Nabokov and Hofstadter on translation

Yesterday I mentioned Nabokov in a quote from Jonathan Lethem’s brilliant essay The Ecstasy of Influence, the relevant portion of which goes like so:

Consider this tale: a cultivated man of middle age looks back on the story of an amour fou, one beginning when, traveling abroad, he takes a room as a lodger. The moment he sees the daughter of the house, he is lost. She is a preteen, whose charms instantly enslave him. Heedless of her age, he becomes intimate with her. In the end she dies, and the narrator — marked by her forever — remains alone. The name of the girl supplies the title of the story: Lolita.

The author of the story I’ve described, Heinz von Lichberg, published his tale of Lolita in 1916, forty years before Vladimir Nabokov’s novel. Lichberg later became a prominent journalist in the Nazi era, and his youthful works faded from view. Did Nabokov, who remained in Berlin until 1937, adopt Lichberg’s tale consciously? Or did the earlier tale exist for Nabokov as a hidden, unacknowledged memory? The history of literature is not without examples of this phenomenon, called cryptomnesia. Another hypothesis is that Nabokov, knowing Lichberg’s tale perfectly well, had set himself to that art of quotation that Thomas Mann, himself a master of it, called “higher cribbing.” Literature has always been a crucible in which familiar themes are continually recast. Little of what we admire in Nabokov’s Lolita is to be found in its predecessor; the former is in no way deducible from the latter. Still: did Nabokov consciously borrow and quote?

The essay is absolutely fantastic, which is why yesterday’s post ran to slightly under 2,200 words, but anyway it gave me an excuse to talk about (and longform-quote) Nabokov’s own essay on translation. There’s something spine-tingling about reading a master describing his craft, especially when he’s publicly stated outright that the aim of said craft is essentially an unattainable ideal. That Nabokov refuses to play the status-preserving game of signaling false modesty (which happens a lot in e.g. academia, although it doesn’t mean he didn’t care for the status game at all) makes his writing all the more, how do I say this, alive.

Nabokov begins thus:

Three grades of evil can be discerned in the queer world of verbal transmigration. The first, and lesser one, comprises obvious errors due to ignorance or misguided knowledge. This is mere human frailty and thus excusable. The next step to Hell is taken by the translator who intentionally skips words or passages that he does not bother to understand or that might seem obscure or obscene to vaguely imagined readers; he accepts the blank look that his dictionary gives him without any qualms; or subjects scholarship to primness: he is as ready to know less than the author as he is to think he knows better. The third, and worst, degree of turpitude is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public. This is a crime, to be punished by the stocks as plagiarists were in the shoebuckle days.

He continues with a detailed breakdown of the aforesaid categories which you really should read for yourself, but in the interest of brevity let’s go on with what he has to say about translators:

Barring downright deceivers, mild imbeciles and impotent poets, there exist, roughly speaking, three types of translatorsand 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: footnoteson the same page as the text and not tucked away at the end of the volumecan 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.

This is what he has to say about what would be required of a translator “in order to be able to give an ideal version of a foreign masterpiece”:

First of all he must have as much talent, or at least the same kind of talent, as the author he chooses. In this, though only in this, respect Baudelaire and Poe or Joukovsky and Schiller made ideal playmates. Second, he must know thoroughly the two nations and the two languages involved and be perfectly acquainted with all details relating to his author’s manner and methods; also, with the social background of words, their fashions, history and period associations. This leads to the third point: while having genius and knowledge he must possess the gift of mimicry and be able to act, as it were, the real author’s part by impersonating his tricks of demeanor and speech, his ways and his mind, with the utmost degree of verisimilitude.

As I’ve said, he certainly does not lack for self-confidence:

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.

The rest of the essay concerns an impressively comprehensive outline of his analysis concerning the translation of a single opening line from one of Pushkin’s “most prodigious poems”. It’s worth reading for that alone.

Writing this, I was reminded of another thinker of note who attained fame in a completely different field, who also detailed the “strengths, failings, and beauty of translation” (as per Wikipedia) in a book he considers one of his best, although not everyone agrees. Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton beau de Marot is a quirkily beautiful read that explores most of the same themes he introduced in his now-legendary Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid and later I Am A Strange Loop, couched in his efforts to translate a single 28-line get-well poem penned nearly five hundred years ago in the fall of 1537 by French poet Clement Marot to a child confined to bed of illness.

I thought I’d end this post with an Amazon review by a A Customer, who gave Le Ton Beau de Marot 3 stars:

“Dearest Doug,
Please don’t bug
Us with rhyme
One more time.
Reading through
Poems built on
“Ma Mignonne”
Is real tough.
Nuff’s enough!
And no line
For Will Quine
When you ask
If the task
To create
A translate
Can be done?
It’s no fun,
Also rude,
To conclude
Douglas Hof-
Stadter’s off
Of his game.
All the same,
We can see
This is not.
Thanks a lot!”


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