Further Reflections on Translators: vital but unappreciated

Constance Garnett
Constance Garnett

I was delighted at the good response to my most recent post re: the challenges translators face, the essentiality of their calling and, alas, their neglected status.

I took up as well the specific arduous skills necessary to literary translation, concluding with Edith Grossman’s telling reminder that the translator’s ultimate task in literary matters is to get readers to “perceive the text emotionally and artistically in a manner that parallels and corresponds to the esthetic experience of its first readers” (Why Translation Matters).

In regard to Grossman’s rejoinder, I want to bring up an illustration of what happens when translators fall down on the job, which may have happened with regard to Constance Garnett, who almost singularly put Russian literature on the map for English readers, translating 71 volumes of principal writers including Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Turgenev.

In doing so she merits high praise, for Russian, and I say this first hand, doesn’t come easily to most of us, even with linguistic acumen, given its heavy inflection, shifting stress, many exceptions, absence of cognitive vocabulary, and vast repertoire of idiom.

In the matter of style, she wrote an ornate Victorian prose.  While often eloquent, it doesn’t reflect the robust nature of the Russian vernacular, thus violating our fundamental axiom that translation achieve authenticity, or reenactment of the native text.  As I pointed out, this poses the ultimate translator challenge, requiring a translator to exercise a creative dexterity in her own right, and even more so in rendering poetry.  Done well, as Grossman does in her painstaking translations of Cervantes, it merits our highest praise and deserves far more accolades than it, sadly, receives.

Literary translation is fraught with the land mines of replaying rhythms, rhyme schemes, syllabication, and nuances. It’s no place for the faint-at-heart.

I grew up on Constance Garnett’s translations and am grateful for her opening the door for me to the golden age of Russian literature.  But then I was very young and didn’t know the way of superlative translation as its own creative enterprise, transcending the verbal and recreating the dynamism of the original.  I didn’t know how much I had still missed, for the reader’s link with a translator lies salient in trust, since few of us achieve such intimacy with a second language.  As such, translators become our filters into knowing.

We should listen carefully to Joseph Brodsky, emigre poet, and Nobel Laureate, in his admonition we approach Garnett cautiously:  “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” (Rachel May, The Translator in the Text: On Reading Russian Literature in English).  Often she would simply omit or treat difficult passages superficially, working quickly.

We should choose our translators carefully whenever we can, based on reputable sources, often scholarly.  In reading Russian literature I recommend the husband-and-wife couple Richard Pavear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  Both offer impeccable credentials and are recipients of the highly esteemed PEN Translation Prize for their interpretations of The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina.

The lot of the literary translator isn’t an easy one as The New Yorker reminds us:  “Poor Mrs. Garnett!  Translators suffer a thankless and uneasy afterlife…Translators are, for eternity, sent up, put down, nitpicked and, finally, overturned” (David Remick, “The Translation Wars,” November 7, 2005).

In closing, I would add another caveat:  Translation, even when done well, lends you this strange after taste, or belaboring; a sense of lingering nuance I may have missed or syntax I may have put better.  But then this is a good thing, too, indicating a conscientiousness intrinsic and defining of all good translation.

Do good.  Be well!


Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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