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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Translation Wars. Once More Into the Breach Edition.

Posted by Lawrence LaRiviere White on 04/16/08 at 11:48 AM

Here’s the promised follow up. To start, a confession.  Master & Margarita is one of my favorite novels. Or should I say, the Mirra Ginsburg translation of it is. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s romantic, it’s historic. & it’s about religion, about politics, and of course it’s about show business. As everyone knows, the best musicals are about making a musical.

Imagine then my disenchantment when one day I’m visiting a friend & he has a copy of the new Penguin Master & Margarita & he tells me, “This is the famous new translation. All other translations of the book were lame.” Here this book had been so close to my heart, & it turns out I never knew it at all. Worse than that, I read some of the Pevear & Volokhonsky, and I didn’t like it. It felt clunky. It didn’t have the snap of Ginsburg’s prose. But if the P/V is the real thing, that meant that the Bulgakov was clunky, & what I had loved was just some put-up job.

Then I read Bill’s post, or rather John Emerson’s comment, or rather John E.’s links to Language Hat, & it seemed maybe it my original enchantment was okay. & I also learned something about translation, or rather I found a nice expression that matched an unexpressed thought I’d had.

First, but in the second link John E. posted, there is further evidence that Sam Tanenhaus isn’t my favorite person, & I’m bitter & petty enough to enjoy such stuff.  Second, but more important, I learned I’m not the only one who thought the Pevear & Volokhonsky was uneven, to say the least. On another Language Hat post, a commenter, MAB, who seems to be an M. Berdi, working in Russian & Russia, but any more than that I can’t say, because I have no Russian, which as is been pointed out in the linked comment threads, seriously debilitates one’s ability to judge translations, describes the couple’s work:

Argh. Had to chime in. The P/V translations don’t give any sense of the original Russian. They aren’t “literal”; they are a mish-mash of styles, epochs, approaches; filled with mistakes in understanding the Russian and appalling English. “The Great Ball at Satan’s” is awful; it sounds like a ball at a dive like Joe’s or Sam’s and as a title has nothing in common with the original Russian. It doesn’t even make sense in the context of the book.

The particular phrase in question here is from M & M, and denotes a party being held in Moscow in the story. Ginsburg uses “Satan’s Great Ball.” The problem with the P/V is that the party gets held in different locations, kind of like a floating craps game. The problem with “at Satan’s” is that Satan doesn’t own the premises. He’s kind of renting them for the night. So that’s at least one infelicity.

Of course I can’t say whether the P/V corresponds overall to the original, but I can say it does feel like a mishmash. & Bulgakov doesn’t strike me as a mishmash stylist. He strikes me as a raconteur, a story-teller, yarn spinner, what have you. Since I stopped working student-type jobs, I run across few of these people, & when it comes to novels, there are few writers who are capturing the verbal quality.

Some commenters on the previous LangHat post linked to attribute the mishmashiness to a recurrent literalness in the P/V translations, that would be, phrases that match the denotation of the original, but completely miss the connotations. In the first link someone suggests that the P/V mishmash is a deliberate stylistic strategy:

From the way they work (if the description is accurate) over literalness will be inevitable unless his Russian was very, very fluent, which I gather it isn’t. The hypothesis has also been made that their reputed (over)literalness (I can’t judge first hand of course) is a deliberate strategy to ‘exoticize’ the text - to make it read as if it were written by a Russian in English, fluent but not always idiomatic.

If this is what they want to do, I can respect their choice. It is an interesting approach to take to the text. But it doesn’t seem to be what you’d want to do with something aspiring to be the standard edition. In the second post John E. links to, MAB puts his cards on the table & comes up with a rationale that makes more sense to me. In the comment, “it” refers to an essay he & a partner have written, unfortunately for me in Russian:

I think it makes clear what we DO want from a translation, which is to give readers in another language and culture as close to the same experience of reading a work as the readers had/have in the original language and culture. That means, in part, that where a text reads easily in Russian (no marked words, no coinages), it should also read smoothly in English. When the Russian is marked in some way (differentiating peasant from aristocratic speech, or coined words, or an unusual image or choice of words), you want it marked in English. We want the reader to understand what is “standard Russian literary language” or “standard conversational language” and what is unusual—what the author’s voice is. By these criteria (and others) we found the P/V translations lacking. I read along the English for a half paragraph, or page, or sometimes even a page or two with no problem—and then WHAM, it’s like hitting a speed bump. There is a literalism, or disconcerting syntax, or a speech by someone that just does not sound like English. Or a howler.

Tastes differ and definitions of what a “good translation” also differ. By our definition Garnett isn’t always great, but at least she is consistent, while P/V are not—in one place they are literal, in another place they are creative, some place else the language is archaic and then in the next sentence or phrase it’s too modern. Or, in their Chekhov collection they give the title of a story as the (British style) Death of a Clerk, who is identified in the first sentence as an American-style office manager, sitting in British stalls, with reference a few lines down to Russian privy councillors and then a general who works in an American-style Department of Transportation. This is just plain sloppy. And hard to read….

