When we read a book or see a play that has been written in another language and translated into English, what exactly are we reading or hearing? Are they the words of the author or the words of the translator?
This is the eternal dilemma of translation. Each language has its own words, phrases, structure, and expressions—not to mention idioms. Often, there are no exact equivalents for these in another language.
In addition, language inevitably changes over time. The expressions used by Victorian English and Americans are not the expressions that are common in 21st century English. Nor should they be. Language is a dynamic, organic being. It is not something that is “set in stone.”
So what is a translator to do? What obligations must she fulfill?
The life and work of Constance Garnett is a good case in point. Garnett was born Constance Clara Black in 1861 in Brighton, England. She grew up to be an attractive but sickly girl who suffered from health problems throughout her 84 years.
She attended Newnham College in Cambridge, where she read classics and math. Both of these subjects required concentration and precision. Interestingly, she did not take up the Russian language, which was to become her great passion, until she was nearly 30 years old. After graduation, Constance worked for a time as a governess, and then as a librarian at the People’s Palace Library in London. During that time she met Edward Garnett, and they were married in Brighton in 1889.
She and her husband settled in London, and became part of a bohemian culture that included many Russian exiles. It was from these exiles and immigrants that she began learning Russian and understanding the great literature that was being produced by Russian authors. She began working with Sergius Stepniak, a Russian exile, and his wife, Fanny, on translations of Russian stories, one of which was by Leo Tolstoy, into English.
She made her first trip to Russia in 1894, visiting Moscow and St. Petersburg and eventually meeting Tolstoy himself. During all of this time, she developed an interest in Russian language and literature, and began to devote all of her energies to making the works of great Russian writers available to English readers.
During the next four decades, she translated more than 70 volumes of works of Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Chekhov, among many others. Her husband, Edward, who had steadily risen to prominence in the publishing world, was instrumental in getting many of these works into print.
When they first appeared, the translations by Garnett were highly praised by readers such as Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, and Ernest Hemingway. Her use of Victorian English to express the ideas of Russian authors was easily accepted and appreciated by those eager to read the Russians.
In fact, her work was so groundbreaking, popular, and influential that many of her translations are still in print.
But Garnett was also the target of a great deal of criticism, especially by some who knew the Russian language better than she did. Russian authors Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Brodsky were especially tough on her. Nabokov called her translations “dry and flat, and always unbearably demure.” Part of his criticism was due to his bias that translators should be male rather than female.
By the 1930s, Garnett’s ill health had caught up with her, and she retired after the publication of three plays by Turgenev. Her husband died in 1937. Her heart began to fail, and she spent her last years trying to walk with crutches. She died in 1946 at the age of 84.
She was not forgotten, however. Her work continued to draw both praise and criticism. She was accused of numerous translation sins, including not understanding the Russian language and smoothing over difficult passages with Victorian phrasing.
In the early 1970s, she was the subject of a satirical play, The Idiots Karamazov, that was produced by the Yale Repertory Company. The lead in the play was a young Meryl Streep. She depicts Garnett as a woman who at times is utterly flummoxed by the Russian language, and one memorable line has her translating “hysterical homosexual” as simply “Tchaikovsky.”
Despite these continuing criticisms, Garnett is still recognized today as the woman who introduced Russian literature and many great Russian authors to the English-speaking world. Author Sara Wheeler has recently written the following for LitHer.com:
When I read Garnett’s translations I feel I am responding to paragraphs penned by Turgenev and Tolstoy themselves, not to someone else’s version of them. Her work gives the lie to Cervantes’s assertion that reading a translation is like looking at a Flemish tapestry from the wrong side: Although the figures are visible, they are obscured by bits of thread.
Garnett’s monumental efforts continue to astonish those who truly recognize the myriad difficulties of translation.
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