Matrioshki

Craig Raine

  • Constance Garnett: A Heroic Life by Richard Garnett
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 402 pp, £20.00, March 1991, ISBN 1 85619 033 1

Matrioshki are those wooden, hollow, biologically improbable Russian dolls, sarcophagus-shaped and too rudimentary for much in the way of features or waists. In terms of beauty, they have all the allure of a thermos flask in national dress. What they lack in looks, however, they make up for in fecundity. Each holds several increasingly small replicas, one inside another. In their way, they are the perfect emblem for translation – for perfect translation, that is, where some diminishment is inevitable, but the model and the copy are otherwise identical. This depends, of course, on the given simplicity of the original. Anything too complicated – poetry, for instance – and, until quite recently, you might have found yourself looking for an entirely different image.

In the streets of Moscow, you can now buy a new-style matrioshka. The outside doll is Gorbachev. Inside him is Brezhnev. Inside Brezhnev, Khrushchev, and, finally, inside Khrushchev lurks Stalin. In the context of translation, the new-style matrioshka provides a neatly cynical emblem of theoretical continuity and actual, observable divergence. The blood on Stalin’s hands winds up – in the way of translation – relocated on Gorbachev’s bald spot. Not so different, actually, from Lyubimov’s wish to know, while he was directing Pas-ternak’s translation of Hamlet, if an English translation of the text was available. The answer is that there is and there isn’t. Shakespeare’s text won’t disclose what Pasternak did to it in the course of translation.

Versatile, even promiscuous, the capacious new-style matrioshka can also stand for what is sometimes gained in translation. For instance, the French open up Edgar Allan Poe and out pops Baudelaire. Here, what has been lost in translation – Poe’s energetic vapidity – represents an enormous gain. Equally, the new-style doll will cover plagiarism, the original sin. For example, Baudelaire’s essay, ‘Edgar Allan Poe, sa vie et ses ouvrages’, is plagiarised from two articles in the Southern Literary Messenger by John R. Thompson and John M. Daniel. Daniel’s article is plagiarised in its turn from Griswold’s obituary of Poe – a fraud within a fraud within a fraud.

Traduttore: tradittore. If, as the Italians say, to translate is to traduce, isn’t plagiarism a peculiarly faithful form of betrayal, a criminalised sub-species of translation? Not if you compare, as translations, Constance Garnett’s translation of Chekhov’s tale ‘Sleepy’ with Katherine Mansfield’s alleged plagiarism, ‘The Child-Who-Was-Tired’. The Mansfield is boldly, imprudently divergent from the original. The Garnett version, however, is so utterly unobtrusive as to deserve the plaudit of William Weaver, our senior living translator, who prefaces his translation of Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller with this note: ‘In Chapter Eight the passage from Crime and Punishment is quoted in the beloved translation of Constance Garnett.’ In 1921, Katherine Mansfield herself was moved, on finishing Garnett’s translation of War and Peace, to write of this and her other translations: ‘The books have changed our lives, no less.’ On the other hand, Ronald Hingley, translator of the nine-volume Oxford Chekhov, strikes a note of peevish judiciousness: ‘Though Garnett is far from the least competent of Chekhov translators, her English is marred by an element of quaintness.’ a comparison of Garnett’s ‘Sleepy’ with Hingley’s less quaint ‘Sleepy’ is impossible, alas, because Volume IV of the Oxford Chekhov, covering the years 1888 to 1889, begins, mystifyingly, in March 1888 – omitting ‘Sleepy’, which appeared in January of that year. Doubtless there are excellent reasons for this, but one can’t help feeling that room could have been found for a six-page story Hingley thinks a ‘minor masterpiece’

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