The Chronicle Review

Word Wars

What the epic feud between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson says about the purpose and principles of translation

Katherine Streeter for The Chronicle Review

January 29, 2017

Translation wars leave bodies on the battlefield — and the more contenders, the more casualties. Commentators of every sort, with and without qualifications, are pulled into the fray, for serious issues of communication and aesthetics are at stake whenever we switch languages. Where does the translator’s primary obligation lie? To serve the original author and the texture of the source language, or to accommodate the target readership? How and when should a translation sound "strange"? How much of the everyday culture surrounding a word must the translator command, in order to recreate its context and pinpoint what is untranslatable? If the necessary information cannot be packed into an image or concept in the host language, should the translator resort to footnotes or glosses?

The immense global market for Russian novels has assured that retranslations of them appear regularly, often bringing wars in their wake. In its June 23, 2016, issue, The New York Review of Books ran a highly personal essay by the critic Janet Malcolm on recent English-language versions of Anna Karenina. Malcolm, who makes no claim to know Russian, passed judgment on rival passages in various translations, pointing out over-literalisms, awkward patches, the occasional botched aura around a key word — and recommended that readers stay with the classic English versions of Russian literature produced by Constance Garnett from the 1890s through the early 1930s. For Malcolm, translations must serve the comfort zone of the target audience.

But how is that best done? Responses to Malcolm’s essay in the September 29, 2016, issue of NYRB included one tour-de-force from Judson Rosengrant, a professional translator of Tolstoy, which focused on the morphology and semantics of a single verb favored by Stiva Oblonsky (obrazuetsia, "it will come right"). That reflexive verb, when incorrectly sensed by one translator as a neologism in Russian (it is not) and rendered into English accordingly, shifted Tolstoy’s emphasis and obscured the moral profile of Anna’s philandering brother. Rosengrant’s case study of a single word reminded me how much we need to know, especially with a fastidious craftsman like Tolstoy, in order to translate the simplest utterance appropriate to the psychology of the fictive person who utters it. In her ranking of the rival Annas, Malcolm had named names; there were bodies on the ground. Each of the honorable wounded had a case worth making. For veterans in the Russian translation trade, such principled skirmishes are revelatory.

The crossfire of acrimonious reviews over 'Onegin' stretched from 1965 to the death of both writers.
Alex Beam’s new book, The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship (Pantheon, 2016), takes up a celebrated 20th-century literary scandal: Vladimir Nabokov’s translation and annotation of Alexander Pushkin’s novel-in-verse, Eugene Onegin, published by the Bollingen Foundation in 1964, and Edmund Wilson’s principled rejection of it. Our current Anna Karenina wars are but a minnow to the leviathan of this famous falling-out. The two men had been close friends ever since Nabokov’s arrival in America in 1940. Each had the ear of respected publishers and literary journals. The crossfire of acrimonious reviews over Onegin stretched from 1965 to the death of both writers (Wilson in 1972, Nabokov in 1977).

All major tension points in the practice of translation came into play: the knowledge of target and source cultures as well as the resonance of individual words; the role of a scholarly apparatus in a work of fiction; the challenge of moving an elaborate poetic structure like the "Onegin stanza" out of its original. This stanza, an intricate 14-line unit in iambic tetrameter devised by Pushkin to serve as his novel’s "paragraph," consists of three distinct quatrains, each with a different rhyme scheme, snapped shut with a rhyming couplet. To mirror this structure in another language is massively difficult, but in 1945 Nabokov translated three of Pushkin’s stanzas into sparkling, semantically accurate English-language "Onegin stanzas." Two decades later, however, in his full-length translation of Onegin, he adopted an entirely different approach to the task. Some of its rhythm remained, almost none of its rhyme, and the English was frequently ugly and ungrammatical. Beam cites the judgment of Alexander Gerschenkron, a Harvard professor and polymath supremely qualified to judge this new English-language Onegin both literally and lexically: "Nabokov’s translation can and should be studied, but ... it cannot be read." Wilson was harsher. Whose interests are served, he wondered, when the translator — a major creative artist, playful, virtuosic, devoted to patterns and puns — chooses to produce an unreadable text that brings its audience so little pleasure?

Up to the Onegin controversy, Wilson had avoided reviewing Nabokov’s novels. His verdict on his friend’s Onegin, "The Strange Case of Pushkin and Nabokov," appeared in The New York Review of Books on July 15, 1965. Wilson found the translation "uneven and sometimes banal," addicted to obscure words, clumsy in execution, oblivious to the constraints of English word order, over all the product of a person who "seeks to torture both the reader and himself by flattening Pushkin out."

Wilson, who had learned to read Russian but never mastered its stress system or poetic meters, sprinkled his review with Cyrillic words and took Nabokov to task on individual phrases. The cosmopolitan Wilson was showing off but not faking. He loved Pushkin and accurately assessed Pushkin’s genius in its European context (far above Byron’s, closer to that of Keats or André Chénier). In January 1937, for the centennial of Pushkin’s death, Wilson had written a luminescent essay "In Honor of Pushkin" that praised the poet’s "peculiar combination of intensity, compression, and perfect ease."

