The Translation Police arrest Anna Karenina

Masha Gessen’s review of the latest two Anna Karenina translations in the December 24, 2014 Sunday Book Review of the New York Times is a subtle example of what Eliot Weinberger once called the translation police at work. AK Gessen reviewThe translation police are those, according to Weinberger, “who write — to take an actual example — that a certain immensely prolific translator from the German ‘simply does not know German’ because somewhere in the vastness of Buddenbrooks, he had translated a ‘chesterfield’ as a ‘greatcoat.’ Such examples,” Weinberger explains, “as any translator can tell you, are more the rule than the exception. One can only imagine if writers were reviewed in the same way: ‘The use of the word ‘incarnadine’ on page 349 proves the utter mediocrity of this book.’ This is the old bugbear of ‘fidelity,’ which turns reviewers into television evangelists.” Here is the full text of his essay.

To be fair, Gessen is both kinder and fairer to Rosamund Bartlett and Marian Schwartz, whose translations of AK published this year by Oxford University PressBartlett AK and Yale University Press respectively, are the primary subjects of her review. And her claim that “to decipher what Tolstoy wanted to say, the translator has to devise an interpretation of Tolstoy’s narrative voice in Anna Karenina” is certainly correct. But her understanding of the translator’s work appears to stop at this relatively elementary stage, which, as she correctly points out, is the same for any reader of the Russian original. What’s wrong with this is that translators don’t just read, they also write. Schwartz AKIn fact, writing is what makes them translators of — rather than merely readers of — the original book. And as any writer knows, the words that appear on the page rarely exist in finished form in one’s head. They are shaped in the act of writing them.

Some readers of Gessen’s review will hear the authority of someone who knows the source and, as a result, they will essentially cede their own authority to make judgments because, well, she knows the source so she must know the right answer! They are hearing the voice of the translation police, which lurks behind every example and in fact informs the entire approach. This approach mostly involves calling up a variety of largely unconnected individual lexical items, selected by the reviewer and held forth with relative approval or disapproval almost as if she were teaching a foreign-language class and telling us which words mean what the translator has said they mean and which do not — but on the basis of a text that exists only in the reviewer’s mind. We certainly don’t have access to it. In fact, no one does. Remember, if you read the original Russian, you’re just a reader of the original Russian; the translation is created in the act of writing by the translator.

By the end of such a translation-police-inflected review, I suspect that people who do not know Russian, and maybe also those who do, will come to the conclusion that all of these supposedly important differences don’t make that much difference really, despite Gessen’s claim about the construction of narrative voice in English. To make that claim come across in a review, she would probably need to focus on just one example and show how it carries across the entire book, both in terms of the construction of voice and in terms of an interpretation of how the work’s meaning in English is shaped by the construction of that voice. This, in turn, would show how the two translators are doing much more than the readers Gessen invokes who might reread the Russian book several times in a lifetime. Of course they create voice in their heads, but they don’t create it on the page. Tolstoy himself, when asked by Nikolai Strakhov what he had meant to express in one part of his book, responded that in order to explain that little part, he would have to rewrite the whole thing from the start. Strakhov, Tolstoy suggests, was asking about the version in the author’s head, not the one on the page.

The crucial difference between reading and writing in the translator’s work should make us suspicious of explicit comparisons with the foreign-language original in a review. Unless they are part of a careful and likely extensive analysis, they are liable to tell us much more about the version in the reviewer’s head than the one on the English page.

Hats off to Bartlett and Schwartz on their new books.