My wonderful Russian friend Inna and I had the immense honor of speaking to the National Women’s Book Association (Nashville Chapter) on Thursday evening. We discussed Yegorova’s memoir and talked in general about the perils of translating. Inna worked as a consultant on the film “The Russia House” (and, most excitingly, met Sean Connery!), and of course, helped me immensely with my work on Yegorova’s memoir. She launched the discussion with elan and buttered the audience up a bit with her marvelous wry wit.
I countered with a quote from Nabokov, reading from an old New Yorker essay by editor David Remnick. Nabokov wrote the poem as he was embarking upon what he felt would be his crowning achievement: translating Pushkin’s masterpiece, “Eugene Onegin.” Nabokov felt that rendering a great work of literature into another tongue was inherently futile:
What is translation? On a platter
A poet’s pale and glaring head,
A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter,
And profanation of the dead.
The parasites you were so hard on
Are pardoned if I have your pardon,
O Pushkin, for my stratagem.
I travelled down your secret stem,
And reached the root, and fed upon it;
Then, in a language newly learned,
I grew another stalk and turned
Your stanza, patterned on a sonnet,
Into my honest roadside prose—
All thorn, but cousin to your rose.
Nabokov’s “Eugene Onegin” earned him an equal measure of admiration and excoriation, and brought about a permanent rift with his old friend, the literary critic Edmund Wilson, who called Nabokov’s effort “banal” and “awkward.”
In contrast, my far less ambitious project cost me no lifelong friends, nor have I been accused of destroying any beloved works of literature or obliterating anyone’s cultural heritage. The point being: it’s a whole lot easier to translate something no one’s read before. And if you don’t happen to be a towering literary figure like Nabokov with (at least) three languages to his credit, the expectations don’t run quite so high.
One reason I like that New Yorker essay so much is that the highly accomplished David Remnick steps into the story himself with charming self-effacement, confessing to his own lifelong love of the Russian language–a love unrequited, it seems:
Russian was the bane of my academic life. I’ve never given a subject more time and concentration only to feel broken before the task.
I share his humility before the language, as I admitted to the assembled guests–who despite this, listened most politely to our stories and to the song and dance between Inna and me, who have shared many thousands of laughs together. It was such a pleasure to share our tales with such a literary and accomplished group, and I thank them for the opportunity.