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Translation comparison: Anna Karenina

January 9, 2015

You’ve probably already seen Masha Gessen’s piece on Anna Karenina, which I’ve added to the translation comparison page. It’s one of my pet peeves that people focus too much on first sentences, but in this case I thought what Gessen had to say about those happy and unhappy families was interesting. And she looked at less obvious concrete examples:

In the classic translation by Constance Garnett, “she saw clearly that he was repelled by her hand, and her gesture, and the sound made by her lips.”

In the popular 2000 translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, she “clearly understood that he was disgusted by her hand, and her gesture, and the sound her lips made.”

In a new translation by Rosamund Bartlett, she “understood clearly . . . that he was repulsed by her hand, her gesture, and the sound she made with her lips.”

And in another new translation, this one by Marian Schwartz, she “clearly realized that he found offensive her hand, her gesture and the sound she was making with her lips.”

Surprisingly, all the translators ruled that the part of Anna’s anatomy that she believed repelled, repulsed, disgusted or offended Vronsky was her hand and not her arm, though the Russian word ruka can mean either. I happen to think Tolstoy is writing about the arm — one of those two full arms that were so beguilingly set off by the black gown Anna wore to the ball in Part 1, Chapter 22, when she and Vronsky fell in love. Now, in Part 7, Chapter 25, when Anna lifts her coffee cup, the full arm, the pinkie gesture and the noisy lips form a tragic triangle.

I personally love trying to figure out what’s causing a whole group of translators to read something differently than I read it (like taking баню задал in Dead Souls as third-person), and Gessen’s way of tying the two scenes together seems convincing to me. But Russell Scott Valentino thinks language should be beneath the critic’s notice:

Some readers of Gessen’s review will hear the authority of someone who knows the source and, as a result, they will essentially cede their own authority to make judgments because, well, she knows the source so she must know the right answer! They are hearing the voice of the translation police, which lurks behind every example and in fact informs the entire approach. This approach mostly involves calling up a variety of largely unconnected individual lexical items, selected by the reviewer and held forth with relative approval or disapproval almost as if she were teaching a foreign-language class and telling us which words mean what the translator has said they mean and which do not — but on the basis of a text that exists only in the reviewer’s mind. We certainly don’t have access to it. In fact, no one does. Remember, if you read the original Russian, you’re just a reader of the original Russian; the translation is created in the act of writing by the translator.

I’m left wondering how any act of communication at all is possible in Valentino’s model. Sure, we don’t have access to a reviewer’s or translator’s or author’s mind, and written words aren’t identical to what the writer was thinking at any given moment. But we can make inferences about what other people think, know, or feel based on what they write, or why would we read or write anything?

If I leave you a note saying “Meet me in room 406 at 4:00,” you can’t know which building I was thinking of, or whether in my heart of hearts I meant AM or PM, or whether I have any intention of showing up. Perhaps I was forced to write the note at gunpoint or made it by drawing letters and numbers at random out of a bag. How can you tell? But you may guess that I meant the afternoon, in the building we both work in, and it’s even possible we might meet there because you read the note.

On more or less the same principles, Constance Garnett can try to guess what was in Tolstoi’s mind, Gessen can try to figure out how Garnett took a certain passage, and we can try to understand Gessen’s explanation of how Garnett’s and Gessen’s own readings are different. These guesses won’t always be right and will never be complete, but even in cases of skillful deception they will have some relation to the unknowable thing they are groping toward. Or, I suppose, we can throw up our hands and say that reading Gessen tells us no more about any of this than about a translation of Harry Potter into Hittite.

I’d be more sympathetic to Valentino’s griping about the translation police if Gessen were using her status as a native speaker of Russian to talk about what ruka “really means” in all cases, with no appreciation for the several problems a translator might be juggling, but that isn’t what she’s doing. She’s looking at specific uses of words in the context of a novel she’s read several times in (at least) two languages she knows well, explaining how she takes them and why, and noting where translators disagree with her or with each other. I like granular examinations of language for their own sake, so I’m biased to be unsympathetic to Valentino’s view that “the technical side of learning the language” is a small and uninteresting part of a translator’s work. Beyond that, though, I think Gessen’s kind of analysis of concrete sentences actually lets you get at the things Valentino cares about (like “how best to craft an effective and compelling work, an authorial image and voice”) pretty well and serves this purpose better than impressionistic comments about a full translation by a reader who hasn’t read the original and doesn’t have time for examples.

Thanks to Jamie Olson of the Flaxen Wave for leading me to Valentino’s blog in the comments to this Languagehat post, and to all the people who pointed me to Gessen’s review (“New Translations of Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina,’” The New York Times, December 24, 2014). Last August Rosamund Bartlett, one of the translators Gessen is reviewing, wrote about her Tolstoi-translating predecessors.

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