Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Found in Translation: "Transparent Sounds" & Defamiliarization

Which description of hoofbeats is more unusual: "transparent sounds" or "thud"? Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's new translation of War and Peace opts for transparency in a passage mentioning horses. Pevear outlines their approach to literary translation and reasons for this choice in an essay in the New York Times Book Review.

Beyond the fact that "transparent sounds" is a more accurate representation of Tolstoy's original "прозрачные звуки," I think Pevear and Volokhonsky deserve praise for trusting their readers. Pevear says previous translators opted for thuds and clangs -- my Ann Dunnigan translation thuds -- and calls the use of "transparent sounds" one of Tolstoy's "moments of fresh, immediate perception."

What I find odd is that translators before Pevear and Volokhonsky evidently chose to add another filter between the original Russian text and readers of English-language translations. I suspect translators think they are helping readers: what if someone hasn't heard hoofbeats and can't relate to "transparent sounds"?

I'd prefer that translators trust readers to understand what writers hope to convey in their originals, even if their wording sounds odd. In fact, odd is sometimes the intention: many Russian writers employ defamiliarization (остранение, literally "making it strange") in their writing. Unusual combinations of words or situations or contexts help characters and readers to re-evaluate familiar reality. One of my favorite scenes in War and Peace involves Natasha Rostova's first trip to the opera, where everything seems unnatural. (In Russian. In English.)

People often ask me which translations or translators are best. I'm not always sure, but I do know that sometimes the best translation is the one that you will read and enjoy. Readers have different criteria: cost, print size, book heft, glossaries, character lists...

Then there's style. Personally, I don’t like the Maudes' translations of Tolstoy because I don't think they capture Tolstoy's style. But some people like them. In a sidebar accompanying a long article about War and Peace, Newsweek published brief excerpts from two translations of War and Peace to show how much versions can vary. If you have the luxury of choosing between two different translations of one book, page through them to see if the writing speaks to you and sounds, well, transparent. That's the easiest way to find something -- meaning, I hope -- in translation.

One other thing: If you haven't read War and Peace, don't be afraid of it. I've recommended or given it to many varied readers over the years, and almost all of them have at least made a good show of telling me they finished and/or liked it. Tolstoy's brief chapters make it easy to read just a little more... and the book is so absorbing that the nights can get very late.

Edit: The New York Review of Books published this interesting article, by Orlando Figes, about the new translation.

Books in this posting:
War and Peace, trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky
War and Peace (Signet Classics), trans. Dunnigan


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