Two Opposing Views of Literary Translation: Nabokov vs. Borges

Martin Boyd

The idea that a translation should be a faithful representation of the source text is a widely accepted truism that few would think to question. It is a concept that has guided most writing about translation for the past two thousand years, as debates in translation studies have tended to revolve around questions of the best methods for achieving “faithful” representation, whether it be St. Jerome’s idea of “sense for sense” translation, or Schleiermacher’s recommendation of a “foreignizing” technique; only in a few rare cases has the debate turned to whether such “faithful” representation is even possible… or desirable.

A typical example of the implicit assumption that fidelity to source text should be the guiding principle in translation can be found in the “translation analytic” proposed by French translation scholar Antoine Berman. Berman’s “translation analytic” is basically a taxonomy for categorizing the different types of meaning shifts that may occur in the process of translating literature. Berman classifies these shifts into twelve “deforming tendencies”, which, he argues, conspire almost against the translator’s will to “cause translation to deviate from its essential aim” (286).  Needless to say, this essential aim is absolute fidelity to source text, which Berman posits as an ethical obligation upon the translator.

This idea of fidelity carries with it an implicit assumption of the sanctity and incorruptibility of the source text, which is probably a legacy of the translation of holy texts like the Bible, for much of the history of Western translation the main focus of translators and translation scholars. Because of its sacrosanct nature, the source text must be brought as “whole” as possible into the target language. Berman offers a compelling image of this idea in citing Foucault’s image of translation, as “taking the original text for a projectile and treating the translating language as a target” (285). According to this image, problems such as unnatural sounding language or incomprehensibility for target language readers might be viewed merely as necessary collateral damage.

Russian author and translator Vladimir Nabokov takes the position advocated by Berman to its logical extreme. Indeed, his views on the matter make him look almost like a caricature of the literalist school of translation. Nabokov begins an article on his experience of translating Pushkin’s Onegin with a vituperative attack on any translation judged as “readable”, as this surely means that it is the product of a “knavish” translator who has committed the great crime of “free translation” (71). His claim that “the clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase” (71, emphasis added) is revealing, as it suggests that “utility” is to be given priority over aesthetic considerations in literary translation. If we apply this criterion for literary translation to literature in general, the absurdity of Nabokov’s position becomes clear (in what way is literature “useful”?). His call for “footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers” (82) hardly seems a recipe for great literature. It is thus perhaps not surprising that translation scholar Willis Barnstone describes his translation of Onegin as “unread and hard to read” (Barnstone 48).

As an antidote to Nabakov’s extremism I would like to propose the perspective of Argentine author and translator Jorge Luis Borges, a perspective that is truly refreshing in its complete disregard for the traditional views that implicitly (or explicitly) view the source text as sacred. In his article on the translation of Arabian Nights, Borges offers an entertaining account of various European translators of this classic work of literature, who took such extreme liberties with their source that they would surely have sent poor Nabokov into fits of rage. But for Borges, the French translator Dr. Mardrus, whose translation of a ten-word sentence in the original Nights into a seven-line paragraph makes him guilty of at least three of Berman’s “deformations” (clarification, expansion and ennoblement), should be praised, not for his fidelity (obviously), but for “his happy and creative infidelity” (45). On the other hand, the dry, technically accurate German translations of the Nights are criticized for their lack of contribution to literature, as Borges remarks that “the commerce between Germany and the Nights should have produced something more” (46).

Borges’ assessments of these translations suggest a very different perspective on the role of translation, not as an instrument to be used to hurl the source text violently at the target language, but as a medium of exchange, through which source text and target culture may be mutually enriched. Obviously, such mutual enrichment cannot take place if translators are to be hemmed in by the supposedly ethical obligation to subjugate all – including their readers – to the supreme sanctity of the source text.

Works Cited
Berman, Antoine. “Translation and the Trials of the Foreign”. Translation Studies Reader. L. Venuti (ed.). London: Routledge, 1999. 284-297.
Barnstone, W. Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Translators of the Thousand and One Nights”. Translation Studies Reader. L. Venuti (ed.). London: Routledge, 1999. 34-48.
Nabokov, Vladimir. “Problems of Translation: Onegin in English”. Translation Studies Reader. L. Venuti (ed.). London: Routledge, 1999. 71-83.

9 thoughts on “Two Opposing Views of Literary Translation: Nabokov vs. Borges

  1. Thank you for this thought-provoking piece on the philosophy of literary translation. Was it not Borges himself who said, “The translation is unfaithful to the original?”

  2. Well, I firmly believe that literary translation is a kind of tightrope walk. Fetish for fidelity may have its origin in Biblical translations during the renaissance and cannot be accepted as a reliable basis for translation. On the other hand no translator would run the risk of being condemned for the sin of total divorce from the source text. In other words, translation is negotiation between Nabokov and Borges.

  3. Very nice post. Am unfamiliar with technical aspects of translation in general and specific view perspectives of Nabokov and Borges. But as someone who grew up in a multi-lingual environment, I have struggled while expressing ideas(some poetry and movie song lyrics 🙂 ) of one language in another.

    Word-sense, sound rhythm, feeling and emotional aftertaste all make up our experience of language. To retain fidelity over all these factors while transplanting an idea from one linguistic landscape to another is a challenge.

    For me, translation is less about the words than it is about transcribing that soul-state which yielded the words. The “sanctity of source text” resides not in the words but in the idea behind them and in the mind & heart that produced them.

    To leave a reader in the target language the same joy, feeling and insight evoked by the original should be the primary goal.

    Specific linguistic characteristics of the source language, say culture-specific ideas, puns, brevity of expression, sound rhythms…are more difficult to bring across and will invariably undergo a deformation, or mutation, driven by abilities of a target language and the translator.

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  5. Thanks everyone for your comments, and thanks Mahesh for reflecting further on the article in your blog post. I think your description of the text’s “soul-state”, which might be associated with the mood and narrative voice, is indeed key, and perhaps is where the translator’s obligation to fidelity really lies, rather than in fidelity merely to the surface meaning of the text. This is why taxonomies like Berman’s deformations can be misleading when analyzing a translation; such distortions are indeed inevitable, but do not necessarily reflect a departure from the “soul-state” of the source text.

  6. Alexis, Borges actually said the precise opposite, otherwise it would have made no (paradoxical) sense at all: “The original is unfaithful to the translation.”

  7. Nabokov came to this almost literal fetish late in life. While a young man, he translated “Alice in Wonderland” very freely, because he wrote it for his father and wanted to entertain him. Puns in English that would have been deadly translated literally into Russian were liberally adapted, and details in the English version that would have puzzled Russians were adapted for the Russian reader (e.g., Carroll’s “French mouse, come over with William the Conqueror” in the 1066 Norman invasion of England was translated in Russian as a mouse left behind during Napoleon’s retreat from Russia in 1812). The older they get, the more conservative and less fun they get, I suppose…

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