I suppose we wouldn’t have felt the need to point this out if these were just “some new translations.” New translations come out all the time, and some are okay, some are quite good, and some aren’t very good. But these are touted as the “best.” P/V talk about how they work and their goals, why their translations are better than previous ones. And they win awards. So our questions were: Are they really the best? Do they do what they say they are going to do? Our answer is: No.

What MAB is looking for in a translation is what I generally look for in novels, what has been called “the grain of the voice.” It’s not the only thing I read for. But a narrator with an attractive voice enchants me. & narrators whose voices I can’t place put me off or make me uneasy. Hawthorne, for example. (& I know this is my problem. It’s in no way a judgment of literary quality or what makes a great novel.) In my post 1,000 years ago about Terry Southern, I was trying to describe this phenomenon. Most writers who get identified as stylists are flashy & obvious. For example, Henry James. But it seems to me there’s a kind of Modernist-ish, Strunk & White-ish efficient, verbally fluent style that’s harder to notice in terms of effect. Ginsburg’s translation seems to be within this tradition.

MAB’s formula for a good translation calls for fidelity to the grain of the voice. Garnett & Ginsburg, because their translations convey a consistent narrative grain, convey a sense of fidelity. I get a sense of a single person telling me a story & telling it well. Perhaps their consistency is a distortion. But I’ll never know.


A colleague reported once assigning a play in translation to a literature class. There weren’t six translations to choose from for the college bookstore. Imagine everyone’s surprise and consternation when a native speaker of the original language revealed to the class that the ending had been changed by the translator!

Now you’d think such a thing would be discovered by the publisher before printing, perhaps?

Don’t count on it.

Another mistake pointed out to me was in a passage on homosexuality, where the gender of the word “poste” was reversed by the translator, yielding “the first post office was on the back of a friend”.

Translation seldom pays enough to have such errors caught. But we rarely realize their existence unless the stream of meaning breaks down—and even then....

My practice has been to find a colleague in the department which teaches the language of the book and get a pre-read of the translation. And I’ve usually had him/her as a guest in my class for some discussion. In my opinion, it’s the only way to go....

By on 04/16/08 at 01:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But these are touted as the “best.” — Don’t that say it all? I also found Ginzburg’s M&M favorite-making; the next translation’s selling point was that it was based on the “uncensored” text (I didn’t buy it), then came P/V (pass), now even newer and improveder stuff out there. (Nabokov meanwhile complains that there’s no good rendering of Bely’s Petersburg ... me, I got plenty of other Russian Lit to catch up on.) How many M&M colorations do we need?

I just don’t think that one approach fits all cases. P/V seem V/G coinage with Dusty; I thought their Tolstoy (Anna Karenina) better than their Gogol. What I’ve seen of Garnett struck me as tedious, almost as tedious as Smollett’s Don Quixote, though not quite as old-fashioned; what’s it’s being translated into is a dated conception of literarity (which may work for similarly dated stuff, especially if you’re into historical interest). But what do I know? I don’t speak the language, if I did I wouldn’t be fluent enough to appreciate the finer points, and I didn’t live back then either.

I’ve recently seeded a thread on this in a newly laid garden, but such a perennial seems slow to break ground ... nonetheless I’m not cutting and pasting here, it’s a different discussion, whatever the shared aspects.

Sam Tanenhaus isn’t my favorite person, & I’m bitter & petty enough to enjoy such stuff. — requiem for a featherweight?

By nnyhav on 04/16/08 at 03:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Don’t you mean Mirra Ginsburg?

By on 04/16/08 at 04:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Don’t you mean Mirra Ginsburg? Why yes, I do! Fixed. Thank you. Featherweight indeed.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 04/16/08 at 04:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Pevear & Volokhonsky’s translations are awful travesties of the original Russian meaning and nuance. They succeed by virtue of seeming “weird” where the original text uses a completely commonplace idiom, or, vice versa, missing something unique to the writer’s style and replacing it with a pedestrian cliche. Readers who have no Russian think the “clunkiness” of the translation is a window to the original writer’s peculiar style and idiom. Unfortunately, they’re being deceived. The clunkiness is almost always the invention of the translators. The issue isn’t whether the original was “smooth” or not; it’s that it wasn’t smooth in ways entirely different than those ignorantly made-up by this team.

I’m sorry if these words seem too strong; I have strong opinions on the issue. Any native speaker of Russian who appreciates the original texts and knows English well enough will find it painful to read the original and P&V’s translation side-by-side. I tried to do that in 2003 and briefly reviewed their translation of Bulgakov in my blog (in Russian).

The examples cited in that blogpost and comments show that time and again P&V use a literal translation of an idiom or a common expression, resulting in a weird English phrase or a weird syntax that both obscures the original meaning, and makes the sentence stand out gratuitously, giving the reader some of that desired “clunkiness”.