Nabokov counterattacked across several venues, most robustly in "A Reply to My Critics" in the February 1966 issue of Encounter magazine. There he discredited the "pompous aplomb and peevish ignorance" of Wilson’s NYRB review, reiterated his bemused dismay at Wilson’s atrocious Russian accent, and explained his own translation method in some detail. His Onegin was a "work of reference" — not an "arty translation" to satisfy the public’s demand for "the canned music of rhymed versions" (inevitably containing semantic howlers). Its goal was "stark literalism," "textual precision," the tracking down of references that would permit him, the translator, to "remain with Pushkin in Pushkin’s world." To Wilson’s charge that he had "torture[d] ... the reader," Nabokov made it clear he was out not to please the audience but to educate it. Some of his words, dug out of dictionaries, are archaic? Of course, and gloriously so. "Mr. Wilson can hardly be unaware that once a writer chooses to ­youthen or resurrect a word, it lives again, sobs again, stumbles all over the cemetery in doublet and trunk hose ... The phrases I decide upon aspire toward literality, not readability."

The war over Nabokov’s Onegin pulled in battalions of creative writers, critics, editors, and fellow translators of Pushkin (most of whom Nabokov had trashed, especially Walter Arndt, author of an acclaimed rhymed version of Onegin). Beam, a columnist who served as Moscow correspondent for The Boston Globe, reminds us of the necessary back stories: Wilson’s admiration of Lenin against Nabokov’s disgust at the Bolsheviks, Wilson’s earnest American enthusiasms against Nabokov’s aristocratism, verbal trickery, and love of wordplay. Beam writes chattily, somewhat like a feuilletonist: The opinions of all parties (including the columnist) deserve a hearing as long as there’s something sensational to watch or hear. This personal, come-hither intonation works better with some topics than others. It does not help the reader grasp what is formally at stake in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, why its meters and rhymes matter to Russian poetic tradition, and why good friends should quarrel over it. But it is well suited to the predictable (and predictably dreary) comparison of Lolita with Wilson’s carnally explicit Memoirs of Hecate County, in a chapter titled "Sex Doesn’t Sell … Or Does It?" (For the curious: Beam appears to find Wilson’s clinical appreciation of copulation and Nabokov’s artful voyeurism equally unsatisfying.)

On the editing, publishing, and newspaper-media aspects of the Nabokov-Wilson dispute, Beam is excellent. This world he knows from the inside. In the early 1940s, the left-leaning Russophile Wilson had interceded with publishers and literary journals on behalf of Nabokov, then a little-known émigré; it was a dependency the imperious Nabokov later played down. We get the backroom story of editors at the Bollingen Foundation press nervously maneuvering into print the controversial Onegin translation and its 1,500-page commentary, obliged to weigh the marketing merits of a succès de scandale against the more enduring success of a solidly useful and read-worthy book. What is curious about Beam’s account, however, for all its breezy narrative vigor, is its indifference to the primary issue that consumed the two disputants, namely: the quality, purpose, and principles of translation.

A leitmotif of Beam’s book is that such concerns are silly. On the first page we learn that he had "burst out laughing" when he heard that a lengthy valued friendship had come to an end over a disagreement on how to translate Pushkin: "It was the silliest thing I had ever heard." The two men’s debates over poetic scansion, and Nabokov’s lengthy treatise on the theme appended to his translation in 1964, are dismissed by Beam as "deadly," as "prosodic logorrhea." But the issue is not trivial. Until the end of his days Wilson applied the rules of English versification to Pushkin. When Nabokov lectured his friend at length in a personal letter on the subtle relation between meter and rhythm in Pushkin’s use of the Russian iamb, it did not occur to him that Wilson was confused about such basic things as poetic scansion and secondary stress. Whether Pushkin knew enough English to read Shakespeare and Byron without a French crib or trot — a word-by-word interlinear translation — was another recurring disagreement that Beam finds comically obsessive. But these are the sorts of questions that translators and critics, if they respect their task, must address.

It is significant that Beam meticulously chronicles the invective flung back and forth over Onegin but spends no time on Nabokov’s theory of translation, neglecting even to define what Nabokov meant by "literal." (It’s not what you might think — and because Wilson, in his critique, routinely places "literal" in scare quotes, quite possibly he too was unclear on this point.) In this neglect Beam is not alone. Many readers fascinated by Nabokov have failed to take seriously his discussions of word-transfer across languages and his passion for the unabridged dictionary as a resource tool. They prefer to bask in the verbal magic of his creative English prose. Russian-equipped critics like Judson Rosengrant and Julia Trubikhina have revived the importance of Nabokov’s ideas in this realm, which were advertised widely by the author himself in The New Yorker, Partisan Review, and Esquire both before and after the Onegin project. But one doesn’t need to know Russian to acknowledge the centrality of this theory for Nabokov as translator.

