Joan Neuberger’s home page (which I searched out because I was so impressed by her book Hooliganism) has a very useful series of links, mostly relating to Russia; one of them is to Sher’s Russian Web, which contains (among many other things) Benjamin Sher’s piece “Nature vs. Art: A Note on Translating Shklovsky.” This goes into considerable detail about two translations of a single paragraph from Viktor Shklovsky’s famous essay „Искусство как прием“ [‘Art as technique/device’]:
“And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs…”
There are two current translations of this key passage from Shklovsky’s masterpiece, one in Lemon and Reis’s Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays (p.4), which includes the opening chapter from [Theory of Prose] and the other in my complete translation of Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose (p.6).
The reader may wonder which version is “closer” to the original text, Lemon and Reis’s or mine. Well, the answer is: neither one. After looking at the passage carefully and retracing my mental steps, I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that neither Lemon and Reis nor I are in actual fact close to the text.
Because this excerpt, at least, cannot be translated head-on. It can only be approached through the back door of “interpretation.” It is a veritable quagmire of elusive, shifting terminology.
There is only one way to translate a passage like this one and that is by interpreting it in terms of the translator’s implicit schema or set of preconceptions.
He goes on to give the two translations (as well as a “literal” version); I’ll add the original Russian here:
И вот для того, чтобы вернуть ощущение жизни, почувствовать вещи, для того, чтобы делать камень каменным, существует то, что называется искусством. Целью искусства является дать ощущение вещи, как видение, а не как узнавание; приемом искусства является прием „остранения“ вещей и прием затрудненной формы, увеличивающий трудность и долготу восприятия, так как воспринимательный процесс в искусстве самоцелен и должен быть продлен; искусство есть способ пережить деланье веща, а сделанное в искусстве не важно.
I’m dubious about some of his ideas, particularly that delan’e is “a possible misprint or variant for delanie” (I’m curious to know what Russian readers make of his insistence that “I cannot imagine that Shklovsky, in the context of enstrangement (ostranenie, itself a verbal noun, that is, the act of enstranging) would ever speak of ‘experiencing a made thing’ [delan’e, a substantive]”—the implication that delanie is any less a substantive is of course absurd), but I love this sort of picking of linguistic nits.
As it happens, Katerina Clark, in her Petersburg: Crucible of Cultural Revolution, translates the crucial phrases (and provides some context) in the course of introducing Shklovsky; I’ll highlight in bold the parts that correspond to Sher’s translation:
Russian Formalism in some senses began with a lecture by Shklovsky entitled “The Place of Futurism in the History of Language,” delivered when he was still a young student, on December 23, 1913, at the Stray Dog Cabaret, a center of theatrical experimentation. A later essay by Shklovsky that makes similar points, “Art as Technique” (Iskusstvo kak priyëm, 1915-1916), the de facto manifesto of early Formalism, contains a quintessential account of the first premise of perceptual millenarianism. Here Shklovsky quotes a passage from Tolstoy’s diary of 1897 in which the writer remarks how it is often the case that with a routine task such as dusting the room one cannot recall whether one has dusted the divan or not. If one has dusted it but forgotten about it, it is as if the act had not occurred, so little has it impinged on one’s consciousness. Indeed, Tolstoy concludes, “If for many people an entire complex life passes by unconsciously, it is as if this life had not been.” Shklovsky goes on to say that “art exists in order to recover the sense of life, in order to feel objects, to make the stone stoney“… Shklovsky, like the Futurist artists and so many other avant-gardists of his time, gives the ability to “see” an object or word absolute priority. He draws a distinction between “seeing” (videnie) and “recognizing” (uznavanie), the latter being what happens when a word or object has been routinized: “Once objects have been perceived several times one begins to perceive them by recognition: an object stands before us, we know about it, but we do not see it.” He labels such a predicament “automatization” (avtomatizatsiya), and he provides a solution for it, a technique he calls “making strange” or “defamiliarization” (ostranenie). This technique involves taking things out of their context as a means of seeing them and “using an impeded [zatrudnënnaya] form that increases the degree of difficulty and the length of perception, for the process of perception in art is self-valuable and must be prolonged; art is a means for experiencing the making [delan’ye] of an object, and what is made [sdelannoye] in art is not important.“
As Sher says, “A volume could be written about translating this passage alone.”
(Incidentally, this appears to be Sher’s translation of the full essay.)