The Bizarre Task of the Translator

Janet Malcom’s “Socks” is the latest in the healthy or interminable (depending on your level of interest) debate regarding translations of nineteenth-century Russian fiction into English. The touchstone, yet again, is Anna Karenina, which I wrote about here some time ago on the occasion of a review by Masha Gessen. The primary target of Malcom’s essay is the translation and the stated approach of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonskaya, as well as the “obtrusive literalism” of Marian Schwartz’s more recent translation.

The essay’s basic argument and examples are consistent, and Malcom does a good job of specifying her aims in both reading AK and writing an evaluation of existing translations. When she characterizes herself as “the reader of simple wants, who only asks of a translation that it advance rather than impede his pleasure and understanding,” she makes clear a crucial sense that in order to say anything about any translation, one needs to imagine who it is intended for. Unfortunately, the dichotomy she suggests between this sort of “reader of simple wants” and the “more advanced (or masochistic) school [of readers] who want to know what the original was ‘like'” is far too simplistic. It also suggests a rather narrow parochialism that serves to reinforce rather than challenge the sort of cultural and linguistic complacency that more adventurous translations are intended to challenge. One also has to wonder what the reader’s “understanding” might amount to when it does not include an understanding of what the original text was like.

Malcom’s lack of understanding of this aspect of translation comes across most explicitly in her claim that Pevear’s notion (from a 2005 interview with David Remnick) that a translation into English should somehow enrich English is “a bizarre idea of the translator’s task.” The idea actually has a long and distinguished pedigree and has been used explicitly by translators in various times and places, more commonly in poetry circles, it is true, but not exclusively there.

Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of how the project of national language seems apropos here. Languages are characterized by forces that tend to pull them apart (like dialects, regionalisms, and slang) and those that tend to hold them together (like schools, newspapers, grammar handbooks). It is a healthy or interminable (depending on your level of interest) process, with the innovations of literature as one of the factors that have tended to create newness in language at key moments in a language’s history, and with literary translation as a factor in the innovations of literature. This idea might seem a little bizarre from the standpoint of “the reader of simple wants,” but it is one of the translation strategies always available to translators who are serious about their work as literature.

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One thought on “The Bizarre Task of the Translator

  1. Pingback: More shapifying | XIX век

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