How We Review Translations

In defense of an endless task

It is often said that the work of a translator is thankless. What is less often recalled is that the work is endless. The written word, unlike the printed one, is never finished, at no point complete. When we look at the manuscripts of literary masters, we see the degree to which they made changes until the very last moment. Even Nabokov, who famously claimed that his characters are like “galley slaves,” is betrayed by the eraser marks on his index cards. All writers – including literary scholars who review translations – have to contend with deadlines, copyedits, layouts, and page proofs, and they all know that the endless possibilities of sentence structure, word choice, and syntax come to a sometimes-frustrating but nevertheless necessary end when a text is published. And yet, the moment that a piece of writing appears in print, there suddenly appear before the writer’s eyes ever more potential corrections, adjustments, and variations which might have been worth trying.

How much more are translators faced with the finality of their task! Having deferred authorship to their source, translators still carry the full burden and responsibility of carrying not only the text on the page, but the living choices that an author made using one word, phrase, or sentence instead of another. What to some people is a sacred printed text that must be perfectly replicated in its target language is to its translators something considerably more nebulous: a literary language, with all its insinuations, which must be reendowed with the living force of contingency.

And yet reviewers of translations, one after another, continue to dissect and deconstruct linguistic performances created by translators, taking them to task for this or that choice, without ever fully acknowledging what they themselves know to be true: that translation is as organic an activity as writing and speaking, and that the choices of a translator never have to do with deceptively simple ideas like word-choice or phrasing. When preparing a translation, translators go through a myriad of variations and considerations, rendering the meaningful silences within the text with no less than an atextual drive to externalize some inner feeling or idea so that it can be known by others. To be able to criticize translations at this level of their creativity, reviewers would have to be able to reach as deep into a literary work as its translators.

Most of the time, they don’t – as evidenced by a recent review of Isaac Babel: The Essential Fictions (NUP), selected, translated, and edited by Val Vinokur; and Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories (Pushkin Press), translated by Boris Dralyuk. I happen to count both of these translators as two of my closer colleagues-in-arms. I have worked alongside Vinokur long enough to know the extent to which his translations were done with attention, knowledge, and deference to the works of Isaac Babel – but most importantly, the personal inspiration and energy which he lent this great writer in the English language. As for Dralyuk, having co-translated Polina Barskova’s first major English-language collection of poetry with him, I know first-hand the care with which he turns to his task, and his precise consideration of every detail. Both translators are English-language poets, both native Russian-speakers, and both hold doctorates in Russian literature. And yet they produce differently faceted Babels – because their translations, ultimately, are embodied expressions of their living readings of Babel’s texts. These are two human beings with different associations and relations to Babel’s singular usage of the Russian language, producing texts revealing various aspects inherent in Babel himself.

Unfortunately, in his review of their efforts, Gary Saul Morson, an eminent scholar of Russian literature, found it necessary to criticize a few examples of word choice and imagery as a way of relating to their translation – without, however, delving into the complexities of their achievements. In a review focused mostly on Morson’s view of Babel as a risk-seeker, the reviewer also tried to upstage two serious scholars and translators of Russian literature by pointing out their supposed interpretive faults. He did this, moreover, by example of literal translation, and this after having formerly provoked against Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear – the translating team that has double-handedly revitalized Russian literature in English – for being too literal. Whether literal or interpretive, it seems, Morson cannot be satisfied.

It’s not all his fault. No one can truly ever be satisfied by any single translation – and translators will be the first to admit this. Dedicated scholars, when necessary, compare several translations of a single work in order to better understand its nuances. But the fact is that we all, translators and reviewers alike, know this to be the case, and so when approaching a consideration of any work of translation, we try to understand what the translator did more than what she did not. And this, unfortunately, is altogether missing from Morson’s review of the translated volumes that are listed just under the title of his piece. In today’s literary environment, when translators are finally beginning to be given their due attention and programs in translation studies are being inaugurated across what’s left of the humanities, Dralyuk and Vinokur simply deserve better.

People everywhere deserve better than they get – the question is usually what and how? And while I am not myself a critic of translations, I have written on the practice of translation, and published my own translations from the original Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish. And it perhaps takes a practitioner’s perspective to set an example for the kind of consideration that translators deserve when their work is being reviewed by a scholar who has access to the original text.

In his review, Morson claims that translators “often explain – that is, explain away – Babel’s oddities” by choosing words or images that are too interpretive. He makes sure readers know he has access to Babel’s Russian by quoting an example in the original and then – despite his criticism of Volokhonsky and Pevear’s literal translation – offers his own idea of a literal translation of the sentence as a counterexample. Only then does he, at last, cite the solutions that were reached by each published translation. The word that he particularly singles out for scrutiny is smyatyi, which appears as an adjective to an embattled city lying in ruins. The original usage is itself estranging, as the word usually refers to objects. In describing the image he believes is more appropriate, Morson uses the example of a sheet of paper being smyatyi, rendering it as a “crumpled” city. What he misses is the completely brutal violence felt in the subtext of the original Russian. Saying a city is smyatyi is to say that it was quickly destroyed, which cannot be expressed by a word as gentle as “crumpled.” Not to mention that, next to the word “city”, smyatyi refers more to the image of being flattened, the way we might flatten an aluminum can: quickly, loudly, leaving it twisted and gnarled. There’s a big difference between a “crumpled” aluminum can and one that’s been crushed. Which is perhaps why two separate translators, both native Russian speakers who have taught Russian literature at leading American universities, each independently came up with the same word – “crushed” – for smyatyi.

