Maurice Couturier writes: I am currently doing a new translation of "Pnin" for the Pléiade and often feel that Nabokov is torturing me from wherever he is. I had never had this impression in my previous translations ("Lolita" and the screenplay, "Glory", two volumes of short stories and "The original of Laura", not counting seven books by David Lodge). The language itself, more convoluted and less pure perhaps than in Nabokov's other novels written in English, compels the translator to juggle with both syntax and vocabulary in an unprecedented way. Remember what Nabokov himself said about the difficulty of translating from English into French; but, here, there is something else. I don't know if Gene, Dieter and the other colleagues who translated this novel experienced the same thing; I'd appreciate their comments. I am also beginning to change my appreciation of this novel. I have written about Nabokov's brand of sadism elsewhere; I almost feel it in my bones as I am translating "Pnin" and it makes me uncomfortable at times.// I thought I admired this novel a lot, but I am beginning to wonder if I hadn't misread it. Am I an exception?
Barrie Karp sends: http://harpers.org/blog/2015/12/mission-impossible/
December 9, 2015, 1:21 pm Mission Impossible The perils of translating Primo Levi by “Years ago, browsing in a Roman bookstore, I bought an Italian translation ofLolita, bound in green pleather. It seemed, as I flipped through it, like a pretty decent job, capturing at least some of the author’s suavity and syntactical brio. Then I came to the scene where the inept, pistol-packing narrator finally hits Clare Quilty with a bullet, and his victim leaps from his chair like (as Nabokov originally put it) “old, gray, mad Nijinski, like Old Faithful.” The translator got the basics down just fine—but in a footnote, he helpfully elucidated the meaning of Old Faithful for his Italian readers: “A name used by Americans for a certain type of airplane.” // I bring this up not to ridicule the translator, who certainly had his work cut out for him. What I mean to stress is that translation is a perfectionist’s nightmare—a process almost diabolically engineered to generate mistakes. Translators have too much to do at once. They are literalists, chained to the dictionary, and poets, slipping the shackles of exactitude at every opportunity. They are dual nationals of a kind, declaring their loyalty to one language while treacherously dallying with another. They transport the biggest possible things—meaning, feeling, art, ethics—in the smallest possible containers, and inevitably there is some spillage along the way[ ] I have had many of those claustrophobic, tongue-tied moments myself—when the English words seem to float just tantalizingly out of reach.”
Jansy Mello: Two postings relating to the “mission impossible” of translation have reached us in close proximity. Maurice Couturier’s queries touched me to the heart. Although I’m familiar with Nabokovian “sadism” towards readers and also intensely pursued in most of his plots (a character’s cruelty towards another, the cruelty of the world against his creatures, aso), or his defense of dom Quixote under the treatment given to him by Cervantes… it never occurred to me to notice his sadism towards his future translators. There were moments of mocking defiance, sure, mostly involving or addressing himself as a translator (the one that now pops to my mind is “mountain/fountain” in PF). However, M. Couturier, referring to Pnin, and to his more intimate experience of words and syntax, notes: “here, there is something else.” (“I almost feel it in my bones as I am translating ‘Pnin’.”). His puzzlement invited me to probe my memory about what other VN novels have left an indelible cruel mark on me and why this had never spoilt my contact with “Pnin.” Well, as amateur Nabokovian I have effective mechanisms of defense (denial, repression, idealization…) that manage to erase most of these marks, since the “otherworldly” bliss which I obtain from VN’s simplest sentences is what I desire for keeps: professionals, such as M.Couturier, cannot indulge in that luxury! I can only thank him for his courage to feel and question his disappointments ( I know this is an understatement) while he continues to toil with VN’s pain and emotional traps.