|Me and the Capitol|
To my regret, no blogging has happened for a while - I have been lecturing and world travelling (if successive trips to Norway, Ireland, and Washington DC qualify as such), and my adventures left me very little time to write. But tonight I attended two unrelated and very disparate cultural events which sent me back to my keyboard.
The first was a talk by Oxford-based academic and translator Oliver Ready. Oliver is currently revising his forthcoming translation of Crime and Punishment, and he spoke to the Russian Graduate Seminar about his travails. Oliver's talk pointed up some general, almost philosophical issues faced by all translators as well as some Dostoevsky-specific problems. His title, for instance, 'Suddenly, Somehow, Even - On Retranslating Crime and Punishment', emphasized the misleadingly superfluous, apparently almost meaningless adverbial qualifiers and particles with which Dostoevsky scatters his prose. 'Dazhe', meaning 'even', is a favourite in Crime and Punishment; I seem to remember that 'davecha', 'just now', abounds throughout The Idiot. But do these words deserve translation, and, further, do they deserve a literal (equally meaningless) translation? Or should the translator choose to reduce and/or intensify them in order to achieve a more coherent paragraph? Similarly, should Dostoevsky's tendency to recycle different versions of the same verb, or cognates of the same root, in a single paragraph or sentence be reinforced or amended by the translator? And a very Russian conundrum - if different aspects of one verb are used in a single sentence, should they be translated by different verbs in English, or by different tenses of the same verb?
A general problem affecting nineteenth-century classics: whether the translation should provide matching 'vintage' style (as David McDuff apparently opted to do in his 1991 Penguin Classics translation, which has a consciously Dickensian, and therefore relatively verbose, tone) or whether it should be updated, risking anachronism. Oliver, to his credit, hasn't picked - yet - a single narrative tone for a novel that (he claims) still lacks a definitive English translation. Nor does he yet have final or consistent answers to the many specific translation problems that he posed. What he did offer, intriguingly, was a selection of choice passages from Crime and Punishment - followed by different translators' efforts to convey their meaning. This was a revealing and often amusing exercise. For instance, here's Razumikhin on 'lying like a horse':
- 'Ну, конечно, бабушкин сон рассказывает, врет как лошадь, потому я этого Душкина знаю’
- Garnett: ‘Of course, that's all taradiddle; he lies like a horse, for I know this Dushkin’
- Pevear/Volokhonsky: ‘Well, of course, that’s all his old granny’s dream, he’s lying like a rug’
- McDuff: ‘Well, of course, this was all a load of moonshine, he was lying like a horse’
- Oliver: ‘Well, this is all just an old woman’s dream, of course; he’s fibbing like a horse’.
The idiom of the mendacious equine sounds bizarre, and seems to lack precedents in either Russian or English; but as Oliver pointed out, the horse, whether truthful or not, is a central image in the novel (and certainly shouldn't be prematurely converted into a rug).
Perhaps one of the most important findings expressed in Oliver's talk was the significance of just such isolated words - such as 'delo', 'business' or 'matter', and 'konets', meaning 'end' - as markers of hidden purpose in the many-layered fabric of C and P. These recurring individual words, and their cognates, carry greater meaning than the rapid reader or the careless translator ever suspects. They betray the secret, unrealized obsessions of characters; their lexical shifts reflect psychological transitions, and they may point the way to ethical resolutions. Repetitiousness - one of Dostoevsky's most publicly criticized failings - may in fact be central to his moral and psychological message. Oliver retold the old Russian joke about this particular novel: 'Not to have read it is a crime, and reading it, is the punishment'. From what I've heard to date, I'm convinced that his new translation will take the punishment out of the sentence (if not yet out of the title).
My second cultural adventure of the day - a trip to the cinema to see a performance of John Hodge's new play The Collaborators, beamed in from the National Theatre - will have to wait for its own post. Don't bring impressionable young Bulgakov fans to see this play, however; they may throw stones.