Nabokov as Translator

An examination of his changing doctrine of translation

Copyright 1989,1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

Because human beings speak many thousands of mutually unintelligible languages, translation of materials from the languages in which they were originally written into the languages of those who would like to use them but could not read the original language has been an inescapable necessity. So long as the materials being translated are of a scientific or technical nature, it has been relatively clear how the translator should go about the process of translating them. In these works, the content of the text is concrete, easily definable, and of primary importance, and therefore can be rendered simply and adequately with a translation which is literal to the limits of the grammar of the target language. But whenever anyone began work on a translation of literary works, in which style and structure are as important as content, a troubling question began to arise. This is the question of whether it is more important to preserve the integrity of the text or to preserve the more abstract, indefinable qualities which give a work of literature its "spirit." Because most literature derives its value not only from the literal meanings of the words in the text, but also from other aspects of those words such as their sound, their connotation, and other subtleties which often are extremely language-specific, it becomes necessary to decide whether it is more important to preserve the literal meaning of the words of the original text, or to seek to convey those intangibles that make it a work of literature rather than a piece of informative writing.

This dilemma has led to the development of two mutually hostile schools of translators. On one side there are the literalists, who believe that the literal text is the only objective evidence of the work of literature which is available, and therefore a translation should strive to simply convey that text without seeking to interpret it for the reader any more than is absolutely necessary to make it intelligible. These people frequently regard a translation as being at best a very poor substitute for the original, a crutch as it were for those poor unfortunates who lack the education to be able to read the language of the original. In contrast to the essentially elitist attitude of the literalists are the proponents of free translation, who believe that the most important thing about a work of literature, as opposed to a work of a technical nature, is that group of indefinable qualities which make up the "spirit" of the work. The proponents of free translation therefore hold that the work of the translator is to provide a translation which seeks to convey to the reader that elusive thing which we despairingly call the "spirit" of a work. For them, this may frequently involve seeking to create in the target language some equivalent to language-specific word plays found in the original, even if it necessitates choosing words which are not the literal equivalents of the words found in the original text.

Because of the nature of the problem, it is highly unlikely if the question will ever be resolvable. Each side has some very compelling arguements in defense of its own particular approach to the problem of literary translation. Therefore it is not unknown that an individual will change allegiances from one side to the other. One particularly famous example of a complete change from one to the other is that of Vladimir Nabokov.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was a man of many and varied talents. Aside from his nonliterary talents such as entomology, he was a writer who wrote with equal fluency in both Russian and English. As a translator, he translated many of his own works from one of those languages into the other. And he translated two very famous works by other writers -- Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Aleksandr Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. While in the translation of the first he espoused the practices of the more radical proponents of free translation, he completely changed to an extreme of literalism for the translation of the latter.

Both of these works present many thorny problems for a would- be translator. Both Lewis Carroll and Aleksandr Pushkin were writers who enjoyed playing with their languages, although in radically different ways. And the works that they produced are masterpieces that can be read at a number of different levels simultaniously, with each level of reading providing a valuable literary experience.

Because Nabokov produced his translation of Alice in Wonderland first, it shall be examined first. On initial examination Alice in Wonderland would seem to be a most simple book to translate. After all, it is a children's book, and one would think that there wouldn't be that much that would create difficulty for the translator. However this initial judgement actually turns out to be completely false. In fact, the very things that make a book absolutely delightful to children are the things that are most difficult to adequately convey in a translation. Among the things in Alice in Wonderland which are the delight of children and the despair of translators are the word-plays and the verse parodies.

In Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll plays liberally with the multiple meanings of various English words, and particularly with sets of homophones whose meanings are so far apart that his bringing their meanings together has a most humorous effect. An excellent example of this is the Mock Turtle's story about the lessons of the sea-school growing less each day and thus being called "lessons" because they lessen each week. Because most of these things are quite specific to the English language, a translator is forced to make a conscious decision as to how to treat these things. While most of the earlier translators of Alice in Wonderland had simply given up on trying to preserve the humor of the puns and had simply translated the words as they were, Nabokov instead tried to find pairs of near-homophones in Russian which would be equally humorous for the Russian reader.

Also, Alice in Wonderland is a work full of verse parodies which are the despair of the translator. In these, Lewis Carroll would parody the didactic verse which was so common in Victorian pedagogy, distorting the moralistic little verses which were meant to teach the children so that instead they mocked the very institutions which their models praised. This sort of thing is the delight of children, who positively love to see adults and their institutions being ridiculed. But they are a nightmare for the dedicated translator. To simply translate the texts of the verse parodies as they are would be to lose half their humor, since the originals which they mock would be unknown to the readers of the target language. Nabokov instead decided to find pieces of Russian verse which schoolchildren in Russian schools were expected to learn and recite, then make parodies on them. These poems, however, were for the most part poems by Pushkin and Lermontov, which were more in the Romantic tradition and thus not completely a parallel to the didactic poems of Alice's Victorian English childhood. But even with that limitation, Nabokov managed to turn out the most hilarious parodies guaranteed to amuse any Russian child bored to tears at having been forced to memorize the originals.

