Translators on the Art of Translation.

To celebrate the National Book Award for Translated Literature, Emily Temple at Literary Hub quotes ten translators on how they translate; the most high-flown and most annoying is Nabokov (from his 1941 essay “The Art of Translation”):

Three grades of evil can be discerned in the queer world of verbal transmigration. The first, and lesser one, comprises obvious errors due to ignorance or misguided knowledge. This is mere human frailty and thus excusable. The next step to Hell is taken by the translator who intentionally skips words or passages that he does not bother to understand or that might seem obscure or obscene to vaguely imagined readers; he accepts the blank look that his dictionary gives him without any qualms; or subjects scholarship to primness: he is as ready to know less than the author as he is to think he knows better. The third, and worst, degree of turpitude is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public. This is a crime, to be punished by the stocks as plagiarists were in the shoebuckle days.

. . .

We can deduce now the requirements that a translator must possess in order to be able to give an ideal version of a foreign masterpiece. First of all he must have as much talent, or at least the same kind of talent, as the author he chooses. In this, though only in this, respect Baudelaire and Poe or Joukovsky and Schiller made ideal playmates. Second, he must know thoroughly the two nations and the two languages involved and be perfectly acquainted with all details relating to his author’s manner and methods; also, with the social background of words, their fashions, history and period associations. This leads to the third point: while having genius and knowledge he must possess the gift of mimicry and be able to act, as it were, the real author’s part by impersonating his tricks of demeanor and speech, his ways and his mind, with the utmost degree of verisimilitude.

(Note “Joukovsky” for Zhukovsky.) In other words, “if you’re not a gr-r-reat genius like me, don’t bother trying.” Jerk. Anyway, there’s much of interest there; perhaps the most astonishing tidbit is in Temple’s intro: “In college, I met someone who told me that I would learn Russian easily and in a matter of months if I just sat down and worked my way through The Master and Margarita in the original, with a dictionary. Reader, it did not work.” I guess I can believe that there are people who can learn that way, but you have to be pretty clueless not to realize it’s not universally applicable. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. I only recently learned a famous quote by Bialik, a great poet and a great translator: הנהנה מן היצירה העברית בכלי שני – דומה למי שמנשק את אהובתו דרך מטפחת. “He who enjoys a Hebrew work through a second vessel, is like one who kisses his beloved through a handkerchief.”

    Plenty more great quotes by and about Bialik and translation here, if you read Hebrew:

    —”He sat for some two hours, smoked cigarettes, drank tea, translated the sentence dozens of times—and none satisfied him.”
    — “A good translation is significantly a harder craft than ‘authoring’… often one has to translate not the lines themselves, but what is between the lines.”

  2. Nabokov
    On Translating Eugene Onegin

    What is translation? On a platter
    A poet’s pale and glaring head,
    A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter,
    And profanation of the dead.

  3. I would learn Russian easily and in a matter of months if I just sat down and …

    Peter Ustinov was told by a society lady: Oh, I hear Russian is easy to learn. As soon as you’ve mastered the alphabet, you’ll be able to read The Brothers Karenina.

    (Ustinov seems to have hob-nobbed with squads of ‘society ladies’, more than a few apocryphal, I suspect.)

  4. That joke, in reverse, is in Nabokov’s Pnin, too: “…whom somebody had told that by the time one mastered the Russian alphabet one could practically read ‘Anna Karamazov’ in the original.”
    It has been claimed to be based on some student asking Nabokov to say something about ‘Anna Karamazov’, but that may be as unprovable as the Ustinov story.

  5. A quick search turns up (the very intentional) War and Crime, by Tolstoyevsky.

  6. In an ideal world, Nabokov is absolutely right. But we don’t live in an ideal world.

  7. David Marjanović says

    As soon as you’ve mastered the alphabet, you’ll be able to read

    Ah, the different meanings of “read”…

  8. Trond Engen says

    In an ideal world, Nabokov is absolutely right.

    Aren’t we all.

  9. Translator must be a genius and know the author’s language better than the author himself (and of course, he must be able to write in his native language even more perfectly).

    There are hordes of translators like this out there, surely.

  10. Here’s the full article by Saskia Vogel in the Paris Review – the excerpt made by Emily Temple is the one that mentions the Swedish novel The White City. I like the Vogel article a lot, and may actually read the novel, but it turns out it’s all about handbags (the Vogel article is anyway). Imagine the consequences if The White City had been translated by someone who didn’t know a 1990s Goyard Saint Louis from a 2.55 (me, for instance, but I’ll bet I’m not alone). On the other hand I know of Juicy Couture that she mentions, because my mother used to send my daughter some of their outfits from New York when Alma was about ten. What seemed extraordinary to me was that even in rural Norway one or two of her school contemporaries could identify their provenance.

  11. “He who enjoys a Hebrew work through a second vessel, is like one who kisses his beloved through a handkerchief.”

    The guy was too prudish to mention the word ‘condom’ (or the other word, either).

  12. I think he actually did mean kissing through a handkerchief.
    He uses the “vessel” metaphor elsewhere to mean translation.

  13. “He who enjoys a Hebrew work through a second vessel, is like one who kisses his beloved through a handkerchief.”

    An interesting comparison that, with the current global situation, seems to have taken on an unexpected meaning.

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    This reminded me irresistibly of

    Being kissed by a man who didn’t wax his moustache was – like eating an egg without salt.

    which for years I have attributed to Daisy Ashford, but which the magic of Google assures me is actually the work of one Rudyard Kipling.

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