Translation Wars ...
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The Translation Wars
How the race to translate Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky continues to spark feuds, end friendships, and create small fortunes.
by David Remnick
In the early seventies, two young playwrights, Christopher Durang and Albert Innaurato, collaborated on a satire about nineteenth-century Russian literature called “The Idiots Karamazov.” In their liberal interpretation of Dostoyevsky, Father Zosima is a gay foot fetishist. Which causes the angelic monk Alyosha to wonder, “How can there be a God if there are feet?” The main character is based not on any figure in Dostoyevsky but, rather, on his first and most enduring English-language translator, a woman of Victorian energies and Edwardian prose, Mrs. Constance Garnett.
In the first production of “The Idiots Karamazov,” at the Yale Repertory Theatre, Garnett was played by a student at the drama school named Meryl Streep, who portrayed the aged “translatrix” as a muddled loon. The mangling of the translator’s craft is a main plot point. The Russian for “hysterical homosexual,” Mrs. Garnett insists, is “Tchaikovsky.” When she recalls for the audience the arduous process of translating “Karamazov,” she confuses the four brothers with the “Three Sisters,” a stumble that leads inevitably to the musical number “O We Gotta Get to Moscow!” Mrs. Garnett closes the proceedings by reciting a conjugation of the verb “to Karamazov.”
Poor Mrs. Garnett! Translators suffer a thankless and uneasy afterlife. (Or they never get that far: until the King James commission, English translators of the Bible were sometimes burned at the stake or strangled—or, as in the case of William York Tyndale, both.) Translators are, for eternity, sent up, put down, nitpicked, and, finally, overturned. The objects of their attentions dread their ministrations. Cervantes complained that reading a translation was “like looking at the Flanders tapestries from behind: you can see the basic shapes but they are so filled with threads that you cannot fathom their original lustre.” And yet they persevere: here comes Edith Grossman, four centuries later, quixotically encountering the Don and his Sancho on behalf of a new generation of English readers.
Without translators, we are left adrift on our various linguistic ice floes, only faintly hearing rumors of masterpieces elsewhere at sea. So most English-speaking readers glimpse Homer through the filter of Fitzgerald or Fagles, Dante through Sinclair or Singleton or the Hollanders, Proust through Moncrieff or Davis, García Márquez through Gregory Rabassa—and nearly every Russian through Constance Garnett.
As a literary achievement, Garnett’s may have been of the second order, but it was vast. With her pale, watery eyes, her gray hair in a chignon, she was the genteel face of tireless industry. She translated seventy volumes of Russian prose for commercial publication, including all of Dostoyevsky’s novels; hundreds of Chekhov’s stories and two volumes of his plays; all of Turgenev’s principal works and nearly all of Tolstoy’s; and selected texts by Herzen, Goncharov, and Ostrovsky. A friend of Garnett’s, D. H. Lawrence, was in awe of her matter-of-fact endurance, recalling her “sitting out in the garden turning out reams of her marvelous translations from the Russian. She would finish a page, and throw it off on a pile on the floor without looking up, and start a new page. That pile would be this high—really, almost up to her knees, and all magical.”
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Among the most astringent and authoritative critics of Garnett were Russian exiles, especially Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Brodsky. Nabokov, the son of a liberal noble who was assassinated at a political conference, left Russia in 1919. He lived in Europe until 1940, when he came to the United States. In “Lectures on Russian Literature,” there is a facsimile of the opening pages of his teaching copy of the Garnett “Anna Karenina.” On the blank left-hand page, Nabokov has written a quotation from Conrad, who told Garnett’s husband, Edward, “Remember me affectionately to your wife, whose translation of Karenina is splendid. Of the thing itself I think but little, so that her merit shines with greater lustre.” Angrily, Nabokov scrawls, “I shall never forgive Conrad this crack”—he ranks Tolstoy at the top of all Russian prose writers and “Anna” as his masterpiece—and pronounces Garnett’s translation “a complete disaster.” Brodsky agreed; he once said, “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.”
Garnett’s flaws were not the figment of a native speaker’s snobbery. She worked with such speed, with such an eye toward the finish line, that when she came across a word or a phrase that she couldn’t make sense of she would skip it and move on. Life is short, “The Idiot” long. Garnett is often wooden in her renderings, sometimes unequal to certain verbal motifs and particularly long and complicated sentences. The typescripts of Nabokov’s lectures, which he delivered while teaching undergraduates at Wellesley and Cornell, are full of anti-Garnett vitriol; his margins are a congeries of pencilled exclamations and crabby demurrals on where she had “messed up.” For example, where a passage in the Garnett of “Anna” reads, “Holding his head bent down before him,” Nabokov triumphantly notes, “Mark that Mrs. Garnett has decapitated the man.” When Nabokov was working on a study of Gogol, he complained, “I have lost a week already translating passages I need in ‘The Inspector General’ as I can do nothing with Constance Garnett’s dry shit.”
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