Is Pushkin really untranslatable? After much thought, Nabokov sort of threw in the towel in his gigantic edition of Еugene Onegin and opted for what he called a literal version — “which maintains an iambic base but quite often simply jolts into prose” (per Wilson). In 1965 Edmund Wilson went to town on this version in The New York Review of Books calling out its tangled over-use of archaic and dictionary words. Wilson says “No poet surpasses Pushkin—not even Dante—for the speed, point, and neatness of his narrative. How much ground in how short a space Onegin covers! How compact and yet easy in every stanza!” The difficulty with speed in one language is trying to suggest it in the target language where there is no exact semantic equivalent, requiring descriptive circumlocution — an obvious enemy of speed. An inflected language presents this problem in spades: many individual words cannot be translated without extension into more. Pikovaya Dama has to inflate to The Queen of Spades (French does better with Pique Dame). So maybe you have to be born Russian truly to appreciate Евге́ний Оне́гин, which is a blow to the rest of us. But a good translation will give us some appreciation of the poem; and surely that’s better than nothing.

E.Nida (Translation Directory) defines translation thus: “Translation consists in reproducing in the receptor language the closest natural equivalent of the source language message, first in terms of meaning and secondly in terms of style.” OK, but how does one achieve that? The translator perhaps aims at a result which is as close as possible to what the original author would have written had he in fact been a native speaker of the target language. Thus in translating Heinrich Heine I aim to produce something that sounds like it might have done if written by a witty, world-weary Englishman in the first half of the nineteenth century. But which Englishman? Who in England would have had the same wild enthusiasm for Napoleon, or the same sentimental (yet not quite sentimental) attitude towards the ladies? Who in England (or Britain) would have written the sorts of things Heine wrote? Would the English author have to be Jewish? Would they have to be an émigré, taking potshots at their native land from Paris? If they were to be born in a city which became one of his country’s industrial powerhouses, they’d have had to be 50 years older because industrial development in Britain just happened earlier than in Germany, so a semi-rural Birmingham would not have been the same as pre-industrial Düsseldorf. The echoes of this or that word in German are not the same as the echoes of the equivalent selected by the translator. So compromises get made.

Here’s an interesting site from Northern Virginia Community College comparing a few different translations of Dante. If you click back to “Trans. Home” you’ll find other exercises. Different versions of Dante can be compared as poet Caroline Bergvall is heard (I hope) at this link to University of Pennsylvania’s Pennsound archive reading VIA: 48 Dante Variations. Her reading bergvall1includes sources whereas the

printed version sorts them to the end of the work. Here is form echoing content — by the constant, hypnotic repetition of almost the same three lines, we feel ourselves well and truly lost in the middle passage of our lives. Deciding which version best matches the original is completely out of the question.

In the Times Literary Supplement of 22-29 August 2014, Jim Campbell in his NB column takes Nate Rich to task for his critique of Haruki Murakami’s style in a review of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki . . ., pointing out that the style Rich is critiquing is actually the style of the translator who is not named in the review. I would think we all hope that the translator is giving us a decent feel for the way the author says things, but we don’t really have any way of knowing for sure at the level of vocabulary. Even if you go to the original, you will have to read it as a non-native speaker, which must inevitably impose differences on your ear and mind. If the author writes in an awkward, clotted style is the translator to tidy this up, or lay him/herself open to criticism as a poor stylist? While the stylistic quirks on display in the Murukami translation could be being faithfully reproduced by the translator, the fact that neither Rich, nor JC (nor I) know any Japanese, makes drawing any conclusions difficult. Does this leave us powerless to make stylistic judgments about foreign literature? Maybe at the semantic level, but style consists of more than word choice.

David Bellos, in Is that a fish in your ear?, admits the attraction of the idea that his translations of Georges Perec, Ismail Kadare, Fred Vargas, Romain Gary and Hélène Berr may all, stylistically speaking, simply be examples of “Bellos”. He suspects that word-count-based stylistic analysis by a computer would probably indicate that. “At what level is the Dickensianity of any text by Dickens located? In the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, the digressions, the anecdotes, the construction of character, or the plot?” I think we’d agree that the answer is “All of the above”. The translator can deliver all of these, except for a one-to-one correspondence of the words. To get the words “right”, Bellos concludes, a foreigner would have to learn English. But the style, in all other regards, can indeed be reproduced in the translator’s version.


See Comments. The Read.Russia website is here.