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The Art of translation. Some remarks
I am not sure that the general theory of translation is what one really needs in any practical work with artistic translation. The art of translation consists of details and peculiarities much more than of certain fundamental principles. To use the Greek terms, the principle of oikonomia, and not that of akribеia prevails here. Each new text or even new phrase is a new task, and if somebody supposed to have obtained the universal device or solution, we would not seriously take him as a master of artistic translation. Such devices could be nothing but mechanical tricks which help us to translate away the things we deal with. I would even ascribe it to the most simple and general principles, such as: to rhyme or not to rhyme when you translate a rhymed poem. Both decisions could be brilliant – and disgusting.

What the art of translation demands is a high developed sense of unique and inimitable (just because it is the art of imitation), i.e. the sense of the whole. It is the whole of a poem, the whole of an author’s imaginaire (as they call it now) that transfigures the parts of common language, the formal devices and the images, both usual and exotic ones. And the only instrument we can use to grasp the whole is, unfortunately, intuition and not the theoretical premises and statements. I have said: unfortunately, because I don’t know any ways of improving this tool – or rather organ of perception; we can hardly describe the perception of the whole analytically – and thus to acquire it or to hand it down. The key to the whole – if it exists – is hidden in a strange place.

I’d like to give you an example of such a paradoxical key. It is from another field of semi-creative art: the art of drawing copies of painting. In Russia we have an excellent master who restores and copies fresco paintings, Adolf Ovchinnikov. His copies of Byzantine, Old Georgian, Old Russian frescos differ from the works of others; they look authentic and moving as the original works normally do. But if you compare his copies to the originals line by line, you would discover that in fact no detail looks the same! The key he found to create the impression of the similarity – in its very deep sense – was the speed of painting. He studied the works he was going to copy (or reconstruct the losses in them) from quite a special point of view. He managed to calculate the time the painter spent to create them. Then he tried to re-paint them in the same period of time, without worrying about the concrete details, with the same speed – a very high one, indeed. The old masters were amazingly quick! The secret of the visual style proved to lie in the speed of doing things! No copyist or restorer before Adolf Ovchinnikov paid attention to this dimension in the visual art. Usually a copy and restoration was being done square by square, slowly and with lots of attempts and corrections. A.Ovchinnikov tried to follow freedom and certitude that marked the old masters’ brush. And he succeeded in everything!

I am sure we can’t transfer his discovery into our work with the verbal creations. I guess, neither the speed of writing, nor the physical time spent by the writer is the key to the verbal whole. What I meant to say with my example is that if we don’t need any special theories of translation, nevertheless, we do need to have some fundamental ideas concerning the things which belong to some higher order than translation itself. In Ovcinnikov’s case it was the discovery of the value of time in the visual art – the brilliant idea! In our case, I suppose, the ideas of the type should concern the nature of word, of verbal composition; of what is possible and impossible in word and composition of the words. Artistic freedom depends on what one put impossible, where he feels the border line of nefas. I think, in our field its nature has semantic rather than temporal nature.

Normally, the space of fas which the translator disposes of is much more narrow than the author’s one. Not strange. The author possesses his message (or he is possessed by it) – and the translator but serves to it. Then, the author’s words and phrases are dynamic, they are open, for they don’t know their future, just as their creator does not know what his heroes are going to do next. Let me mention one example of this open future of the text, of its independent and unpredictable progress: Pushkin was astonished by the fact, that his favoured heroine Tatiana agreed to get married (he wrote to a friend of his: “Do you know, what a trick my Tatiana played? she married!”). But the translator of “Eugene Onegin” knows the fact of Tatiana’s marriage; he knows it before he starts to translate the chapters about her girlhood. Is he able to simulate the author’s ignorance of his heroine’s destiny – and his shock with the turn of the events? Is he able to find himself in the Present of the text with the risks and surprises of it? In many respects the time of the text he is to translate is the Past Time. But, I suppose, not in every respect. Otherwise, he deals with a dead text. And the translator’s task is to find the zones of Present, open and alive in his original – and to make them sound in a new language, in the constellation of another tradition. The real danger in poetic translation is the lack of boldness. We need to mind the danger. Our authors teach us to be daring as they are, because poetry, as we know, intends to extend the sphere of possible both in experience and in its expression. And the translator must be obedient to his author, must follow him and make the voice of his inner censor, which is formed by the routine, silent. I insist on the bravery of translator not in favour of some special advance-guard or experimental type of translation; I think every honest and realistic translation of poetry is daring.
In sum: the most urgent premise of poetical translation is the confidence in poetry as such, poetry as message and its addressee.
A friend of mine said that poetry is the most heroic type of the work with language. The deeper you immerse in your native language, the more helpless and lonely your text becomes – even among the native speakers. Does the language that every schoolchild knows to be the main means of communication, does it really, in its depth (that poetry discloses for us), hinder any communication, contradict to sharing feelings and senses? In my opinion, poetry as the most intimate manifestation of language contradicts to too easy communication, too cheep one. It proposes another level of communication and shared conscience, where they are not guaranteed and ready-made things, but an event, a happy promise. I have the final line of one of the last Mandelshtam’s poems in mind:

И все, что будет, только обещанье.
And everything next is but a promise.