E.g. when Bulgakov speaks of “нечистые силы” (nechistye sily), a traditional, entirely commonplace Russian expression for demons or evil spirits, he’s not introducing an interesting new metaphor. Now “нечистые силы” is literally “unclean powers”, but even saying that is a bit of a stretch, as the word “unclean”, “нечистые”, has over the centuries become synonymous with “demonic” in any religious/mystical context, so much so that there’s a noun back-formed from it, нечисть, referring solely to all the forces of evil as a collective noun. Arguably, then, even a strictly literal translation of “нечистые силы” should be “demonic powers” rather than P&V’s “unclean powers”, which is simply weird, confusing, unidiomatic where the original text, *on that particular occassion*, is completely idiomatic.

A more systemic example is their consistent use of “here” where the original text is saying “then”. E.g. “Here the second oddity occurred, touching Berlioz alone”. Russian has two words for “here”, “здесь” (zdes’) and “тут” (toot); they are entirely synonymous in that role, but “тут” can also be used to link sentences describing events occurring one right after the other, that is, a sentence that starts with “тут” is analogous to an English sentence that starts with “then” in a similar role - and there’s nothing spatial about this use of “тут”. When P&V consistently translate “тут” in the meaning of “then” as “here”, it’s a gaffe that produces sentences that seem a bit weird or jarring (especially after many repetitions of this “here"), while there was nothing weird or jarring in the original syntax.

These are just two random examples out of a dozen that one could find on any given page. It’s the principle of the thing rather than an exception. P&V seem to start with a completely literal word-by-word translation by Volokhonsky, one that doesn’t even preserve common idioms; it is then perhaps edited into shape by going after some clunkiness here and some inventiveness there, in total ignorance of what’s interesting or unique about the original author’s style or idiom. The examples from their more recent translations cited in the discussion on Tanenhaus’ blog confirm that things haven’t changed.

By Anatoly on 04/16/08 at 07:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I can’t read Russian, so I can’t judge how faithful P/V are to Bulgakov. But I read P/V recently, and it may just be my dullness, but I didn’t notice any clunkiness.

Anatoly: In English, too, “here” can be used to link sentences describing events that occur one right after the other, with no spatial connotations. And “unclean” is used to mean “evil” in religious/mystical contexts in English as well, although the exact phrase “unclean powers” is new to me.

nnyhav: Why do you put “uncensored” in quotation marks? Ginsburg’s translation was based upon the first Russian publication of The Master and Margarita, which indeed had been censored. (That was the only text available at that time.) And the censorship is significant: not only was one entire chapter removed, but some of the smaller passages that were cut out were important to the book.

(And what did you mean by “P/V seem V/G coinage with Dusty”?)

By Adam Stephanides on 04/19/08 at 10:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

[2nd retry] Scarequotes for uncensored was to highlight marketing ploy. I thought Gin[s/z]burg a V/G (very good, in numismatic circles) rendering (even if clipped; and I too read only in translation). I will read M&M again, in full this time, but in which translation? For that matter, which War & Peace now?

There are translators who have my unqualified trust, e.g. William Weaver, Barbara Wright: they’re a hallmark of something worth reading. I just haven’t reached that point with Pevear & Volokhonsky.

By nnyhav on 04/21/08 at 02:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

FWIW, there were a number of Language Log commenters who seemed to think P/V was strong w/Tolstoy & Dostoevsky, weak with Gogol & Bulgakov.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 04/21/08 at 03:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A few people I know recommended Burgin and O’Connor’s M&M - I haven’t read it myself, but since it wasn’t mentioned so far…

By Anatoly on 04/21/08 at 03:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The Glenny translation, which was the first translation of the uncensored text, is generally considered to not be very good, as far as I’m aware. That leaves P/V and Burgin/O’Connor, I believe.

By Adam Stephanides on 04/21/08 at 06:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I first read Burgin and O’Connor’s translation and still find it the best.

By on 06/24/08 at 02:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I read the Ginsberg translation first and it did not resonate with me.

It was the Burgin and O’Connor version that really moved me. I’ve re-read this translation several times and think it is amazing. The notes are incredibly helpful as well and very valuable for the non-Russian reader I think—especially if taken as a starting point to learn more about the politics and history of Soviet Russia.

B&O seem to express the feel of the words but also the nuances of structure that Bulgakov must have intended—the purposeful contradictions and the subtle way that language in different parts of the book mirrors other sections. And also the humor! To me this makes the translation feel right, as if I’m actually understanding the authors intent not just in the words but also hidden beneath the words.

Even if they’ve got it only half right at best, I’m grateful for at least a glimpse of what the experience must be like to read this in the original Russian. I can only imagine what the experience must be like with all of the cultural and historical knowledge that someone native to not only the language but the culture would bring to the book.

By Johnny on 10/18/08 at 01:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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