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Particular language, universal satire

January 9, 2012

While I was away, Russian Dinosaur put up two of my favorite kinds of posts: a zoomed-in discussion of Andrew Bromfield’s evidently very good translation of the Strugatskii brothers’ Monday Starts on Saturday (1964) and a review of a new production of a greatly revised The Inspector General.

I obviously can’t say much useful about a production I’ve never seen, but RD gets into two issues I personally find fascinating. First, there’s the question of translating a sociolinguistically marked voice into a language and cultural context with different well-known voices to choose from. It changes things quite a bit when you translate a nineteenth-century Russian peasant voice into the language of nineteenth-century slaves in American literature of the time, or if someone from the 1950s Soviet intelligentsia comes out sounding like a Boston Brahmin or a P. G. Wodehouse English aristocrat or a Ngaio Marsh English aristocrat. But there is no stereotypical way for a muzhik or intelligent to sound in English, and if you translate their evocative speech into a cautious and precise English that evokes nothing at all, you’ve hurt a novel or ruined a play. In the play RD talks about, Roddy Doyle converts the Russian spoken by Gogol’s characters into a vividly Irish sort of English, and everyone should click over to see examples.

Nozdrev from Dead Souls: unique and vividly Russian; also "Mr. Braggart" from anywhere

The second issue I can’t resist is the possibility of sliding up and down the universal-to-particular scale in different versions of one work, and especially of one satire.* Russian Dinosaur (all right, “RD” is confusing here) thinks that Roddy Doyle ends up in a dissatisfying no-man’s-land between the universality of Gogol’s text and a fully particularized satire on current Irish affairs. His Inspector General is specific enough to lose universality but not enough to give the passing pleasures of topical jokes and invective. It seems to me that writers (revisors?) can also fly too close to the Sun of Universality and end up with the bloodless types of a boring Enlightenment novel. To be a Juvenal, a Molière, a Gogol, you have to create characters that aren’t tied to one set of circumstances but can be tied to any – the ideal is a play that, performed in Ireland in 2011, is a clear reference to particular Irish politicians, but would have alluded just as clearly to different English politicians if it had been performed in London in 1850. Or, if you thought about it again, not to politicians but to people you know. Or even you.

* I think that if you use “satire” in a broad sense, it works for The Inspector General well enough, even if Gogol is exploring strange sides of human nature and not making a simple point about politics.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 9, 2012 9:55 pm

    Thanks again for reading and discussing my blog, XIX век – and welcome back! I’ve missed your always-intriguing meditations. Incidentally, I have just returned from AATSEEL, where I met many interesting scholars and translators (and where I actually went to every single panel I was morally obliged to attend, despite the temptations of Mt Rainier, Space Needles, etc); I’ll be blogging a conference review in the near future. I hope you’ll find it interesting.

  2. January 9, 2012 10:41 pm

    I look forward to it! The last time I missed AATSEEL it would never have occurred to me that I might read about it on a blog. Your diligence going to panels is sure to be our gain. I hope you had time to enjoy the trip once your obligations were over!

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