04 Oct Nabokov on Translation
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, also known by the pen name Vladimir Sirin, was an American novelist, poet, translator and entomologist. Born in Russia, he wrote his first nine novels in Russian (1926 – 38) while living in Berlin. He achieved international acclaim and prominence after moving to the United States and beginning to write in English. Nabokov became an American citizen in 1945, but he and his wife returned to Europe in 1961, settling in Montreux, Switzerland.
Nabokov’s “Lolita” (1955) was ranked fourth in the list of the Modern Library 100 Best Novels in 2007; “Pale Fire” (1962) was ranked 53rd on the same list; and his memoir, “Speak, Memory” (1951), was listed eighth on publisher Random House’s list of the 20th century’s greatest nonfiction. He was a seven-time finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction.
It is important to note that Nabokov does not deny the utility of translation, but he does have a very definite idea of what constitutes a proper translation and what constitutes willful paraphrase.
In his essay ‘Problems of Translation: Onegin in English’ (1955), Nabokov advocates that the ‘clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase’. As many have observed, Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin’s novel in verse was designed to be read in tandem with the original. His work on translating Pushkin’s masterpiece from the beginning set literalness as the goal. Rather than apologizing for his literalness to his opponents, Nabokov writes that there is no other course if one is to be honest about it:
‘The person who desires to turn a literary masterpiece into another language, has only one duty to perform, and this is to reproduce with absolute exactitude the whole text, and nothing but the text. The term ‘literal translation’ is tautological since anything but that is not truly a translation but an imitation, an adaptation or a parody’.”