The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Beyond Babelfish, or, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Literary Translation?

Translation is both the most parasitic form of writing and the purest. It?s writing without storytelling, without plot, or character, or any of the other gifts that only a few lucky fictioneers have it in them to deploy. No, translation is writing at its most elemental linguistic level, with the kit provided and only the words missing. It belongs alongside singing or acting or symphony conducting -- an interpretive art, but no less an art for all that. Translation is what painting by numbers would be, if only the painter had as many colors handy as there are words in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Is it Tolstoy... or Tolstoy?

I?ve been thinking about this lately because I just finished up a translating project from the Spanish, but also because we only recently got our Tolstoy materials back from the printer and the CD presser. Tolstoy?s The Death of Ivan Ilyich marks our first novel in translation -- chosen for a reciprocal Read with the Russian cities of Saratov and Ivanovo, who?ve been reading To Kill a Mockingbird this fall while five American cities and towns prepare to tackle Tolstoy next spring.

Because we had to agree on a common translation just for consistency?s sake, we went with Lynn Solotaroff?s Bantam edition, but no preference or endorsement should be inferred. So long as folks are on roughly the same page, I kind of like the idea of multiple readers around the country getting together over different translations, comparing notes and discovering anew how even the tiniest decisions of diction and syntax can make all the difference.

Just look at the last line of Solotaroff?s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. (Spoiler alert here, by the way, for anybody who expects Ivan to live happily ever after.) Solotaroff translates Ivan Ilyich?s end as, ?He drew in a breath, broke off in the middle of it, stretched himself out and died.? It seems a fairly straightforward sentence, one whose original Russian couldn?t possibly allow for that many variations.Now look at Louise and Aylmer Maude?s once-standard translation of the same sentence: ?He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.? At first blush, they seem more or less the same sentence twice. Each starts with the same five words, and each ends with the same two.

In between, though, discrepancies creep in. Per Solotaroff, Ivan dies in the middle of his last breath. But according the Maudes, Ivan completes the breath, and only dies while sighing afterward. I tend to prefer the first version, since that one doesn?t oblige poor Ivan to breathe and then sigh, two operations that seem a little too similar to be readily separable. Points to Solotaroff here.

But now look at the other divergence. The Maudes have Ivan simply stretching out, whereas Solotaroff?s Ivan stretches himself out -- as if there were anyone else Ivan might conceivably be stretching. Points to the Maudes here, and so a split decision overall.

Which one is closer to Tolstoy?s original? Which the more literal? And are they the same thing? You?d have to ask a Russian speaker for those answers, but the translators are presumably fluent, and it didn?t keep them from preparing subtly different interpretations. Still, each retains the indispensable idea of a life interrupted.

My translation work so far hews toward the irreverent, making free with a lot of colloquialism, anachronism, and general puckishness. My Spanish isn?t the greatest, either, so I probably couldn?t be slavishly faithful to the original if I tried.

Maybe most important, I?m translating a comic short story and novella by Cervantes and Cervantine comedy lends itself to a more timeless, postmodern tone than Tolstoyan solemnity. I?m hoping that readers can hear a Spanish magistrate say ?I?m hauling you in? without thinking, ?Hmmm. Would a 17th-century Englishman even say that?? By contrast, though, nobody wants to read The Plotzing of Ivan Ilyich.

Nobody besides me, anyway?