September 30, 2014

Pasternak: A Great Translator Reflects on Translation

Pasternak: A Great Translator Reflects on Translation

On this side of the Atlantic, Boris Pasternak is known as a writer and a poet, and specifically as the author of Doctor Zhivago. But in Russia he is also recognized for his translations from English. When Russians quote Shakespeare, they are speaking Pasternak’s verses. And so, for the International Day of the Translator (September 30), let’s see what one of Russia’s greatest translators has to say about translation – and what admiring praise he gives to the English language.

Excerpt from A Translator’s Notes, 1944

Anthologies of foreign literature are typically begun by choosing originals to which the necessary translations are then sought. Our editor, A.I. Startsev, started from the opposite end, taking already existing results as a point of departure. The compilation is based on a trove of the best Russian translations in a century and a half, from Zhukovsky on, with no regard for whether these best examples of the Russian genius correspond to the best strokes of the English one.

By chance, this choice confirmed our long-held belief: translations have no meaning unless their connection to their originals is much closer than usual. A textual correspondence forms too weak a link to render the translation practical. Such translations do not fulfill their promises. Their feeble paraphrases give no sense of the main aspect of that which they aim to reflect – its power. For a translation to achieve its purpose, it must be tied to its original by a more substantial dependency. The relationship between the original and the translation must be that of a basis and its derivative, a trunk and its branch. The translation must come from an author who felt the original’s influence long before taking up his task. It must be the fruit of the original, and its historical consequence.

This is why imitations and borrowings, elements of style and examples of foreign influence bring us closer to the world of European originals than their direct copy. A picture of such influences – that is what this compilation is. The anthology paints English poetry from the perspective of the power we have felt in it. It shows English poetry in its Russian performance. This corresponds profoundly to the very idea of translation, its very purpose.

We have already stated that translations are unfeasible, as the greatest beauty of a literary work is its originality. How can that beauty be repeated in translation?

And yet, we can conceive of translations, because ideally they must be literary works in their own right and, through textual equivalence, stand shoulder to shoulder with their source texts, in their own originality. We can conceive of translations because for centuries entire literatures have translated each other, and translations are not a method for becoming acquainted with individual works – they are a means of perpetual communication between cultures and peoples.

The potential of English meter is limitless. English words have fewer syllables, offering a multitude of opportunities for poetic diction. The English phrase is concise, and therefore meaningful; it is meaningful, and therefore musical, as the music of a word is not in its sonority, but in the relationship between its sound and its meaning. In that sense English poetry is astoundingly musical.

There was a time when we could not ascribe Pushkin and Lermontov’s English obsession to Byron’s ideological influence. Their infatuation always seemed to us to have some other evanescent cause. Later, in our modest introduction to Keats and Swinburne, we were arrested by the same enigma. The enormity of our rapture was not contained by their own allure. In their influence we sensed the same secret, repeating component. Long had we attributed this phenomenon to the appeal of English speech itself and the advantages it offered to English lyrical forms. We were mistaken. The mysterious component that provides extra charm to each English line is the invisible presence of Shakespeare, and his influence on a vast majority of the most common and typical English devices and turns of phrase.


Translation: Eugenia Sokolskaya


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Eugenia Sokolskaya
EUGENIA SOKOLSKAYA came to the United States from Russia when she was four. In addition to a normal public-school education, she also received extensive instruction in Russian literature, film, and history from her parents. She is now a graduate of Swarthmore College and a freelance translator. In 2011, she was short-listed for the Rossica Young Translators Award.
Eugenia Sokolskaya
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In honor of International Translation Day (September 30), we demonstrate rather graphically the value of having a good, human translator.

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