All The More Reason

Poetic Justice
March 29, 2007, 5:49 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

What is translation?’ asked Vladimir Nabokov: ‘…On a platter/ A poet’s pale and glaring head/A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter/And profanation of the dead.

Nabokov’s poetic consideration of this question was essentially defensive. His two stanzas of artful self-justification, On Translating Eugene Onekin, were jabs at the jaw of critics who had denounced his idiosyncratic, even ‘profane’, English translation of Pushkin’s verse-novel.

As a Russian author émigré and multi-linguist, Nabokov had both personal and professional reasons for seeking the essence of translation, but anyone who has ever attempted to translate anything will have addressed the problem, as they anxiously paw at a dictionary in search of le mot juste.

As it happens, le mot juste, is a good example of the translator’s folly in action. The most recognisable English rendering of this shop-soiled phrase would be ‘the correct word’, ‘the precise word’, or, if you’re feeling less adventurous, plain-old ‘the right word’. But even though each of these versions gets the message across, they are all monochrome facsimiles of the original French phrase, which expresses a more profound idea. The word juste is, in French, entwined with notions of justice and fairness; by searching for le mot juste, one is therefore endeavouring literally to ‘do justice’ to the language in which one is working.

Occasionally, one comes across a foreign term that appears ‘untranslatable’. By this, one usually means that it is difficult to do justice to it with a single word from one’s native tongue. The translation of the Portuguese word saudade as ‘sorrowful longing’, may not furrow too many brows, but articulately conveying the fact that this expression has a positive connotation takes rather more linguistic élan.

Tim King, Prospect Magazine’s excellent French political analyst, was recently forced to suck a thoughtful tooth as he tried to convey the meaning of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s florid French to the readers of his blog:

”I think a foreigner who wants to adopt French nationality begins to become truly French only when the bones of his parents dissolve into the earth of France,” he told me last week. “It’s at that moment that one begins to belong to the nation charnellement.”(A word for which I can’t find a quick equivalent – carnally doesn’t work, though it can do in other circumstances, viscerally, perhaps, intimately not really). Jean-Marie Le Pen talks in images, which I have to say makes talking to him vivid, alive and sometimes very funny. ‘

To put the exact English translation of charnellement (an adverb linked to the idea of a charnel house- an institution no longer, sorry, a la mode) in the mouth of Le Pen would be to make him sound long-winded and inarticulate, which, for all his vices, would be an unjust representation of his character. Translation, as this example shows, is therefore neither wholly art nor science: it combines factual rigour with an appreciation of a language’s aesthetic.

The translation of poetry poses an even greater challenge because the translator is restricted by form. For Nabokov, the safe transport of his delicate poetic cargo could only be assured by removing it from the distorting constraints of Pushkin’s original meter. Unlike previous translators of the piece, Nabokov privileged exactness at the expense of Eugene Onegin‘s melodic sense. Walter Arndt’s rendering of the following stanza, for example:

Winter…the peasant, feeling festive,
Breaks a fresh fairway with his sleigh,
Snow underfoot, his nag is restive
And, barely trotting, plods his way.

Becomes, in Nabokov’s literal, ‘free’ verse:

Winter! The peasant, rejoicing,
Breaks a new track with his sledge;
His poor horse, sniffing the snow,
Attempting a trot, plods through it.

Arndt gives us a sense of the undulations that a Russian reader would recognise, but he must resort to confection to achieve his effect. Is the reader’s gain greater if he knows that the peasant’s horse ‘restiveness’ is a result of his sniffing of the snow? ‘The drudge or the rhymester’, Nabokov wrote, ‘has substituted easy platitudes for the breathtaking intricacies of the text‘.

In justifying his own work, Nabokov calls on Pushkin for posthumous absolution of his ‘honest roadside prose/All thorn, but cousin to your rose.’ But a thorn by any other name still pricks our feet. The ‘metropolitan critic’ Edmund Wilson, himself a scholar of Pushkin (and until the publication of his critique in the New York Review of Books, a friend of Nabokov) scorned this approach for producing ‘a bald and awkward language which has nothing in common with Pushkin or with the usual writing of Nabokov.’ Neither honesty, then, nor poetic licence, can altogether prevent a linguistic miscarriage of justice. On the journey from one tongue to another, it seems that something is always lost in translation.


1 Comment so far
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To give one example of how a language can carry with it a certain feeling, one could think of how in French nouns nearly always have articles where in English we can often do without. This extra linguistic baggage can be trouble until one really gets the hang of it, at least in terms of understanding other people’s use of it, and then it reveals itself to be anything but unessential.

I think also that these difficulties in translation reveal the inherent weaknesses of manufactured languages like Esperanto. Everything about the nature of language suggests a vine in a jungle, growing where it can to seek light and water. That’s a far cry from a concrete bunker in the middle of a desert plopped down to match the polarities of the earth.

Comment by J.S.

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