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.

Writing for your friends

I remember a translation exchange that was put together by Iowa’s International Writing Program some years ago, in which several French poets and several American poets got together and exchanged their work, the French translating the Americans into French, and the Americans translating the French into English. One of the Americans, David St. John, on being asked how he imagined the audience for this work, said he didn’t — he wrote “to the language,” not to any imagined people. I thought this was a fascinating position to take for a poet, but a questionable one for a translator. I’ll probably write more about this another time because it’s something I’ve thought about a lot. I wrote it down here because each time I’ve thought about the audience for this blog, I’ve run into a similar strangeness. I sort of don’t know and I sort of don’t care who the audience might. Why is that?

I have a deep suspicion that the idea for this blog sprang from leaving friends behind when we moved. My friend David said he left good friends behind when he moved to Iowa from Michigan, where he’d been in grad school, and he never quite made the same kind of friends again. This makes perfect sense. You’re a student in one place, a worker in another, a lover or a spouse or a parent or child, and so on, and so your friendships are shaped differently depending on your own shape, your time, commitments, engagements.

My understanding was of a superficial, intellectual sort at the time. I see it differently now. It’s not just that you make different kinds of friends in different places; it’s that some friendships are unique and authentic and you can never replace them no matter how you shape yourself somewhere else. These need to be cherished.

A blog is a sorry replacement for friends, but missing your friends is not a bad motivation for a blog. While I am not writing to them, I am writing for them. But for them, I would not be writing.

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.