Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Nabokov on the difference between Russian and English


I couldn’t find a translation, so I made an attempt at it myself. Which is somewhat ironic, given the content.
Scientific scrupulousness moved me to save in the Russian text the last paragraph of the above-mentioned American afterword, despite the fact that it can only throw into confusion a Russian reader, not remembering and not understanding and never having read the books of “V. Sirin” published abroad in the 20s and 30s. To my American reader I so strongly insist on the superiority of my Russian word over the English one that some Slavist may indeed think that my translation of Lolita is one hundred times better than the original. I, however, am at another time nauseous from the off-tuned braying of my rusty Russian strings. The history of this translation is one of disappointment. Alas, that “wondrous Russian language”, which, it seemed to me, was still waiting for me somewhere, flourishing as a sure spring behind strongly shut gates, to which I for so many years had had a key, turned out nonexistent, and behind the gates lay nothing but charred tree stumps and autumn hopeless horizon, while the key resembled more a lock pick.

I find consolation in thinking that awkwardness of the present translation is the fault not only of a translator grown foreign to his native tongue, but also of the spirit of the language into which the translation is made. During the half a year of working on Russian Lolita, not only did I discover losing many personal trinkets, unreconstructible language movements and treasures, but also came to certain general conclusions about mutual translatability of the two wondrous languages.

Body language, poses, landscapes, slumber of trees, smells, rains, melting and shapeshifting hues of the nature, all that is gentle and human (surprisingly!), and everything masculine, rough, juicily vulgar turns out in Russian just as good, if not even better than in English. But so common to English things subtle and unspoken, poetry of thought, immediate exchange between the most abstract ideas, scampering of one-syllable qualifiers — all this, as well as everything relating to technology, fashions, sports, natural sciences and unnatural urges — becomes in Russian shackled, multi-syllabled, and often disgusting in the sense of style and rhythm. This misstep reveals the difference in historical aspect between the green Russian literary tongue and over-ripe as a fig ready to burst at seams, English language: between an ingenious but still somewhat uneducated, and often having bad taste youth and a venerable genius, uniting in himself stocks of shiny knowledge with full liberty of spirit. Liberty of spirit! All breath of humanity is in these words.
What do I personally think? I think Nabokov is full of crap.



Sophie said...
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Sophie said...

You have found an example of a phenomenon well known to Nabokov scholars: that the ruling poetic principle of Nabokov's forewords and afterwords to his own novels is irony, or, more accurately, gleeful dishonesty.

The sham, while subtle, is always perceptible. Here, it is clear from the very first sentence, both of the Russian and of your English, that Nabokov is lying through his teeth practically by the word, and with great pleasure. (The style is also a parody, though that is easy to miss unless one is already familiar with Nabokov's artistic values.)

In short, your assessment "full of crap," although overly sincere, is exactly true. I hope it didn't stop you from reading the rest of this (indeed, beautiful) book.

Alexei Toumantsev said...

Sophie et al,

I'm struggling to find one particular work of Nabokov that I read 20+ years ago (on paper but where did I get that book and where it might be now - no idea). I think that was a short lecture where he elaborated on the differences (from his point of view, of course) between Russian and English. I read it in Russian. That's about all I can recall and I've been trying to find it for quite some time but no luck.

Does anything like this ring a bell?