[ilds] "To inflict on the reader such words"

Charles Sligh Charles-Sligh at utc.edu
Sat May 1 13:52:34 PDT 2010

Thanks to Grove for sending me back to Wilson's review of Nabokov's 
translation of Pushkin. I will excerpt part of it here and include a 
link to the full review.

I think that Wilson's objections help to highlight some interesting 
questions about language and style. Does the translation express the 
style and meaning of the original author or the style and meaning of the 

I can imagine two answers.

For someone who believes that style in English could be made equivalent 
to or close to equivalent to Pushkin's Russian, then "accuracy" and 
"fidelity" would obviously matter. "Transparency" meaning is sought.

On the other hand, as with Nabokov translating Pushkin or as with 
Durrell translating Cavafy, we made need to consider the translated work 
as something else entirely--the translation as a commentary or a 
criticism of an original--or else the act of translation as a 
distinctive act of creation in itself.

Certainly Wilde would favor the second way of seeing the problem, making 
the critic or the translator equal to the artist, as he does in /The 
Critic as Artist,/ where he views Ruskin as Turner's greatest translator 
and Pater as Leonardo's greatest translator:

>         Who cares whether Mr. Ruskin's views on
>         Turner are sound or not? What does it matter? That mighty and
>         majestic prose of his, so fervid and so fiery-coloured in its
>         noble
>         eloquence, so rich in its elaborate symphonic music, so sure and
>         certain, at its best, in subtle choice of word and epithet, is at
>         least as great a work of art as any of those wonderful sunsets
>         that
>         bleach or rot on their corrupted canvases in England's
>         Gallery[. . . .] 
>         Who, again, cares
>         whether Mr. Pater has put into the portrait of Monna Lisa
>         something
>         that Lionardo never dreamed of? The painter may have been merely
>         the slave of an archaic smile, as some have fancied, but
>         whenever I
>         pass into the cool galleries of the Palace of the Louvre, and
>         stand
>         before that strange figure 'set in its marble chair in that cirque
>         of fantastic rocks, as in some faint light under sea,' I murmur to
>         myself, 'She is older than the rocks among which she sits;
>         like the
>         vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of
>         the grave[. . . .]'
>         And so the picture becomes more wonderful to us than it really is,
>         and reveals to us a secret of which, in truth, it knows
>         nothing[. . . .] 
>         And it is for this very reason that
>         the criticism which I have quoted is criticism of the highest
>         kind.
>         It treats the work of art simply as a starting-point for a new
>         creation. It does not confine itself--let us at least suppose so
>         for the moment--to discovering the real intention of the
>         artist and
>         accepting that as final. And in this it is right, for the meaning
>         of any beautiful created thing is, at least, as much in the
>         soul of
>         him who looks at it, as it was in his soul who wrought it. Nay, it
>         is rather the beholder who lends to the beautiful thing its myriad
>         meanings, and makes it marvellous for us, and sets it in some new
>         relation to the age, so that it becomes a vital portion of our
>         lives[. . .] For when the work is finished
>         it has, as it were, an independent life of its own, and may
>         deliver
>         a message far other than that which was put into its lips to say.

Whenever someone points out Durrell's supposed inaccuracies in 
"representing" Alexandria &c., I tend to reply by pointing out what I 
see as Durrell's affinity to this sort Wildean "translator." The "real" 
is really not the most important point. . . .



