Monday, May 14, 2012

"Bottom, thou art translated!"

Titania adoring the Ass-headed Bottom
Oil on Canvas, c. 1790

I recall reading somewhere of an erroneous German translation for the English expression "Out of sight, out of mind," the German effort being "Blind und verr├╝ckt," i.e., "Blind and crazy." My thoughts turned to this yesterday evening as I was reading former AP correspondent Michael Johnson's op-ed piece, "Reading Pushkin in Brussels" (NYT, May 11, 2012), for he notes various attempts at translating Alexander Pushkin's poetry from Russian into other languages, efforts that have occasioned clashes among literary titans:
No collision, however, quite matches the celebrated duel between Vladimir Nabokov and the critic Edmund Wilson over Nabokov's 1964 translation of Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin."

That translation followed one by Walter Arndt, which Nabokov had fiercely denounced. Arndt, he wrote, made "idiotic" errors, confusing a husband with a lover and an arrow for a gun. A famous opening line of Onegin, "My uncle has most honest principles" was rendered by Arndt "My uncle, decorous old prune."

When Wilson sprang to Arndt's defense and assailed Nabokov's translation, Nabokov rounded on Wilson for his inadequate Russian. Nabokov recalled trying to teach Wilson how to read Russian aloud but both collapsed in stitches at Wilson's "endearing little barks."

The moral of this little tale? Don't attempt to translate a genius unless you, too, are a genius. Bonus moral: Don't defend the ridiculous lest you, too, be ridiculed!

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