NABOKV-L post 0017474, Mon, 15 Dec 2008 23:36:13 -0800

Re: [NABOKOV-L] Query on Alps, Bera range, Algonquin...Birches
SKB, your response is so briliant and expansive that I only want to say a couple things. I was not disagreeing with your ideas about NLs--whether or not the structure of language is inherent, the way our brains are "wired" (a word used to describe anything anybody wants to say is innate that I've come to loathe) is an idea about which I have an open skepticism. My main point was that when it came to the translation of a poem from one language to another Nabokov pretty obviously believed that at the all important level of the aesthetic fact of the work, it could not be translated. And I think through the course of what you've said, you have made this point yourself. Below I respond to a couple passages.

 The NL AWARD signals that a degree of grammatical complexity has been reached to justify the “equivalence” axiom, namely that anything “sayable” in one NL is “sayable” in any other NL. There’s a certain unavoidable “circularity” in this definition, but it is a useful step forward.
J.A.: I think this is an interesting theory of the development of language, and I also think that something like this underlies N.'s problematic idea of literal translation. And it's exactly what I meant by a "paradox" in his thinking. That is, 1. anything "sayable" in one language, should be "sayable" in another; 2. that a poem is necessarily the product of its native language and can never be translated. The slippage comes in Nabokov's subjective understanding, I think. Nabokov knew what Onegin meant, could compare his expert understanding to other translations and see that they did not match up to the original, hence his decision to do one himself, the act of which convinced him by the time he had completed it that the thing couldn't actually be done.
 Pidgins have no trouble with “pesticide” or “atom bomb” but can often fail with “If only the bananas had ripened a week earlier.”
J.A: Here you've made N.'s point don't you think? In the realm of poetry it's all bananas, and it gets harder and harder not to step on them, resulting in the usual non-funny comic mishap of falling on one's face.
Returning to VN’s theories of Translation. I see no contradiction between (i) NL-equivalent expressiveness and (ii) the huge challenge of capturing the intentions of the original NL-X author in a NL-Y text (Experts seldom agree!).

Without axiom (i), you might as well NOT TRY (ii)! Why Bovver? (This is a phrase UNIQUE to the Cockney Ethos

J.A.: In my opinion, if you read what N. has to say about translation it in fact does beg your question, why do it then? What I was trying to say was that the structure which N. gave to his Onegin translation, the rough hewn english versioning of the poem with endless notes, was N.'s way of resolving the contradiction which you don't think is there. Rather than translate, he wound up creating an English model of the poem and then essentially explained how it would work and what it would mean in Russian. In writing classes this is referred to as "telling" rather than "showing". In other words he arrived at a translational impasse, but he couldn't give the mirage up. It's an extraordinary existential dilemma, and no wonder then that this provided him with the structural and thematic machinery of his novel Pale Fire.  

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