October 27, 2007

Reading Translations

Interesting Newsweek piece about recent translations of Tolstoy's War and Peace:
The miracle is that somehow "War and Peace" has survived all cultural climate changes and continues to find readers—there are at least four different translations currently in print. The irony is that it does this almost in spite of its translators. The best-known was done by Constance Garnett in 1904. Garnett was a woman in a hurry—she translated some 70 Russian books into English—but what she gained in speed, she lost in subtlety. Her version of "War and Peace" isn't bad, but it's not exactly Tolstoy either. It has a sort of one–size-fits-all quality. (Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel Prize-winning Russian poet, said that English-speaking readers couldn't tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky because they'd hadn't been reading their prose, they'd been reading Garnett's.) Only two years ago, a new translation appeared by an Englishman, Anthony Briggs. This version is brisk and efficient—two words no one ever applied to Tolstoy—but the characters, particularly the servants and soldiers from the ranks, talk as if they'd just wandered in from a Dickens novel.

Good translation is something like what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about obscenity: he couldn't define it, but he knew it when he saw it. When you read T. E. Lawrence's translation of the Odyssey or even the fragment of the Aeneid that Seamus Heaney has produced, you see, as if for the first time, the potency of these works. But if agreeing on the criteria for a great translation has proved impossible, that has never stopped people from debating what constitutes a good one, or about whether it is an art or a craft, or about the possibility—or impossibility—of ever truly rendering one language's reality into another tongue. In any case, it is hard not to feel sympathy for Tolstoy's translators, even the bad ones. They have their work cut out for them.
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Pevear points out that Tolstoy constantly uses words and phrases in odd combinations, such as when he describes the "transparent" sound of horses' hooves on a wooden bridge or when he writes that "drops dripped" from the leaves of trees. The temptation is always, when translating, to make things make sense, to smooth things out. But then it isn't Tolstoy. There were as well all the "hunting terms, terms for the specific colors of horses' coats, for the shapes of dogs' paws, for the gait of a wolf being pursued. Russian has its own rich and inventive vocabulary for these things, for which there are often no equivalents in English," Pevear says.

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