LectureHop: Retranslating Literary Classics

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It's not quite this easy

It’s not quite this easy

Retranslating Literary Classics: A Panel on Cervantes, Montaigne, and Dostoevsky was held yesterday in Miller Theatre. So many Lit Hum favorites in one place! Bwog sent literary liaison Artur Renault to fill you in.

As pessoas encheram o auditório na hora marcada, e à medida que as cadeiras iam se ocupando, a animação crescia.

This sentence in Portuguese, my other native language, describes what happened at the Miller Theater yesterday, and could be translated to English in a few ways:

The people crowded into the auditorium at the scheduled time, and as the chairs filled themselves, the animation grew.

The theater filled up at the scheduled time, and the enthusiasm increased as people took their seats.

The crowding theater bubbled with excitement as the seats were taken.

Now I am not a professional translator, but it is at least clear that the meaning of the sentence can be conveyed in multiple ways, with varying levels of literality, formality, and naturality. This was one of the central themes of the panel that took place at Miller Theater yesterday, featuring Edith Grossman, Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky, and Wyatt Mason, moderated by Susan Bernofsky. You may recognize some of these names: Edith Grossman translated the edition of Don Quixote we read in Lit Hum, and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translated Crime and Punishment. Which means, they were the names you saw when you looked up at your shelf and thought about how you really should be doing that reading.

After short introductions by Roosevelt Montás, Gareth Williams, and the moderator, the panelists were invited to speak briefly about what translation means to them.

Edith Grossman, who specializes in translating modern Latin American literature as well as more classic Spanish texts, spent much of her speech expounding on the importance of Don Quixote. Describing it as the greatest novel ever written, the first of its kind, Grossman stated that no English writer has had an influence close to that which Cervantes has had on Spanish, dismissing Shakespeare and the King James Bible as too poetic and esoteric. His influence was so powerful to her that her reaction when asked to translate Quixote to English was of shock; upon accepting the offer she was terrified. The process came with many decisions–”Should I write in Elizabethan? Should I use slang? Should I read other translators?” (the answer to all of these was “no”)–but after a two-year process interrupted only by the translation of a short erotic novel between the two halves of Don Quixote, she was happy with her work, and decided that the book was “the saddest and funniest [she’d] ever read.”

Next came Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who are married and have translated many books by Russian authors together. They have been married and translating for so long that when their turn came Pevear, who is American but has a slight Russian twang by now, asked if they should speak simultaneously. Their passion for translation began when they read together, and Volokhonsky would ask Pevear (who didn’t speak Russian yet) how they translated a certain phrase, and would realize these translations were inadequate. Pevear came to the astonishing epiphany that, for example, Dostoevsky was supposed to be funny. So they set out to translate many Russian works, despite challenges like “Hasn’t that already been translated?” Volokhonsky added that she would often read translations of Russian texts and think they didn’t need any changes, but when she translated them herself she came to a completely different text; all of it shows the subjectivity there is to the act of translation.

John M. Cohen, who translated the Core’s edition of Montaigne’s Essays, hasn’t been with us since 1997. Therefore, for the purposes of this panel, he was replaced by Wyatt Mason, who has also translated the Essays. “I would like to also like to thank Nyquil, Dayquil, and give a special shoutout to vitamins A and B,” he opened, instantly showing that he would employ more humor and technology than the others. He went over Montaigne’s life, showing pictures of his house and comparing many different translations of his work–and of course, he made us all swoon as he read the original French with original diction. He characterized the original writing as remarkably approachable and conversational, stating that’s what he intended to reproduce in his translation.

After this, the floor was opened to questions, and this panel had the rare quality of turning into an actual, natural conversation between the panelists. They engaged in a quasi-argument about the quality of Nabokov’s translation of Alice in Wonderland, and joked around about each other’s responses in a manner way more informal than I would have imagined people who dedicate their lives to translating classic texts would. At one point, Volokhonsky read a paragraph in Russian and went on a passionate rant about how verbose and ridiculous it was; her husband had to remind her that she should read the translation to include the audience. In short, these weren’t translating robots; they were incredibly interesting and funny people.

One dominant topic was fidelity; how faithful should translations be to the original text? They all seemed to agree that a balance is needed. Translations should not try to perfectly emulate original meaning of the work nor adapt it completely to its new audience—Pevear said “We are neither foreigners nor domesticators.” The author’s original personality must be kept while making it still relatable. Volokhonsky said that the question “How would they say it?” is useless. “Tolstoy didn’t say it the way they said it. He said it the way Tolstoy said it.”

They also described their processes. Volokhonsky generally writes a first draft with a pencil, which she and Pevear collaboratively edit while comparing to the original Russian, until it is finally sent to the publisher. They now translate for about six hours a day. “It used to be more; we used to have deadlines,” said Pevear, to which Volokhonsky retorted, “Oh, they’re not so dead.” Grossman emphasized the importance of reading out loud, as “the eye forgives everything and the ear forgives nothing.” She also throws out the Spanish halfway, so she can focus on perfecting her English version. Mason, also a literary critic, said translation is  the most powerful training for criticism, since it forces one to analyze the text in a much more meticulous way and broadens the mind. The constant consultation of old dictionaries and translations gives you a lot to think about regarding language, he said.

In the end, the whole room seemed to hum with consensus the sentiment brought up by a question in the audience: “How related is the act of translating a classic text to a pianist playing the Moonlight Sonata in 2014?” All the panelists agreed: extremely related. There is so much interpretation and performance involved; one version of a work can display a completely different author or meaning from another.

All in all, the panel was not just funny, entertaining, and informative—it showed us the importance and beauty of different translations to the same work. This sentiment was inspiring, and it came in a language the entire audience could understand.

Deceptively simple via Shutterstock

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