Friday, January 10, 2014

"To Trod On My Favorite Corn"

In Russia and apparently other European countries this expression is so commonplace as to have attained cliché status. Chekhov used it and in transit to English it reads, to strike a nerve. What a loss, say I. Not so, says the translator. Chekhov wrote it as a common figure of speech, not the rich expression I hear. Furthermore the Russian ear might be dazzled by having struck a nerve.

This is the trade-off of literary translation. Without it all but the English-speaking world would be bereft of Shakespeare and we would be deprived of Tolstoy, Flaubert or Borges. One wonders if all the virtuosity of the Bard has survived the leap across from that sceptered isle, that England.   

Of all interpreters of an art form none strive to go unnoticed like translators. Their task is to capture both the voice of the author and along with it the entire culture it comes out of.  And to do it without calling any attention to themselves or to stumble. Like an umpire at a ballgame crucial decisions are made hopefully without a whimper. Indeed they get scant mention and sometime no royalties.

In poetry translators need to preserve the sound or musicality. For plays they must find the most sayable phrases that roll off the tongue. And in novels they must capture the flourishes and jagged edge the author intended. No easy matter.  

I would make a terrible translator. I couldn’t resist trodding my favorite corn. I would argue that there is a significant difference between a theater piece to be heard and a sentence to be read; between the stage and the page. Chekhov wrote plays and short stories. In the case of the former the flow of dialog would be halted for an American audience but print media allows for an arresting phrase here and there. If the spontaneity suffers I believe it is  worth the sacrifice.

To take it a step further a translator might just reduce the trod corn to an, ouch, and let it go at that. Since Hemingway there is a move in literature toward brevity and the unadorned. Much contemporary poetry has become conversational as if authenticity requires a flat dumbing-down of language. There are traps on either side but I think readers' sensibilities can be stretched to take in the metaphor fresh to our anglo-centric ears.

Ironically, Hemingway credited Tolstoy and Turgenev for his terse writing style. Perhaps he wasn’t fully aware that he was not reading either Russian novelist. He was reading Constance Garnett’s translations which we now know had arbitrarily omitted long passages of descriptive writing and contracted others into short, clipped sentences which must have attracted Hemingway.  

Dostoyevsky’s convulsive style was leveled into a mowed English lawn. She blurred authorial choices so that some said Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky sounded the same. Garnett translated 71 volumes of Russian literature. Today many have been replaced by the Pevear and Volokhonsky, husband-wife team.

Cervantes complained that reading a translation was like looking at tapestries from behind. You can see the basic shapes but they are so filled with threads you cannot fathom the lustre. Would he have preferred the trod on a favorite corn or have a nerve struck?

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