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.


That Damned Anna Karenina Again

Schwartz AKErik McDonald has expressed some doubts about my take on the quickly aging Gessen review of AK, so here goes–I’m quoting from his blog XIX vek, of which he sent me a snippet.

“I personally love trying to figure out what’s causing a whole group of translators to read something differently than I read it […], and Gessen’s way of tying the two scenes together [Anna’s arm described early in the book and then very differently later–RSV] seems convincing to me. But Russell Scott Valentino thinks language should be beneath the critic’s notice:

[this is McDonald quoting me] 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.

[back to McDonald here] I’m left wondering how any act of communication at all is possible in Valentino’s model. Sure, we don’t have access to a reviewer’s or translator’s or author’s mind, and written words aren’t identical to what the writer was thinking at any given moment. But we can make inferences about what other people think, know, or feel based on what they write, or why would we read or write anything?”

I (this is me now) am not quite sure where to start here. Language should never be beneath a critic’s notice. I did not claim that it should. But let me be more explicit and say that making comparisons to the foreign source in a review whose audience is likely not to know the source language is an implicit argument from authority, which says listen to me because I know something you don’t. The fact that others did in fact read her review this way is made clear in the subsequent Slate radio interview. Basically the two interviewers bow down before the authority of the person who knows the source. They don’t know it. She must therefore be right when she makes comparisons to it and pronounces some solutions simply “wrong.”

This last points to another problem, which McDonald’s comment about communication, and Gessen’s about “wrong” translations, both point to, though they get to it by different routes. Gessen gets there by a simple argument from authority. (I know what’s right and I’m going to give you a glimpse of it by telling you the correct translation of these three words.) McDonald does so by means of what 20th-century critics referred to as the intentional fallacy, which basically reduces the meaning of a work to what the author wanted to say. He defends this way of approaching a text by wondering about how communication is possible in my “model.” This conflates several kinds of actions that are not the same. Translation combines interpretation and writing in really interesting ways, but it makes very little use of the common tools of interpersonal communication, especially when the author of one’s text has been dead for over a hundred years.

Thinking about the meaning of a work as being “what the author intended” has a tendency to limit meaning and blind the interpreter to the other, often widely divergent, meanings that other readers in other times and places have found in the very same words. The intentional fallacy has little patience with polyvalence. It likes to have God, or Homer, or Shakespeare mean pretty much one thing. It likes to pronounce other interpretations wrong because they don’t understand what the author intended. This is why I emphasize the text over the author’s intention. The text is what we have. The author’s intention is what we imagine. The text, because it is made up of words that no one owns, can mean many different things to people in different parts of the world at different times. The author’s intention is limited historically, linguistically, geographically. Shakespeare did not mean to say anything about America, yet Americans find plenty of meaning in Shakespeare’s words. This is not because Shakespeare intended us to.

In no way do I want to say that comparisons of multiple translations with each other or with the source text are not worth making, or that they are “beneath the critic’s notice.” Such comparisons and explications are the sorts of things I have engaged in for much of my professional life. And when teaching translation, I frequently use comparative methods, looking at the source when my students have the linguistic means to discuss translation choices on its basis. But textual explications and comparative translation teaching methods are not the same as writing a review.

I am fascinated by the nuances of foreign words and take endless pleasure in comparing them with English ones. But I also know quite well that the moment I begin to talk or write about the details of the source in the company of people who mostly do not share that pleasure, we leave common ground behind, almost as if one of us has read the book but the others have only seen the movie.

There are much better ways to review translations than this.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7

I’m giving a couple of pre-concert talks for the Indianapolis Symphony, which is performing Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, “Leningrad” on Friday, February 6 (and then again on the 7th in Carmel), under the direction of Krzysztof Urbański. It is such a perfect case of the changing fortunes of a musical work against the backdrop of world events. Here’s a little taste of what I’ll be saying.

I’ve been asked to discuss the context of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, the Leningrad Symphony, and in order to do that I would like to first ask you to imagine a situation, let’s call it a performance scenario.

