Translation and the case for pragmatism
By BRYAN KARETNYK
The lecture theatre at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology proved an unexpectedly germane setting for Thursday evening’s talk on "Alexander Pushkin and the myth of untranslatability". Lining the walls of the Leventis Gallery are softly lit display cabinets – home to the institute’s collection of Cypriot and Eastern Mediterranean ceramics – with placards, bidding the viewer to reflect on antiquity’s "cross-cultural channels of communication". It is precisely this link, between history and communication, that UCL’s Translation in History lecture series, now in its fourth year, endeavours to explore.
An engaged audience comprising the general public, academics and even a number of veteran translators convened to hear Robert Chandler discuss the trajectory of literary translation from Russian into English over the past hundred or so years. Chandler, who is most noted for his translations of Vasily Grossman, Andrei Platonov and, more recently, the émigrée writer Teffi, is exceptional on the list of speakers in the UCL lecture series: he is the only full-time practising translator, and indeed the only non-academic. Perhaps it was for this reason that his approach to the task seemed so refreshingly pragmatic.
Following words of welcome from Anna Ponomareva, one of the series’s organizers, Chandler noted archly that his talk would take in a broad swathe of translators and their offerings: “Some I admire . . . Some I don’t”. The candidates for scrutiny in the first half of the lecture were Constance Garnett, who in Chandler’s view “really created Russian literature in English”, and the Russian-born translator Samuel Koteliansky. In an attempt to rehabilitate Garnett after Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Brodsky’s “sneering” derisions (the mistranslations, the omissions, the notorious accusations that English readers could not tell Tolstoy and Dostoevsky apart because they were reading pure Garnett), Chandler mounted a defence of her work, noting in particular Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf’s indebtedness to Garnett’s translations of Chekhov. Moreover, he mused, Garnett was modest and aware of her own limitations as a translator.
These two vanguard figures also provided a poignant point of departure to consider what Chandler described as the modern-day dislocation and "ghettoization" of translators apart from the mainstay of literary culture. Chandler noted in particular how a collaboration between Koteliansky (“Kot” to his close acquaintances), D. H. Lawrence and Leonard Woolf had resulted in, to Chandler’s mind, one of the finest translations of Ivan Bunin’s short story "The Gentleman from San Francisco". Even Koteliansky’s “remarkable . . . bold” foreignisms are deserving of praise, he said. Citing the line “strings of bare-shouldered ladies rustling with their silks on the staircases and reflecting themselves in the mirrors”, Chandler extolled the efficacy of Koteliansky’s Russianizing “with their silks” (shelkami, the instrumental) and the even purposely defamiliarizing “reflecting themselves” (otrazhaiushchikhsia, an ordinary reflexive participle). Note, however, that Bunin himself could have achieved Koteliansky’s effect, had he opted for the active otrazhaiushchikh sebia. Undoubtedly a case where the translation is more striking than the original.
The second half of the talk examined a case study of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which Chandler termed "exceptional" in that it represents one of the few instances where successive translators have almost uniformly improved on their forerunners – from Charles Johnston’s first “readable” Onegin to Stanley Mitchell’s pinnacle of ingenuity and aesthetic sophistication. The crux of Chandler’s argument against translations such as Nabokov’s is that the adoption of any “rigid ideology” (in this instance Nabokov as an “Apostle of Literalism”) ultimately impoverishes a translation, focusing as it does on only one facet. It simplifies the translator’s task by eliminating the need to balance a work’s formal aspects with its content. Quoting from Clive Wilmer’s TLS article "Dante made plain" (1996), Chandler spoke of the “sacrifice” and “painful choices” a translator must make, concluding that only in treading the path of pragmatism may one, as Wilmer puts it, hope for “the resurrection of the poem in its new form”.
Chandler’s case for pragmatism is a convincing one. Although I did pause for a moment when he praised the flourishes in Koteliansky et al’s Bunin. The effects are indeed arresting, but they do raise the question: given the chance, should a translator ever presume to “enhance” a text? There are, of course, no easy answers. All authors have good and bad days, but surely the translator betrays a moment of self-doubt in not letting the works “reflect themselves”?
The next lecture in the series, "Roman Jakobson and the translation of poetic language", will be delivered by Professor Jean Boase-Beier (UEA) at 6.30pm on Thursday, November 26.
Robert Chandler in the TLS:
"A hoarded treasure", August 19, 2015
"In Baba Yaga's hut", May 15, 2013