within which the cult could develop. And develop it did. The appearance of Garnett’s Chekhov collection has been likened in impact to her Brothers Karamazov…” And I can’t resist mentioning that Oxford’s first curriculum of Slavic studies, established in 1887, was called “Lithu-Slavonic Languages.”
But I have one bone to pick. On page 43 she writes: “New translations of earlier Soviet works began to appear: Bely’s Petersburg came out in English in 1959…” What could she have been thinking? The first Russian edition of Bely’s masterpiece came out in 1916, and he was about as un-Soviet a writer as could be imagined. But even Jove and bonus Homerus nod, and this is otherwise a wonderful book—I’m very much looking forward to the rest of it.

Comments

  1. I’ve read some of the book, but the claim that in the 1870s there were probably three times as many American as British translations, and their quality was generally superior as well., hm, is it supported by fact, any figures or references? and how does she gauge the superior quality of one translation over another?

  2. I was surprised by the claim about American translations as well. I hadn’t heard anything like that before

  3. the claim that in the 1870s there were probably three times as many American as British translations, and their quality was generally superior as well., hm, is it supported by fact, any figures or references?
    Yes. This is a work of scholarship, not a newspaper editorial. For more details, you can read Turgenev in England and America, by Royal A. Gettmann (Greenwood Press, 1974).
    and how does she gauge the superior quality of one translation over another?
    Presumably by reading them; how else would you do so?
    I hadn’t heard anything like that before
    Neither had I; I like books that surprise and educate me.

  4. any figures
    To cut to the chase numerically, Gettmann says five or six to sixteen.
    superior quality of one translation over another
    If I am not mistaken, these were translations into English from French and German, not Russian.
    Don’t forget that Henry James, preferring Turgenev to Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, called him the “novelist’s novelist.”

  5. I suppose Turgenev was translated into French and German before English because he lived on the continent and was very much part of its literary world. I remember reading in Bertrand Russell’s autobiography that Turgenev was his favorite Russian writer and that he read him, initially at least, in German.

  6. Gettmann says five or six to sixteen.
    blimey, this explains what Chernyshevsky’s Charles Beaumont was really doing in America! Thanks, MMcM.
    these were translations into English from French and German, not Russian.
    you mean, American ones?
    This is really exciting, first a thorough 1828 review of Russian literature, now more numerous and better translations.

  7. I like books that surprise and educate me.
    Well, so do I; but I also, like the Hobbits, like to have books filled with things that I already know, set out fair and square with no contradictions.
    Which is perhaps why I am not only a voracious reader, but an even more voracious rereader.

  8. jamessal says:

    I like books that surprise and educate me.
    You don’t mind if I quote you on this, do you? I’m pitching a pop-up book on quantum physics ;-)

  9. I love this book. Most memorable, and useful in my life, was her discussion of how translators tend to shorten sentences, and claim that longer sentences are a characteristic of the origin language.

  10. Have you ever pitched a pop-up ebook?

  11. Trond Engen says:

    Heh. I thought prose translations usually grew longer than the original

  12. I’d love to translate it into Polish!

  13. marie-lucie says:

    Like you, JC, I like to reread books. I don’t knowingly buy books (even cheap ones) that I don’t think I will want to read again. This is true of both informative and entertaining books. When I travel I buy mystery novels to read on the plane, then two or three years later I reread them at home, having forgotten most of the plots and characters but glad to rediscover them. They go back on the shelf, ready for rereading in a few more years. I hate it when I have bought a book that disappoints me so that I don’t want to read it again.

  14. Bathrobe says:

    her discussion of how translators tend to shorten sentences, and claim that longer sentences are a characteristic of the origin language
    Now that sounds interesting, but I’m not sure I believe it. Is it a universal principle or something specific to Russian? I’ve seen instances of Chinese translations being more long-winded than the original when they try to expand on or explain the meaning.

  15. I’ve seen instances of Chinese translations being more long-winded than the original when they try to expand on or explain the meaning.
    This seems like a slightly different issue, though, because then the translators are knowingly embellishing. My guess is that May is talking about the practice of breaking long sentences in the source into two (or more) in the target, and justify it with appeals to different sentence structure/tolerance for long sentences/etc. Which is definitely something I have seen working in Industrial Translation, but the idea that it is something done with *all* language pairs (which is how I understand NV’s comment) is new and interesting to me.
    I guess the idea is that translators are mistaking a certain *type* of long structure permitted in the source but discouraged in the target (of which there are surely some for any source-target language pair) for an *overall* tendency in the source language.

  16. Does the author make any suppositions about why Russian literature was “earlier” accessible to the American market than to that of the UK? Likewise as to why the overwhelming (and superior) number of American translations in the 1870′s? Would there have been stronger interest in russaphone literature emanating from the immigrant communities?