We are used to being asked to silence our phones and mobile devices at live performances. Some people have very loud ring tones and beeps and dings that can be quite distracting when you’re trying to listen. Imagine a situation where it’s not someone’s phone that’s distracting you but a ring of artillery surrounding the city blasting away from seven miles out, not to mention your own artillery firing back from just down the street. And let’s add to this picture a company of half-starved musicians on the stage, not the usual philharmonic orchestra—because they were evacuated to Siberia months ago, along with their conductor. What was left was the Radio orchestra, not a bad group, but then they’ve been in the city under siege for nearly a year. Half of them have died of disease and starvation. To find more players you’ve had to go out to the troops protecting the city, find former members of regimental bands, jazz bands, anyone who can play. The score was airlifted in on a medical transport in July, and when the conductor saw it, his first response was, “We’ll never play this.” Many of the musicians were too weak to blow their instruments when rehearsals started. Sometimes they would collapse on stage during rehearsal. They would only ever manage to play the entire work once before the performance, at the dress rehearsal. The musicians just didn’t have the strength to get through the whole thing.

We can add more detail. The German forces bombarding the city did not do so indiscriminately. For hours every day, their guns range across the city, looking for crowds, people lining up at bus or tram stops, ticket windows, crossroads, factory gates when the shifts changed, entrances to theaters and musical events, just like the one being planned, the one they’d been ordered to carry out, whatever it took. And so an hour before the concert is due to begin, the city’s defenders begin laying down a ferocious barrage of artillery aimed at the enemy guns, forcing the German soldiers to take shelter. Just before the concert starts, they stop firing and are quiet. No German shells land in the center of the city for the next hour and twenty minutes, just enough for the concert to take place. It was, what Brian Morton in a 2006 book would later claim, “probably the only time in musical history that military operations were coordinated to assist an orchestral concert.”

This is the performance scenario I would like for you to imagine. This was the scenario for the performance of the Leningrad Symphony on August 9, 1942 at the Leningrad Philharmonic. With this picture in our heads, it is no wonder that the Leningrad Symphony should have become one of the most powerful symbols of wartime resistance.


This scenario, however, like the photograph of the soldier buying a ticket to the performance that night, is not the whole story of the work, though it’s a very powerful one. It helps to explain why the symphony immediately became wildly popular and frequently performed all over the world, and there’s much more that can be said about this world-wide reception in the midst of WWII, and I will say more, but this is too simple a representation, too easy a way of making sense of the work’s provenance and lasting importance. It’s not complete.

Thinking of the work as something of a historical document in this manner, a representation of “the siege of Leningrad,” let’s say, makes it into something one-dimensional and maybe not even that artistic. It reminds me of the way Aleksei Karenin, Anna Karenina’s big-eared husband in Tolstoy’s famous book, approaches art. He doesn’t know anything about it and has no feeling for it, so he reads books about it in order to be able to express his opinions. We reduce the music when we categorize its meaning based on the events it supposedly depicted, and supposedly is a good word to remember.

Right, just couldn’t help the Tolstoy reference. These are in my head for the duration, I’m afraid, the fruit of reading and teaching those works so many times. Today I listened to Bernstein’s recording of the 7th with the Chicago Symphony, turning off the heat in the house just to try for a bit more atmosphere. God, what a big, bombastic and yet ambivalent work.

The Translator’s Answerability

My previous post on Masha Gessen’s review of the two new Anna Karenina translations, one each by Rosamund Bartlett and Marian Schwartz, attrAK Gessen reviewacted some criticisms. I’ll respond in a couple of posts to make each one shorter.

Schwartz AKJohn Cowan comments, “You write as if the translator had no responsibility to the author at all, and it is all one whether the AK translator writes ‘All happy families are alike’ on the first page, or ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.'”

I hope this wasn’t a widespread impression from my piece. But maybe I wasn’t clear enough. A glance at the Weinberger essay I quote from should dispel any lingering doubts, especially where he writes: “Now obviously a translation that is replete with semantical errors is probably a bad translation.”Bartlett AK Outside of parodying or otherwise hijacking a text for other purposes, it’s hard to imagine a context where switching a Tolstoy line for a Dickens line would be seen as a successful translation strategy.

But why the “probably” in Weinberger’s quote?  Because “fidelity may be the most overrated of a translation’s qualities.” It is the easiest thing to get right. Not easy of course, just the easiest.

