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An act of pure generosity

August 3, 2013

That’s what Anatoly Liberman calls translation: “an encounter with something beautiful, powerful that one is compelled to share with those who cannot access it in the original.” In June a lot of Russian-to-English translators had a “coven” at Oxford, including Peter France, Boris Dralyuk, Stephen Pearl, Oliver Ready, Rosamund Bartlett, Robert Chandler, Catriona Kelly, Alan Shaw, and Lisa Hayden. You can read all about it at Lizok’s Bookshelf or in this superb 16-page .pdf writeup (with photos) by Dralyuk and Ready.

There was some nice practical discussion about not just whether but how to preserve repetitions. Here’s Lizok:

Rosamund Bartlett spoke about her work on Anna Karenina, offering very practical bits on topics like Tolstoy’s use of repetition, which she sometimes preserves and sometimes does not, depending on shades of meaning, the value of switching word order in exceptionally long sentences, and the vexing question of feminine surnames. I also appreciated Oliver [Ready]’s account of spending about five years translating Crime and Punishment, which he wrote out by hand; Oliver, too, mentioned repetition, saying he kept a glossary so he could preserve repetition, as appropriate.

And the same from Dralyuk’s angle:

One of the first translators to work with the canonical 1970 ‘Literaturnye Pamiatniki’ text of the novel, Bartlett provided a quantitative analysis of the repetition of certain words, such as ‘dusha’, ‘veselyi’, and ‘volnenie’, each of which occur over a hundred times. The repetition of these words is unlikely to be a matter of carelessness on Tolstoy’s part; but, Bartlett argues, English works differently, expressing ‘shades of meaning in very precise words’ – and so Bartlett decided to diversify her word choice.

I wish the other quantitative part – over a hundred times, compared to what expected number in a text that long, of this type, from that period? – had made it into the summary, but this “very precise words” idea is making me think. I’ve heard the same about Greek (precise words) versus Latin (words with broad or multiple meanings). I never noticed any troubling imprecision as an English speaker learning Russian, but these things could be hard to measure or observe and still be real, or real with qualifications.

I also learned how Alexandra Berlina deals with Brodsky’s puns, learned that Liberman used to translate from Icelandic to Russian; that Pearl, to me a translator of Oblomov, was also Chief of English Interpretation at the U.N.; and that Chandler and others believe “the voluminous and ever-expanding body of work in translation studies could likely be boiled down to a practical five-minute talk.”

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 3, 2013 4:35 pm

    Thank you for this post, Erik! Boris’s report truly is superb: I hope more people will read it. Unfortunately, I didn’t write down many statistics from Rosamund Bartlett’s talk. I’m not sure how many she included but I have one, though I felt it was insufficiently specific for including in my post. I’m happy to mention it now, though, since you asked. I wrote down that she said Anna Karenina contains “318 веселоs, 318 total,” and then I wrote “весело variations.” I’m feeling too lazy to find an online version of the text and do a search-and-count mission but I believe/suspect/am fairly certain various adjectival and adverbial forms are included.

  2. August 3, 2013 7:07 pm

    No, thank you for your post, Lisa! I never would have known about the event otherwise, and I loved reading about it. Thanks for looking up your notes from Bartlett’s talk. What I was wondering is whether she said anything about what a neutral number of веселоs or душаs or волнениеs would have been – you expect common words to come up many times in a long novel, but are they showing up more often than in other nineteenth-century fiction/other works by Tolstoi, and by how much? Getting an answer would probably take a lot of work with frequency dictionaries and/or searching-and-counting in several different books (and then counting total words and dividing), which is why I just wondered aloud about it instead of trying to do it myself.

    • August 5, 2013 8:11 am

      I’m glad you enjoyed reading about the coven. The coven itself certainly made for a great weekend! As for the Bartlett talk, I don’t recall any comparisons to other works.

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