  17. Bathrobe says:

    @ Matt translators are knowingly embellishing
    It is very hard to draw the line here. However, I appreciate your point. It’s a matter of sentence structure rather than embellishment.
    I would agree that there is probably a tendency to shorten sentence length and simplify structures, for the simple reason that reproducing long and convoluted sentences in the target language can be very difficult to pull off.
    However, I would hold that a good translator should at least attempt to produce a sentence structure that is equivalent in feeling to the original in its length and complexity. One of my complaints about Seidensticker (which I’ve mentioned before) is that he was far more extreme than most translators in his tendency to shorten all long, complex sentences in the original into a monotonous sequence of short sentences. Whether you are reading Murasaki, Kawabata, Tanizaki, or Mishima, the prose style is always Seidensticker. His translation of a single volume in Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy sticks out from all the other volumes in the shortness and blandness of its sentences.
    Talking about translation into languages other than English, my feeling is that Japanese (and Chinese) translators have done their damnedest within the strictures of totally different literary traditions and grammatical structures to recreate the convoluted sentence structures of the original English, resulting in a peculiarly contorted and (for me) difficult to understand prose style. This prose style appears to have been naturalised and has become second nature to certain Japanese intellectuals, and I similarly find them hard to understand.
    At any rate, I’ve always found this kind of problem interesting but difficult to capture. I would be interested in hearing more of what May says about it.

  18. Translation involves disambiguation, and the usual way of trying to deal with ambiguity is to add more words (though this can in turn create more ambiguity). More words can over-complicate sentences, encouraging translators to break them up.
    Even when quoting English texts here, I often add non-authorial paragraph breaks because the older texts I quote often have paragraphs that are too long for modern sensibilities.

  19. I’ll be curious about your reaction once you get through the whole book.
    As far as sentences go… in Russian, particularly in academic writing and some prose, sentences can go on forever — half a paragraph easily. This is partially a convention and partially what the language allows — the reader rarely gets lost. That kind of long sentence can be “normal” and “unmarked.” Or it might be used as a device — to convey a stream of thought, a view, a sense of immediacy, or to connect thoughts/images.
    In English, it’s very hard to make a sentence with 12 clauses readable (without the reader wondering what the subject of the last verb was), and in most cases it is not normal and very marked. So in many cases to achieve the same effect of the Russian you need to divide up the sentence. I don’t think that’s a sin; to the contrary, it is good translation.
    Of course, there are a dozen caveats, exceptions, etc., particularly when it’s a rhetorical device.

  20. “In English, it’s very hard to make a sentence with 12 clauses readable (without the reader wondering what the subject of the last verb was), and in most cases it is not normal and very marked.”
    Yes, but also tastes change. I am on a Jane austen binge right now – I would read the back of a cereal box if she wrote it – but she does love long, winding sentences and she loves her some commas – now I know why there is such a panic about using too many commas in English; she used up our whole ration for a century and we are just nw getting over it.
    There used to be a blog called Medienkritik http://medienkritik.typepad.com/. A discussion developed there once about the the different styles of writing preferred in German and English and what emerged was that in German there is aeither a tolernace or an expectation of long intricate sentences as a mark of refinement and subtley of thought, and that exactly this kind of writing is stigamtized in English as diffuse and flabby.
    Tastes run the same way in China. Partly it is because blunt old harsh Lu Xun was so influential in setting the style for vernacular writing, and partly becasue of the extremely terse standard of Classical Chinese. Speaking of which, yes of course a traslation into English is going to run longer than the original, since you can’t get by in English without a lot of admin crap – tenses, aspects, third person pronouns, articles and a bunch of other mess – that the original does without.

  21. Yes, it’s true that tastes change and that other languages and cultures have different conventions.
    But if your target language isn’t inflected and has different conventions for punctuation, a mechanical transposition of syntax, sentence length and structure, punctuation, etc. (which in a translation of a two-page Russian sentence might have the subject at the very end of page 2) is going to confuse your English-speaking reader in a way that a Russian-speaking reader is not confused.

  22. Noetica says:

    Translation involves disambiguation, and the usual way of trying to deal with ambiguity is to add more words (though this can in turn create more ambiguity).
    O yes. Except perhaps for the parenthetic addition. I go further and say (along with a chorus of theorists on the matter, no doubt) that a translator is necessary an interpreter. By that I mean a hermeneut or someone on the way to being an exegete, of course: not an oral translator. If there is erring to be done, I err in the direction of excessive interpretation when I translate verse. But for verse, that cannot be done by adding to the wordcount, salva integritate poetica. Unless you are one of our classic verse-translators of Homer or Vergil, of course. Think cans of wordworms.
    Glad you like the book, LH!

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