What is at stake in this feud is not feelings, but the question of who owns language.
In his chapter on Onegin in The Magician’s Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction (Princeton University Press, 1995), Michael Wood does an efficient job laying out the three levels of this theory. "The literal translation, for Nabokov, is distinguished from the ‘paraphrastic’ (‘offering a free version of the original, with omissions and additions prompted by the exigencies of form, the conventions attributed to the consumer, and the translator’s ignorance’) and the ‘lexical’ (‘rendering the basic meaning of words’). The literal is ‘true translation’ because it aims … at the ‘exact contextual meaning of the original.’" So for Nabokov, literal is contextual and connotative, not (as common parlance has it) a depersonalized dictionary meaning. Denotative definitions that we dig out of dictionaries are for Nabokov "lexical" raw material only until they are rigorously justified by contexts present in the original. If the original (in this case, Russian) context requires a word that English has let slip into obscurity, Nabokov would pluck it out of the Oxford English Dictionary, "youthen" it, resurrect it so it can "sob and stumble" anew. Let the reader in the host language do some work.

The opposite extreme from the lexical is approached when a translator removes that work, makes reading Onegin easy, attempts the impossible by aping the rhymes and rhythms of the original (as does Walter Arndt, target of Nabokov’s wrath), and thereby risks becoming a crowd-pleasing paraphrast. Since the perfect form of perfect poets cannot be reproduced, everything hinges on what is meant by "context," and who is qualified to fill that context in. The contexts of Onegin, in Nabokov’s view, could be honored only by precise meanings, not by form.

But the technical challenges and substance of the feud over Onegin aren’t things that Beam takes seriously. He shrugs off both Nabokov’s and Wilson’s arguments over poetics and engages only shallowly their desire (very differently conceived) to pay homage to the poet’s contexts. He rebukes Nabokov for his "seemingly endless notes [that] admix genius and madness in uneven proportions," holding up to special ridicule a note comparing Polish and German versions of Onegin ("But really, Vladimir."). Rather than assess conceptual or evaluative choices made from the inside, Beam watches people behave from the outside — which is to say, the one thing deemed not silly in this story is the friendship itself.

Beam’s book does not really belong to the Russian translation wars. It is better assigned to that burgeoning field in the humanities, affect or emotion studies (subsets: shame studies, insult studies, disappointment, and regret studies), which allows us bookbound academics the relief of researching the instincts and intuitions of bodies outside the prison house of cognition or the rigors of the formalist device. What matters most in such research is not the craft, not the work of art, but the feelings of people who produce or critique the work of art.

In Beam’s case this priority on emotional outburst and public exposure makes for an entertaining, at times even a wrenching, human-interest story. But it is a story oddly without dignity or respect for the two major combatants — who did, after all, go to war for something they cared about. They were writers of profound erudition and fierce individuality, not stubborn fools arguing about stupid stuff. In his review for The New York Times, Eric Bennett concludes that Beam comes out on Nabokov’s side — "personality sells." But in Beam’s account, Nabokov looks as pedantic and perverse as Wilson looks defensive and ill-informed. The inexplicability of their passion over poetics and their mutual willingness to wound and embarrass each other constitutes the plot of the book. What fades from view, amid all this mortal clutter, is the immortal literature that launched the thousand ships of the Onegin war, and the tremendously serious contributions made by both Wilson and Nabokov toward understanding how literature works.

This is unfortunate. For what is at stake in this feud is not feelings, not even Wilson’s grasp of Russian meter or Nabokov’s fondness for the recondite word, but the question of who owns language. Nabokov insists that language belongs to the creative author: to Pushkin, and to Pushkin’s translator who would keep Pushkin alive by contextual precision and the occasional estrangement. Every creative writer has an obligation to expand the potentials of language. In his fiercely solipsistic individualism, Nabokov was in principle hostile to "reader’s rights" — if this phrase implies catering to that comfort zone in the host language so eloquently defended by Janet Malcolm in her commentary on the rival English Anna Kareninas.

Wilson is everywhere more the democrat. He stands for the speaking community. Wilson (but not Nabokov) would have endorsed W.H. Auden’s conviction in The Dyer’s Hand, that it was "both the glory and the shame of poetry that its medium is not its private property, that a poet cannot invent his words and that words are products, not of nature, but of a human society." A speaking community makes further demands, however. Without minimal respect for readerly comfort, intimate two-way communication between a text and its audience is difficult to achieve. For comfort is not sloth; it is a state of body and mind that encourages the responsive creativity of readers as they walk into the text and rejoice in its world. Nabokov as translator of Eugene Onegin was reluctant to open that door to readers. Wilson insisted on it. And thus the two men became mired in lesser, uglier matters: bruised egos, authorial dignity, one-upmanship. When their feud is reduced to feelings, both parties are diminished and remembered for the wrong things.

Caryl Emerson is an emeritus professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Princeton University.