Monday, September 20, 2004

Lost in Transliteration

One of the better courses I took in college was a Russian literature course -- featuring all the classic Russian literature that isn't of ungodly length. E.g. Crime and Punishment instead of The Brothers Kamarazov. It was a good course, generally well-taught, that offered a chance for English majors to get a change of pace from the predominantly English and American literature you study in other courses (plus Canadian literature, which you're forced to study).

But one thing that concerned me at the time, and still concerns me now, was the question of whether I was really reading these books. It was Russian literature, but of course we were reading it in English translation; that is, we were reading someone's idea of what the Russian phrases mean in English. Even if it's a good translation -- that is, if the translator has done the best possible job of conveying what the author was saying -- obviously it's not the full experience of the work. We know, when we read in our own language, that how the author says something can be as important as what he or she says, and that an author's style is defined by the way he or she uses the language. All of that, of necessity, becomes tough to see when you're reading something in translation. I know the story Dostoyevsky told and I know, more or less, the themes of his story. But what kind of a writer was Dostoyevsky? What was his style? What does it say about him that he used one word instead of another? What effect is created by the way he uses words? All of that is lost on me and will remain so unless I learn Russian, which is increasingly unlikely (maybe if the Soviet Union had taken over the world like they were supposed to, I'd have had some incentive to learn Russian). I've heard it said by people who know Russian that Dostoyevsky was a great novelist but a clumsy prose stylist; I don't know if this is true, but if it is, then the translations I've read are too polished and stylistically assured; they are written in the style of a university guy who knows Russian and English, not of Dostoyevsky.

And that brings up a general problem I have with translators, even good ones: they seem to want to cover up the crudities and flaws of the authors they translate. Some authors use archaic or stilted language, but the translations use colloquial, modern language. I think a rule of thumb for translators is that they should try to at least suggest the style of the author, warts and all. An example I've given before is Wagner's Ring, whose libretto is written in deliberately archaic language, with everybody addressed as "du" and with alliteration in place of rhyme (as in medieval poetry). Most translations of the Ring "cover up" Wagner's choice by using colloquial English; an accurate translation would have the characters address each other as "thee" and "thou," and that would be truer to what Wagner wrote, even if it sounds stilted (the original sounds stilted, so why shouldn't the translation)?

Poetry is, of course, the hardest thing to translate, because poetry depends so heavily on the actual sound of the words. There's just no way that a translator can preserve the sounds of the original, just as there's no way the translator can retain the original rhyme scheme and metre and still be faithful to what the author was trying to say. We read an English translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin in that Russian literature course; a good translation, as I recall, but it was attempting a basically impossible task; Onegin has one of the most complicated rhyme schemes of any narrative poem, and just trying to follow it in English is incredibly difficult; that clearly took up all the author's work, to the point that the lines often sacrificed sound and sense (they didn't sound good or make sense on their own, never mind preserving the sound and sense of Pushkin) to the mechanical demands of getting the rhyme and metre right. Since then I've never wanted to read a rhyming translation of a poem; instead, if I don't understand the language, I look for the original poem side-by-side with a prose translation of the poem, the way opera librettos often have the original libretto side-by-side with a non-rhyming, non-metrical translation. I'd get a lot more out of Onegin by looking back and forth between a transliteration of the poem, using the non-Russian alphabet to convey all the rhymes and sounds that Pushkin used, and a literal explanation of what these rhymes and sounds are saying. Unfortunately there aren't a lot of these kind of side-by-side books on the market.

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