Reflections on Translation in Literary, Everyday, and Anthropological Practice

I put on academia-e-d-u my reflections on translation that I prepared for a seminar in linguistic anthropology. I might not be able to attend the seminar scheduled for October because of the delay of my student visa, but I figured, if I won’t record the thoughts that this invitation prompted in me, they will remain in the noosphere.

Thanks to Professors A.W. and C.H. for the opportunity to think about it.


Whenever we think about translation, it is about (mis)translation inasmuch. Vladimir Nabokov famously required another Vladimir Nabokov to translate his own work (the list of qualities of his ideal translator that he named narcissistically centered Nabokov himself, who, at least in his own assessment, of course, possessed all these qualities).  Some writers refused to translate themselves. Others, translating, transformed their own work to the degree it became an independent new work. The funny stories of mistranslations abound. In a sense, the situation when a speaker ventures into the unfamiliar territory of the new language brings risks. These risks are not unlike the risks that anthropologist experiences stepping onto the land where she did not live before—or even if she lived, in her new capacity of the researcher that defamiliarizes the familiar to her. The speaker of a language not mastered fully is in a similar situation. They are definitely outside of their comfort zone and up to surprises.

In my own practice, I used translation for the literary impossible purposes of recreating “the violet in the crucible,” by Percy Shelley’s expression, in my daily experience of living abroad from the country of my native language—Russia—for more than seven years, and in my anthropological practice. All these versions of translating things from one language into the other, from one culture into the other, were closely intertwined. I will begin with literary translation, talk about everyday translation, and finish with the translation in anthropological practice. The different ways to translate things lead to the Babylon point of bifurcation of the languages that might be not a curse but a blessing. All these instantiations are called into existence in order to be considered in the light of the main idea of this writing: there are no different languages; “language” is a social construct.

Before you frown at the triteness of the expression “social construct” or say “so, is everything social construct nowadays?”, allow me to elucidate my thesis. When I first heard myself to profess this conviction, which happened at a lecture of Expressive Culture at UT, Spring 2019, I was probably more surprised to hear it than anyone else in the audience. Yet,
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Unfortunately, academia-e-d-u acting out and does not show the preview. I already wrote them about this and another piece that I uploaded and that I will introduce here soon, but it remains to be known how quickly they will fix it. But you can still download my talk (and write me a comment about it, too!)
Translation is a mystery that will never stop bothering me! I wish the same to you.
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Perpetual Nabokov

Writer’s Change of Language: Nabokov and Others

In the journal of proceedings of the linguistic anthropology symposium in 2016 at UT, my first writing on Nabokov out there.

He is at the interception of identities, which coincides for the writer with the interception of languages and ways of writing: English as opposed to Russian but also as opposed to American (as opposed to French).

Writer’s Change of Language: Nabokov and Others

In order to see how bilingual and multilingual writers choose language of their primal writing, I concentrate on three prominent Russia-born writers who switched to English late in life. These writers are of dramatically different fate and level of literary prominence in their second language, but all are undeniably of a great standing in the national literature. Vladimir Nabokov is the most well-known in this respect, as well as the example of the most successful linguistic transition (I propose this term to describe the change of language). Other two writers are Joseph Brodsky and Vassily Aksyonov.

My hypothesis is that all these three writers dressed Russian phrases in English attire. The structures of their English sentences are influenced by their primal language, Russian. For instance, you would not meet in Nabokov’s prose a phrase with a dangling participle. The classic in the Russian literature example of such phrase is Chekhov’s “Approaching the station and admiring the scenery, my hat blew off.” Chekhov specifically constructed this phrase in order to mock the absurd of such grammatical construction: the hat is admiring the scenery, the hat is approaching the station. The hat is the subject of the sentence. This is, arguably, an acceptable grammar form in contemporary English, albeit it has been argued that it is an example of bad writing (Pereltsvaig, 2011). In Russian the construction of this type is a rude stylistic mistake, and so there is no way Nabokov would commit it—in Russian, nor even in English. Same holds true in regard to Brodsky and Aksyonov.

I argue that for these writers the change of language was a politically motivated decision. It entailed a considerable change of identity, self-positionality, and cultural self-transmogrification.

In order to see how Nabokov’s English (not to mention his writing practices*) was influenced by T.S. Eliot, I compare the texts written on the pinnacles of the respective writing mastery of these authors, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Waste Land” on one hand, and “Pale Fire,” on the other. I show that Nabokov creatively expropriates turns of phrases “unlocked” by T.S. Eliot, somewhat contradictorily to Nabokov’s professed dislike of T.S. Eliot.

 

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*Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” and “Eugene Onegin,”** both, as is well-known, have (or partially consist of) the ample body of commentaries, incorporated into the novel and the translation, respectively. Commentary as a cultural form, circulating widely in, probably, the majority of known literatures, has a distinct source of inspiration in Nabokov’s case, namely T.S. Eliot’s multilingual commentaries to “The Waste Land.”

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** I would argue that Nabokov’s “Eugene Onegin” should be seen as a single utterance, to use this term here in Bakhtian sense (1986). Nabokov’s “Eugene Onegin” is only ostensibly a translation of the classical Russian literary masterpiece. It encloses “Eugene Onegin” like professor Shade’s poem is enclosed into the body of “Pale Fire.” The genre of Nabokov’s “Eugene Onegin” is hard to define. It is a linguistic treatise, a literary last will, and, ultimately, what he believed is his most strong claim of immortality apart from “Lolita.”

 

 

Reference

Bakhtin, Mikhail. (1986) “The Problem of Speech Genres.” In Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press. 60-102.

Chekhov, Anton. “The Complaints Book” in The Comic Stories, translated by Harvey Pitcher.

Pereltsvaig, Asya. Dangling Participle: Grammatical Error Or Bad Writing Style? 12/11/2011, http://www.languagesoftheworld.info/student-papers/dangling-participle-grammatical-error-or-bad-writing-style.html Retrieved 2/1/2016.