Unreal Nature

April 30, 2009

The Russian Sense of Blueness

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:18 am

What makes this exchange of secret values possible is not only the mere contact between the words, but their exact position in regard both to the rhythm of the line and to one another.

Is that quote referring to genetics? For example, yesterday’s post:

… understanding chromosomal topography is absolutely essential to understanding the genome.

Or maybe it’s about the universal importance of structure in nature, from an even earlier post:

… there is one overriding message: shape, shape, shape. At every size, from atoms to cabledomes, we see that shapes can do things we could hardly have expected.

No. In this case, it’s from a 1941 essay, by Vladimir Nabokov, The Art of Translation, out of the archives at The New Republic. Here is the end of the piece:

… I have lately tried to translate several Russian poets who had either been badly disfigured by former attempts or who had never been translated at all. The English at my disposal is certainly thinner than my Russian; the difference being, in fact, that which exists between a semi-detached villa and a hereditary estate, between self-conscious comfort and habitual luxury. I am not satisfied therefore with the results attained, but my studies disclosed several rules that other writers might follow with profit.

I was confronted for instance with the following opening line of one of Pushkin’s most prodigious poems:

Yah pom-new chewed-no-yay mg-no-vain-yay

I have rendered the syllables by the nearest English sounds I could find; their mimetic disguise makes them look rather ugly; but never mind; the “chew” and the “vain” are associated phonetically with other Russian words meaning beautiful and important things, and the melody of the line with the plump, golden-ripe “chewed-no-yay” right in the middle and the “m’s” and “n’s” balancing each other on both sides, is to the Russian ear most exciting and soothing — a paradoxical combination that any artist will understand.

Now, if you take a dictionary and look up those four words you will obtain the following foolish, flat and familiar statement: “I remember a wonderful moment.” What is to be done with this bird you have shot down only to find that it is not a bird of paradise, but an escaped parrot, still screeching its idiotic message as it flaps on the ground? For no stretch of the imagination can persuade an English reader that “I remember a wonderful moment” is the perfect beginning of a perfect poem. The first thing I discovered was that the expression “a literal translation” is more or less nonsense. “Yah pom-new” is a deeper and smoother plunge into the past than “I remember,” which falls flat on its belly like an inexperienced diver; “chewed-no-yay” has a lovely Russian “monster” in it, and a whispered “listen,” and the dative ending of a “sunbeam,” and many other fair relations among Russian words. It belongs phonetically and mentally to a certain series of words, and this Russian series does not correspond to the English series in which “I remember” is found. And inversely, “remember,” though it clashes with the corresponding “pom-new” series, is connected with an English series of its own whenever real poets do use it. And the central word in Housman’s “What are those blue remembered hills?” becomes in Russian “vspom-neev-she-yesyah,” a horrible straggly thing, all humps and horns, which cannot fuse into any inner connection with “blue,” as it does so smoothly in English, because the Russian sense of blueness belongs to a different series than the Russian “remember” does.

This interrelation of words and non-correspondence of verbal series in different tongues suggest yet another rule, namely, that the three main words of the line draw one another out, and add something which none of them would have had separately or in any other combination. What makes this exchange of secret values possible is not only the mere contact between the words, but their exact position in regard both to the rhythm of the line and to one another. This must be taken into account by the translator.

Finally, there is the problem of the rhyme. “Mg-no-vainyay” has over two thousand Jack-in-the-box rhymes popping out at the slightest pressure, whereas I cannot think of one to “moment.” The position of “mg-no-vain-yay” at the end of the line is not negligible either, due as it is to Pushkin’s more or less consciously knowing that he would not have to hunt for its mate. But the position of “moment” in the English line implies no such security; on the contrary he would be a singularly reckless fellow who placed it there.

Thus I was confronted by that opening line, so full of Pushkin, so individual and harmonious; and after examining it gingerly from the various angles here suggested, I tackled it. The tackling process lasted the worst part of the night. I did translate it at last; but to give my version at this point might lead the reader to doubt that perfection be attainable by merely following a few perfect rules.

One further bit from earlier in the essay demands inclusion:

… Barring downright deceivers, mild imbeciles and impotent poets, there exist, roughly speaking, three types of translators — and this has nothing to do with my three categories of evil; or, rather, any of the three types may err in a similar way. These three are: the scholar who is eager to make the world appreciate the works of an obscure genius as much as he does himself; the well meaning hack; and the professional writer relaxing in the company of a foreign confrere. The scholar will be, I hope, exact and pedantic: footnotes — on the same page as the text and not tucked away at the end of the volume — can never be too copious and detailed. The laborious lady translating at the eleventh hour the eleventh volume of somebody’s collected works will be, I am afraid, less exact and less pedantic; but the point is not that the scholar commits fewer blunders than a drudge; the point is that as a rule both he and she are hopelessly devoid of any semblance of creative genius. Neither learning nor diligence can replace imagination and style.

Now comes the authentic poet who has the two last assets and who finds relaxation in translating a bit of Lermontov or Verlaine between writing poems of his own. Either he does not know the original language and calmly relies upon the so-called “literal” translation made for him by a far less brilliant but a little more learned person, or else, knowing the language, he lacks the scholar’s precision and the professional translator’s experience. The main drawback, however, in this case is the fact that the greater his individual talent, the more apt he will be to drown the foreign masterpiece under the sparkling ripples of his own personal style. Instead of dressing up like the real author, he dresses up the author as himself.

… “can never be too copious and detailed.” At least I have some idea of who to blame (aside from Felix).

I hope you’ll read the whole Nabokov essay especially the description of a brutal translation of Gogol, and translation tennis with a Poe poem. [ link ]

Translation of written texts from one language to another has always reminded me a bit of the necessary “translation” that happens when a viewer tries to parse what a painter or photographer intended in his pictures. (The difficulties of translation can also can be further generalized to issues in philosophy or neurology or, I don’t know, boogers and toast if you make an effort.)




  1. and then there is the translation from by the reader of what someone writes and what the reader thinks that person is trying to say which is probably not the same in any case….

    Comment by Dr. C. — April 30, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

  2. Go one step further — from “what that person is trying to say” to “what that person is able to [know and] say” and you’re well into philosophy’s territory.

    Comment by unrealnature — April 30, 2009 @ 7:27 pm

  3. Ooooh! By the flux of Heraclitus, I would nevere go there!

    Comment by Dr. C. — May 2, 2009 @ 9:35 pm

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