Tuesday, September 23, 2008

"Woman" is another famous poser

"Woman" is another famous poser
For none can seriously contemplate
An American president or a German composer
In a viable context with the word for mate.
--Vladimir Nabokov

These are curious words from the Russian novelist-poet-translator, outsider to American culture. They're timely words, given Hillary Clinton's lost bid for the U.S. presidency and John McCain's choice in Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Jane Stranz posts Nabokov's entire poem, "Pity the Elderly Grey Translator." I think the Russian man understands American sexism in English, and is flaunting it as if he's not committing it himself. (He is.)

The opening lines go like this
(with impossible American references to the likes of the elderly McCain and chosen Palin;
how could Nabokov know?):

Pity the elderly gray translator
Who lends to beauty his hollow voice
And - choosing sometimes a second-rater -
Mimes the song-fellow of this choice.

This couplet shows a female as the male's traitor
(as if a Palin or a Clinton steals McCain's poetic thunder):

The incorruptible translator
Is betrayed by lady rime.

And Nebokov's evidence comes earlier
(in lines where masculinism seems
inherent in prostituted language):

It is not the head of the verse line that'll
Cause him trouble, nor is it the spine:
What he really minds is the cursed rattle
That must be found for the tail of the line.
Some words by nature are sort of singlish,
Others have harems of rimes. The word

Nabokov, in fact, may be speaking from experience. There are rumors of his sexism, translated out of what he perceived to be Lewis Carroll's. In 1923, Nabokov translated Alice in Wonderland into Russian, and some critics think his English novel Lolita of 1955 is some perverted translating of Carroll (aka Charles Dodgson) as Humbert Humbert and of Carroll's Alice Liddell as Humbert's Dolores Haze. For the novel, Nabokov coins the English word, nymphet.

The Russian had been accustomed to coinages. The second page of a later edition of his first translation notes the faithfulness to Carroll with added creativity (although none of the sexism is revealed):
As might be expected, Nabokov’s version is not only accurate and faithful in the passages that are susceptible of straight translation, but also exceptionally imaginative whenever the English text features a pun, parody or other linguistic tour de force. For instance, the Russian name of the Mock Turtle is Chepupakha, a conflation of cherepakha (tortoise) and chepukha (nonsense). When the Mock Turtle substitutes “Reeling and Writhing” for “Reading and Writing,” Nabokov has chesat’ i pitat’ (combing and feeding) instead of chitat’ i pistat’ (reading and writing). In place of “Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!” Nabokov transmutes a native Russian children’s rhyme, but in all the other verse passages he seems to be adapting Carroll’s text as it stands in English. Once in a while his high spirits lead him into linguistic extravagance even where the English is normal. A striking example is his version of the first chapter title. “Down the Rabbit Hole” in the original, it emerges in Russian as Nyrok v krolich’ yu norku. Literally, on the face of it this reads “A Dive into the Rabbit Hole,” but the words chosen for “dive” and “hole” are also the Russian designations of two other animals: nyvok is a type of diving duck (its Latin generic name, Nyroca, is based on its Russian common name) and norka, a diminutive form of nora, “hole,” also means “mink.” Nyrok and norku are also amusingly similar in sound and appearance.
In 1964, Nabokov completed his most famous translation of Aleksandr Pushkin's Евгений Онегин, which he entitled Eugene Onegin.

With Pushkin's work, he was as rigid and as masculinist as many Bible translators are with God's. And he seems consistently insistent on faithfulness, though ranging between his creativity with Carroll and his textuality with Pushkin--a kind of progression from literary to literal, from dynamic equivalence to formal equivalence, his own answer to the translators' wars: translate either one way or the other, but never fail the original text.

(He was much different, perhaps hypocritically so, with taking his own Russian works into English or even his English back into Russian. Marice Friedberg notes:
Interestingly, in translating his own work Nabokov avoided both extremes. He did not anglicize a Russian narrative or russify an English one; in many cases he inserted explanations into the translated text or substituted a reference from the culture of the target language for the original reference. It is possible, of course, that Nabokov regarded his self-translations not as translations at all, but as similar works by the same author, which he thus felt free to rewrite. Still, the contrast between these and his earlier free renditions of Lewis Carroll and Pushkin is quite striking.
Not translations? Or translational kindnesses to his own works that he won't afford to Carroll or to Pushkin?)

Jane Grayson quotes Nabokov as famously saying with respect to his modern(istic) translation of Pushkin: "I want translation with copious footnotes, footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers to the top of this or that page so as to leave only the gleam of one textual line between commentary and eternity." Willis Barnstone repeats this statement, calling him "[t]he most intractable of the anti-translators." Ruben Brower quotes Nabokov as saying, "In my translation [of Pushkin's novel] I have sacrificed to total accuracy and completeness of meaning every element of form save the iambic rhythm, the retention of which assisted rather than impaired fidelity."

And then, as if to show he can flaunt rhythm (his own lady rime; No, his harems of rime), Nabokov nastily writes another translator's poem, "On Translating Eugene Onegin." Here are the ending lines:

Elusive Pushkin! Persevering,
I still pick up Tatiana's earring,
Still travel with your sullen rake.
I find another man's mistake,
I analyze alliterations
That grace your feasts and haunt the great
Fourth stanza of your Canto Eight.
This is my task--a poet's patience
And scholastic passion blent:
Dove-droppings on your monument.

Lest he hasn't spoiled it for you Russian readers already, Nabokov on page 134 of his commentary of his translation of Pushkin's novel in verse gives away "Tatiana": "The code name for Elizaveta Vorontsov was 'Tatiana'—Pushkin's heroine."

As we think about Nabokov as a translator, then, we ask Who's the famous poser?

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