What Morson is doing, whether he realizes it or not, is undermining the credibility of two more than capable translators – which is easy to do when the majority of the review’s readership does not have access to the original Russian. Actually, readers of the review who are not able to access the original Russian might even wonder why Morson hasn’t yet published a single literary translation of his own. But those of us who can read Russian – not just as a language but as a literature – may actually be glad that Babel’s city of Novograd-Volynsk was crushed rather than crumpled, and that Morson, despite his eminence as a scholar of Russian literature, left its translation into English for others to undertake.

Morson’s review unequivocally short shrifts the critical consideration that these translations deserve, yet it nevertheless represents the norm for many discussions of translated works in the literary press. What I hope to indicate here is a mode of reviewing translations in which reviewers, even when writing for general audiences, are themselves held to higher standards. And while mine is not a full review of the translations made by these two poets, I would like to at least point to an example, picked out more or less at random, which may reveal the kinds of nuances that go into rendering any given translation.

The example appears at the very end of “My First Goose” (1920/23), where Babel refers, after killing a goose as a show of machismo, to his heart being “obagrennoe ubiystvom.” The word obagrennoe means “empurpled,” and is usually used in Russian together with the word krov’ or “blood” – empurpled with blood – a phrase more common in 19th century English than today. Babel’s usage flips the usual image: his heart, which in its natural state is empurpled with blood, is now instead filled with killing. What a translator needs to get across is both the wordplay, which refers to a phrase that’s no longer in use in the English language, and the image itself, wherein the heart is filled with violent death. Dralyuk renders it as “my heart, crimson with murder” (54), and Vinokur as “my heart, imbrued with slaughter” (194). Dralyuk emphasizes the color aspect implied in the word “empurpled,” an image conjuring an association of spilled blood, whereas Vinokur picks a word that emphasizes the derivation of “empurpled” from a verb, the action of staining something in blood. Both versions express different aspects of the Russian, considered from the perspective of different sensibilities, in which neither is more right than the other, and both convey Babel’s sense of moral or spiritual corruption at his own actions.

This subtle difference speaks volumes about the broader differences between these two translators – whose projects, it should be noted, are considerably different in scope. Dralyuk’s two volumes parallel, with minor additions, Babel’s own collections, Red Cavalry (1926) and Odessa Stories (1931). Vinokur, on the other hand, has created a single volume that would, as the title suggests, encompass what he sees as all of Babel’s essential fictions – including the above collections along with over twenty other stories, creating a perspective on the author’s life and work. This perspective is evident in his notes, which offer a running commentary on stylistic and thematic issues present in Babel’s work, and also provide a window into the translation process. Vinokur’s project travels across a broad linguistic spectrum, covering a wider set of texts, while Dralyuk, who is undoubtedly also familiar with the same corpus, is focused on rendering literary language from a specific period in Babel’s creative life. It should also be noted that Vinokur’s volume features illustrations originally created for Babel’s Red Cavalry by the Soviet-Jewish painter Yefim Ladyzhensky (1911-1982), which embody an adaptation, or kind of visual translation, of Babel’s work. And not to be missed, in either case, are the introductions – Dralyuk’s moving and personal homage to Odessa, his birth-town, in Odessa Stories, and Vinokur’s concise homage to Babel, a writer that has both inspired and haunted him since he first took up his own pen, and whom, in Vinokur’s own words, he has managed to make his own through the ever-problematic practice of translation.

Translators know, as well as anyone, the absurd challenge of their own work. A translation is an approximation, an attempt, an essay in the original French sense of trying to convey in one language what was so ephemerally said in another. And yet our drive to access what exists beyond our own capabilities is a continual force which keeps translation alive and necessary. Bad translations certainly exist, as do good translations with mistakes, and there are inevitably great translations that include choices with which a critic or reviewer may take issue. But a translation review should do more than merely criticize single choices made by a translator. It should, especially when the reviewer knows the original language, take into account the holistic effort, point out the subtleties of the translation no less than those of the source text, and truly and sincerely give consideration to the project of conveying a writer as great as Babel in a language that he himself did not likely speak very well.

Public Seminar previously spoke to Vinokur about Essential Fictions. The interview can be found here, together with his translation of Isaac Babel’s “Guy De Maupassant” here.

David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar. He has published four collections of single-panel cartoons, including Baddies (Melville House). He is author of Narrative Faith: Dostoevsky, Camus, and Singer (U Del Press), and editor of In the Land of Happy Tears: Yiddish Tales for Modern Times (Delacorte/Random House).

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