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Translators’ two temptations

May 23, 2012

Justin Doherty on translating Gaito Gazdanov:

Then, second, there is the problem of Gazdanov’s rambly long sentences: what is at stake here is the thematic and even philosophical importance of the sentence in this work, as Gazdanov’s narrator gropes around for meaning and ways of connecting his experiences of the world and responses to them into some kind of sense. You have to keep in mind as well that these sentences are not actually modeled on the elegant and elusive style cultivated by Marcel Proust, rather they stretch and almost break syntactic tolerance and threaten a complete loss of control (maybe the influence of surrealism is what one should be looking for here, rather than Proust). My feeling as translator is that one has to follow Gazdanov as best one can: you are of course inviting criticism for being too eager to imitate Russian sentence-structure and abuse of the norms of English literary style, but this decision is the opposite of intellectual laziness – indeed, nothing is more tempting for the translator than to sort ‘bad’ sentences out and put them into some kind of proper, elegant and stylish order, but, to reference Sartre once again, this would be ‘bad faith’ on the part of the translator and what was lost would be infinitely greater than anything that might be gained.

Perhaps this goes without saying, but surely there is some third way other than

1) “to follow Gazdanov” if this means sticking to Russian norms (or Gazdanov’s violations of those particular norms) of word order, syntactic structure, and sentence length in English, or

2) to put “‘bad’ sentences” into “proper, elegant, and stylish order.”

There ought to be possibilities neither flatten the style into an elegance like any other nor sound ten times as odd in English as they did in Russian. If someone writing in Russian actually did model their style on Proust, they wouldn’t need to imitate French sentence structure in a way that abused the norms of Russian literary style; they’d want to find a departure from Russian literary style that was analogous to Proust’s differences from conventional French style, analogous in that it produced the same “elegant and elusive” impression in the minds of native readers.

I suspect none of this is news to JD and I’ll be impressed with his resolution of the problem in practice as soon as I read Night Roads and his translation of it. Writing this blog I’m discovering that my opinions about translation are stronger than my knowledge of translation theory or practice could justify, and I’d be glad to hear other opinions from anyone who finds mine off-base.

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