His amplifying example: “I once witnessed an interesting experiment: average 9-year-old students at a public school in Rochester, New York, were given a text by Rimbaud and a bilingual dictionary, and asked to translate the poem. Neither they nor their teacher knew a word of French. What they produced were not masterpieces, but they were generally as accurate as, and occasionally wittier than, any of the existing scholarly versions. In short, up to a point, anyone can translate anything faithfully. But the point at which they cannot translate is the point where real translations begin to be made. […] A translation is a whole work; it is not a series of matching en face lines and shouldn’t be read as such. It means that the primary task of a translator is not merely to get the dictionary meanings right — which is the easiest part — but rather to invent a new music for the text in the translation-language, one that is mandated by the original.”

He uses poetry as his primary example, but the same is true of artistic prose. Translations are whole works, not series of matching lexical or semantic items, which means that the primary task of most translators is not merely getting the dictionary meanings right (the easiest part) but inventing new music for their works that resonates in the receiving culture’s language and literary traditions. Without that, it doesn’t matter how “accurate” their renderings are, for no one will want to read them. Responsibility to the author is implicit in this, but responsibility to the text is foremost. As Samuel Johnson once put it when asked by a reader regarding his intentions in a particular passage of Rasselas, “Madam, when I wrote that, only two beings in the universe knew what was in my head, God and myself. And now, Madam, God only knows what I was thinking when I wrote that.”

Responsibility to an author can become explicit, too, however. It was part of the Maudes’ motivation for translating Tolstoy — they had met the man and were long-time friends and admirers. Something like this has happened to me two or three times, and I’ve written about two such instances in “A Matter of Trust,” part of a forum on “Translation and Social Commitment,” published by 91st Meridian.

In such cases, the author’s encouragement can increase one’s motivation to do things well, and interest in the literary qualities of a text comes to seem a rVenuti bookather empty and abstract substitute for the respect and affection one feels for the person. I suppose this is the “simpatico” method that Lawrence Venuti critiques in his book The Translator’s Invisibility. He is probably right that, as a method, it fails for some kinds of literature, as his example of experimental Modernist poetry makes clear. But it is also a mode of work that can be powerful and productive for many translators, an additional source of responsibility often overlooked in discussing their work.

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.

That book

There’s a scene in Anna Karenina where Levin’s brother, who is always referred to by his last name, Koznyshev, finishes a book he’s been working on for a long time. He is acknowledged as something of a public intellectual figure in the two capitals, a prominent person, so the book he’s writing seems to be an event of sorts that people are waiting for, or at least that is the impression that Kozynshev has. Tolstoy gives the impression that Koznyshev’s long-awaited book will be the definitive word on some subject or other — it doesn’t really matter what, because this part of AK is not at all about what Koznyshev has supposedly been writing about, it’s about this type of situation and this type of character.

A person has focused on something, and it has come to occupy a lot of his time, to the point of crowding out other aspects of life. But it’s not a question of devotion. It’s a social situation, where you’ve basically said, “I’m working on this,” for many years, and people have heard you, acknowledged this work of yours somehow, maybe by listening, maybe by asking questions or offering their own opinions (which they hope might be reflected in your book and attributed to them), maybe even by paying you money to continue on the path you’ve been following.

Then the book comes out, and what happens? In AK, not much. Koznyshev waits for the response to his (it turns out, rather subtle) provocations and historical interventions for a day, a week, two weeks. I think he gets a review or two. It’s not the drama he anticipated, and Tolstoy is clearly skeptical of the value of the whole enterprise. Oh, and there’s probably something anti-academic in his portrayal of the specialist Koznyshev too wrapped up in his work to be able to relate to the world, real life — that is a Tolstoyan bias. Fine.

But I’ve been working on a book, telling people for some time I’ve been working on it, being paid in effect to continue along the particular path that should, in principle, lead to its completion, and this for some twelve years. It’s mostly an academic book, too. Mostly, though one hopes, Koznyshev-style, that the things that have interested one for all this time will also be of interest to others, that one’s subtle interventions and clever readings will be recognized in all their detail if not as ground-breaking, then at least as, well, subtle and clever. I’m now remembering a panelist at the Melbourne NonfictioNow conference in 2012 mocking such wishful thinking, which is usually accompanied by references to the “general readers” who are likely to be interested. “You can count,” he said, “the general readers likely to be interested in that with the fingers on one hand of a leper.”

So there is still doubt, but doubt can, in the best of cases, lead to depth. I am hopeful that my own doubt has given greater depth to my project. It took me a long time to come to this understanding. I hope the book reflects it and invites readers to share something of it, too.