How Translators Teach Translations

Michael Henry Heim used to tell a story of how he had once introduced a bit of translation into his large survey class on Soviet Civilization in the early 1990s, commenting in passing on how a well-known book had been translated differently by two different translators. I believe it might have been Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (a tricky text to translate for reasons of censorship, but I’ll get to this). After class, a student approached the podium to thank him profusely for opening her eyes to how translators interpret the books that they translate. “Thank you, Professor Heim!” she said enthusiastically, “Now I don’t think I will ever read another translation again!” He told the story as a warning to those of us who might introduce “a bit of translation” into our classes. If you’re going to do it, he said, do it thoroughly.

Gary Saul Morson has quite a bit to say about translation in the short interview recently published by the New York Review of Books (apologies if this link looks like it’s behind a paywall; it isn’t, but you may have to sign up for an account in order to read the whole thing). The piece is entitled “The Prophetic Character of Russian Literature,” and most of it is devoted to the central place of literature in Russian history and politics from Pushkin to the Soviet Union, but then the interviewer, Andrew Katzenstein, takes the conversation in a different direction by asking this:

Your keen attention to the stuff that makes up great works—word choices, sentence construction, the ordering of details, and strategic repetitions—comes through especially strongly in your pieces on translations of the poets Pushkin and Griboedov. What challenges does the issue of literary craft pose for Russian-to-English translators, and what makes a translation successful or—more interestingly, perhaps—unsuccessful?

In his response, GSM quickly dismisses the frequently encountered focus on “word-for-word accuracy” as naive and potentially misleading. I agree that this is not a very substantial approach and often leads reviewers astray. Some readers will remember that this is what happens when the translation police arrest Anna Karenina.

This leaves him with two other basic avenues for evaluating the success or failure of a translation in answer to the question: style and interpretation (the second of which GSM refers to as “understanding”). Style he addresses especially in the cases of Gogol and Griboedov, the former because, as he maintains, Dead Souls should be funny (“What is the point of a comic novel that isn’t funny?”), and the latter because, in his reading, there should be plenty of quotable lines in an English version of Griboedov’s most famous work, the play Woe from Wit, for the culture to potentially appropriate; in other words, to be successful such a translation should function for readers in English in something like the manner in which Griboedov’s 1823 satire functioned in Russia.

The Griboedov play Woe from Wit supplies Russian with an extraordinary number of quotable lines—probably more than any other work—and so a translation has to convey that fact. None does.

My sense from reading this assessment is that it’s not about the fact but the effect, since one could simply add a bunch of notes in a scholarly edition of an English version to inform people of all the many places where the play supplied now well-known phrases to the Russian language. This would convey “that fact.”

Actually, both the funniness of Dead Souls and the quotability of Woe from Wit, in GSM’s hands, are claims about interpretation fundamentally. In his reading, any translation of DS that isn’t funny, and any translation of WfW that lacks its distinctive aphorism-generating quality are failures as translations, even though there are quite a few other things in both works besides being funny and being quotable that probably ought to be conveyed. Translators can miss the mark in quite a few ways. What is remarkable here is that GSM has decided that if they miss the mark in a way that doesn’t accord with what he believes is the work’s essence, then they are failures.

This way of approaching translations is almost the opposite of the lexical focus that reviewers often employ, where they pick out a word or two to quibble with and decide that the entire translation is somehow tarnished because of these “infelicities.” But unlike the lexical translation police, who only ever have an imagined perfect version in their minds (they have not translated the whole thing, only the handful of selected words that they chose to quibble with), GSM has written numerous books and taught numerous classes over several decades about how to interpret these works. He has very clear and well-stated arguments about what they mean and, importantly for this discussion, how an English translation should be done in order to bring out the particular meanings that he believes are essential. This becomes especially clear as the conversation turns to Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground:

The central concept of Notes from Underground is “spite”—action done just so, harming oneself just because supposedly no one ever does—and so to render the word as “wickedness,” as one version does, is to obscure the book’s whole point.

The book’s whole point, per GSM’s reading of it. He doesn’t say so here explicitly, but he’s referring to the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, which I’ve spent some time discussing here and here, and which he critiqued a decade or so ago in his “The Pevearsion of Russian Literature,” where he laments the many new P&V translations, calling their popularity “a tragedy, because their translations take glorious works and reduce them to awkward and unsightly muddles.” It’s an entertaining piece, definitely worth reading, and the emphasis on teaching is palpable, just as it is in the recent interview, when GSM begins his response to the question of translation by remarking,

It has always amazed me that teachers of Russian literature take so little care in which translation they pick for their students.