Nabokov also sought to "translate" the situation of the novel into one familiar to the Russian child. Thus he renamed Alice "Anya", which is a common Russian girl's name, rather than simply transliterating it into the essentially foriegn Alisa. He also transformed other characters so that they would better fit into a Russian milleu. For instance, he made the French mouse, which in the English original had come to England with William the Conquorer, into a forgotten companion of Napoleon's invasion force who had been left in Russia by mistake. All this he did in an effort to make it easier for the intended reader, who would almost certainly be a Russian child, to identify with the main character and her situation in a way that would not have been nearly so easy if she were left an English girl in an essentially English situation.

In translating Alice in Wonderland, Nabokov was aiming primarily at an audience of children, who would not have the patience to struggle through anything that caused them any intellectual difficulty. Therefore he sought to create a translation that would be as accessable to the mind of a child as was at all possible.

By contrast, his translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin was aimed primarily to the scholarly world, which may help to explain why he embraced such an extremely literalist doctrine in translating it. In translating Eugene Onegin into English, Nabokov placed first priority on preserving the integrity of the text, and used copicious notes to seek to explain at least some of the effects that Pushkin was creating in the Russian original. He did not expect for his intended readers to read his translation simply as literature for its own enjoyment. Instead he intended it as a guide to the Russian original for those who were not sufficiently proficient in Russian to read the original alone, but instead needed some form of help in understanding it.

Part of the reason for Nabokov's almost total change in attitude to the question of how to go about translating literature was brought about by the complete change in the intended audience of his translation. While his translation of Alice in Wonderland was intended to be read by children, who would want a story which could be read and enjoyed with a minimum of intellectual effort on their part, his translation of Eugene Onegin was intended for scholars who would want to be able to puzzle over every little aspect of the text, at once having a literal translation of the text and a guide to the background of the text.

Yet this alone cannot entirely explain such a radical change in philosophy. Therefore one must look for other possible explanations for this most astonishing transformation of a translator who once liberally re- interpreted verse in order to reproduce the effect of the original on its readers into one who refused to even attempt to preserve the verse structure of a poem because that would involve tampering with the text.

One may theorize that having his own works translated had some effect upon his attitude towards translation. Yet he himself frequently made radical changes in his own works when translating them. This is particularly visible in his translation of Camera Obscura, which he retitled Laughter in the Dark and practically rewrote in entirety. So that hypothesis cannot explain this change entirely.

Yet it may hold some explanation, for Nabokov may have come to feel that only the author had the right to make editorial changes in a work while translating. Certainly he did treat Eugene Onegin with a great deal of respect, even to seeking out words which would have as near as possible an effect upon the English reader as the original Russian words would have on a Russian reader.

It would seem then that Nabokov's chief reason in embracing an extreme form of literalism in translating Eugene Onegin can be chalked up to his maturing scholarliness. Yet the entirity of his reason for the change probably cannot ever be entirely understood, involving as it does an argument which is essentially insoluble -- an argument with two sides that each offer a partial solution, but neither can ever hope to find a complete solution.


Brown, Clarence, "Nabokov's Pushkin and Nabokov's Nabokov" in Nabokov: The Man and his Work, L. S. Dembo, ed, University of Wisconsin Press: Madison 1967

Field, Andrew, Nabokov, His Life in Art, Little, Brown and Co: Boston 1967

Karlinsky, Simon, "Anya in Wonderland: Nabokov's Russified Lewis Carrol" in Nabokov: Criticism, Reminisciences, Translations and Tributes, ed by Alfred Appel, Jr and Charles Newman, Northwestern University Press: Evanston 1970

Meyer, Priscilla, Find What the Sailor has Hidden, Weslyan University Press: Middletown, Conn 1988

Pushkin, Aleksandr, Eugene Onegin: a Novel in Verse, tr. and commentary by Vladimir Nabokov, Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ 1955

Weil, Irwin, "Oddessy of a Translator" in Nabokov: Criticism, Reminisciences, Translations and Tributes ed by Alfred Appell, Jr and Charles Newman, Northwestern University Press: Evanston 1970

Copyright 1989, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

Originally written for a course in Russian Literary Translation taught by Professor Maurice Friedburg, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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