The Strange Case of Pushkin and Nabokov
July 15, 1965
by Edmund Wilson

> Aside from this desire both to suffer and make suffer—so important an 
> element in his fiction—the only characteristic Nabokov trait that one 
> recognizes in this uneven and sometimes banal translation is the 
> addiction to rare and unfamiliar words, which, in view of his declared 
> intention to stick so close to the text that his version may be used 
> as a trot, are entirely inappropriate here. It would be more to the 
> point for the student to look up the Russian word than to have to have 
> recourse to the OED for an English word he has never seen and which he 
> will never have occasion to use. To inflict on the reader such words 
> is not really to translate at all, for it is not to write idiomatic 
> and recognizable English. Nabokov’s aberrations in this line are a 
> good deal more objectionable than anything I have found in Arndt. He 
> gives us, for example, rememorating, producement, curvate, habitude, 
> rummers, familistic, gloam, dit, shippon and scrab. All these can be 
> found in the OED, but they are all entirely dictionary words, usually 
> labeled “dialect,” “archaic,” or “obsolete.” Why is “Достойна старых 
> обезьян” rendered as “worthy of old sapajous”? Обезьяна is the 
> ordinary word for monkey. In the case of the common word нега, Nabokov 
> has surpassed himself in oddity. It is true that нега has two distinct 
> nuances: voluptuous languor and simple enjoyment; but, instead of 
> using any of the obvious equivalents, Mr. Nabokov has dug up from the 
> dictionary the rare and obsolete mollitude, a word which his readers 
> can never have encountered but which he uses for the first of these 
> meanings; and for the second he has discovered dulcitude. One wonders 
> how Nabokov would translate the last line of Pushkin’s famous lyric, 
> published after his death, “Пора, мой, друг, пора”…”В обйтель дальную 
> трудов и чистых нег.” “To a faraway haven of work and pure 
> mollitudes”? “dulcitudes”? And what does he mean in the commentary 
> when he speaks of Pushkin’s “addiction to stuss”? This is not an 
> English word, and if he means the Hebrew word for nonsense which has 
> been absorbed into German, it ought to be italicized and capitalized. 
> But even on this assumption, it hardly makes sense. In what way is 
> Pushkin addicted to Stuss? And what can one gather from his statement 
> that someone “had resolved in his lunes to exterminate all the 
> Bourbons”? I find that lunes is an archaic word which may mean “fits 
> of frenzy or lunacy”; but this statement will convey nothing to anyone 
> who has not consulted a fairly comprehensive dictionary.
> There are also actual errors of English. I had never seen the word 
> loaden before, and I have found, on looking it up, that it is “Obs. 
> exc. dial,” and that it is not a past participle, as Nabokov makes it: 
> the past participle, it seems, is loadened. The past of dwell is 
> dwelt, not dwelled; dwelled has long been obsolete. “Remind one about 
> me” is hardly English.
> If it is a question of picking on Germanisms in Arndt, it is not 
> difficult to find Russianisms in Nabokov. You cannot “listen the sound 
> of the sea” in English; this is a Russianism: in English you have to 
> listen to something.
> Buyanov, my mettlesome cousin,
> toward our hero leads Tatiana
> with Olga

> The natural English here would be and not with. If Tatyana had been 
> telling about doing something with Olga, she would have said “Мы с 
> Ольгой,” meaning “Olga and I,” and I suppose that we have here the 
> same idiom, which Nabokov has translated literally. In the commentary, 
> you find “a not-too-trust-worthy account that a later friend of 
> Pushkin’s
left us,” where the English requires “has left”; but there 
> is only one past tense in Russian where we have three, and Russians 
> often make these mistakes. The handling of French is peculiar. The 
> heroine of La Nouvelle Héloïse is given on one page as Julie and on 
> the next as Julia; and he always speaks of “the monde,” instead of 
> either “the world” or “le monde.” And why “his sauvage nature” when no 
> French word exists in the Russian? As for the classics: his Eol and 
> Zoilus ought to be Aeolus and Zoïlus; and his “automatons and 
> homunculi” ought to be “automata,” etc. And although he quotes Virgil 
> in Latin, his speaking of the eclogues of “the overrated Virgil” as 
> “stale imitations of the idyls of Theocritus” would seem to 
> demonstrate that he cannot have had any very close acquaintance with 
> this poet in the original, since Virgil, unlike Theocritus, is 
> particularly accomplished in those qualities—tight verbal pattern and 
> subtle effects of sound—which Nabokov particularly admires. 

Charles L. Sligh
Assistant Professor
Department of English
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
charles-sligh at utc.edu

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