While I agree with the idea that “translations matter,” as GSM has written elsewhere, there is something deeply troubling in this approach. For interpretation changes over time, and one would assume that multiple interpretations are possible for works that stick around for a while. Indeed, we sometimes call them “great” precisely because they have tended to enable if not encourage broad and diverse interpretations. Otherwise Shakespeare, Confucius, or name your favorite canonical author would just mean what they meant a long time ago, and we would only read them for historical purposes today; for that, moreover, scholarly translations, or even paraphrases with extensive notes, would do just fine. For evaluating translations, he says, “The question to ask is: Does this version convey what makes the work great?” Indeed, this is a great question: what makes a multifarious, idiosyncratically expressive work great for generations of readers over long periods of time? There are some theories about this. None of them, to my knowledge, include pronouncements like the one GSM makes (in the rather nastily titled “Pevearsion” essay noted earlier) that “Susanne Fusso’s recasting of Guerney is the only Dead Souls worth reading.” It’s a very good version, but the only one worth reading? This sort of claim, moreover, suggests that Professor Morson both thinks he knows what makes such works great and is quite willing to tell us. Closer to the point here, if a translation does not support his notion of the essence of that greatness, he seems quite likely to inform us that it is a failed attempt—not on the basis of “infelicitous” lexical choices but because it does not adequately support his own interpretive schemes.

By contrast to original works, translations that try to capture some of the expressive power of their source texts are necessarily more timely than those texts: they respond to new scholarship, re-edited manuscripts, new publishing conventions, new styles, changes in language use, and perhaps more than anything else, they change in the hands of different translators, as those translators read the words, come to an understanding of them, and compose the work from the first line to the last for the receiving culture.

And while literary scholars and critics might develop extensive frameworks for their interpretations that they express at length and in many different forms, translators rarely articulate arguments for their interpretive choices, but there are exceptions. Contrary to GSM’s claim in his “Pevearsion” essay that “when challenged […], P&V invoke the virtues of their literal accuracy” (after which GSM’s essay switches to War and Peace), Richard Pevear, in his Translator’s Foreword to Notes from Underground actually does provide an argument for their interpretation of the offending Russian word zloi in the book’s first line. Basically, he claims that they read this word, this concept, as an overriding principle throughout the work, which is not about modern psychology, they believe, where a notion of spite, or nastiness, or righteous indignation might serve as a basic trait for the quintessential character Dostoevsky has created, but instead some larger theme pervades. They believe this is a moral text, even a religious one, rather than a psychological one, and the main category under scrutiny is, therefore, evil. We might disagree with them, write an article about our disagreement, maybe two, but this is clearly not about literalism or bad style; it’s a disagreement over interpretation. And the thing is, as most translators will feel in the depths of their being—their translator being, because they live this over and over as they do their work—both can be correct. In this case, the Russian word does indeed contain both spite and evil. And more. This is a big part of why the book has stuck around.

Let’s return to the context in which Michael Heim’s story unfolded because I didn’t quite paint it completely before. He had been discussing a word or phrase as it appeared in the translation he had recommended (which could have been the Willetts 1991 version published by FSG), and the student who asked the question was using a different published translation, so she had already developed a somewhat different understanding of the passage, and what he was saying didn’t immediately make sense to her. She raised her hand and asked about it, which was what enabled him to discuss translation just “a bit.” How did he answer? Well, I believe he pointed out that the previous five translations had all been based on censored versions from the USSR, but this wasn’t one of those passages. More to the point was how any serious translator answers such a question, which was what Heim did, what I heard him do many times. He discussed the choices, the possibilities, the way the text moves and breathes over time, how people interpret and make sense for themselves, the writing challenges, pace, and tone, and register, and dialogue, and how the same word, the same phrase can mean different things when uttered in different contexts with different intonations, and obviously just “a bit” was not enough. So not enough that it had the opposite of the effect he had hoped, which was to get his student to appreciate translation rather than avoid it forever.

What he didn’t do was say that the translation she had been reading, and the interpretation that she had formed on the basis of it, was so wrong that it obscured the point of the whole book. The two translators had read something differently from each other, and written something in English that corresponded to their way of understanding the words in context. They had made conscious interpretive choices, not mistakes. Maybe the writing was not effective, the pace was off, the register too high, the dialogue markers too varied—these he might have said. But I have trouble imagining Heim answering wrong for any passage where what was at issue was not a mistake but a question of interpretation. This, to me, epitomizes how translators teach translations.

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