A reader and a translator of poetry can lose any nuance of its meanings , both expressed and implied, but he is well advised not to lose its most general sense, this “but a promise”: the extending of our world at hand, a flash of aletheia (truth), as M.Heidegger reads the word: not-hiding, dis-closure.
Has this advice any practical sense? What part of the verbal composition is responsible for this message – and, thus, is the first thing to be rendered in translation: the vocabulary? rhythms? versification? sonority? inner proportions? Surely we can’t answer once for ever. But something should remain a bit too large (too large for the concrete meaning you are going to communicate); I would say, you have to allow room for growth. Let it be in your choice of words, let it be in your choice of sounds...

I dwell on the theme of the boldness in translator’s work partly because of my personal experience in this field, a rather sad one. “It’s not good Russian! It is not understandable! It is not correct!” – I regularly heard such comments on my translations from the censors in the Soviet times (for the translations were censored as all the aesthetic production). If I argued that the original itself was not meant to be either “correct” or “understandable” (as for example Emily Dickinson’s poems were), it had no effect. They knew well how to make poets be, and sound clear and nice.

But in my discussion of the Russian language as the language for translation I would prefer to start not with the sad times of our culture, but with its happy beginning. Before this “historical” part of my talk I would also like to apologise if what I am about to say is already familiar to you.
It would not be an overstatement to say that the place of translation and translators in Russian history is an extremely important one. Naturally, it used to be common for all the European cultures since the Romans with their “exemplaria Graeca” (I mean the famous Horace’s advice to the poets compatriots:

Vos exemplaria Graeca
Nocturna versate manu, versate diurna.

But even in this context Russia could be considered as a special case and I will try to prove it. The very beginning of historical times in Russia (in fact, in the Slavonic world) coincides with the first translations – and really exceptional ones! The two Greeks, St. Cyrill and St.Methody, the Apostles of the Slavs, translated the Greek liturgy into the language, which did not yet exist! What the holy Brothers created was not the alphabet, not the corpus of texts, but the language itself: so-called Old Church Slavonic language, the common language of the East and South Orthodox Slavs. Surely, they did not invent an artificial language of Esperanto type: they used what they had, the vernacula, the oral South Slavonic dialect with its morphology, vocabulary, phonetics. But they had – they were constrained in fact – to recreate it in its semantics and syntax. Otherwise it could not convey the sophisticated and refined theological concepts of the Greek to the “simple Slavs” (as the Slavs called themselves). It is interesting to follow them in their translators’ work. For example, to render the Greek pneuma (spirit) they took the Slavonic dukh (now: spirit). But in the dialects dukh did not mean ‘spirit’ (as it does not mean nowadays). It meant just ‘breath’ – or ‘smell’. Meanwhile, the Greek word had a huge range of semantics between ‘breath’ at its “low” level and ‘spirit’ at the “top”. The Teachers of the Slavs ( as S.Cyrill and S.Methody are called) connected the ”low” poles of Greek and Slavonic words – and by doing so they put the spiritual meaning into the word with a concrete physical sense. They built the semantic vertical dimension, which the Slavonic word lacked. Thus the Brothers created the whole field of abstract and spiritual notions which Slavonic language did not yet possess. As a great historian of Russian language A.Issachenko described the process, it was a sort of metempsychosis of Greek language into the flesh of a tribal speech. After that the Slavs had two languages, the written and the oral, the sacred and the profane ones. The two languages differed not so much in their grammar, as in their semantics: the same word meant different things in “simple” and “pure” language. And in the case if we have two words for the same thing, a Slavonic (in its origin) and a Russian ones (e.g. ochi and glaza for ‘the eyes’), the first would be taken as the concrete noun and the former – as the metaphor or a name for “platonic” reality. So we can hardly use glasa to Angel’s eyes. (By the way, it is a real problem for any translator of “sublime” European poetry,that does not distinguish the two verbal levels).

It is hard to overestimate the impact of the Greek inoculation to Slavonic plant. In my view, the very concept of poetry as a “special language”, sacred or prophetic one, which essentially differs from the prosaic speech (the widespread concept of Russian Classic poetry ), consciously or unconsciously, goes back to St.Cyrill’s heritage. Without the phenomena of Church Slavonic, familiar to everybody in its “flesh” and strange in its (Greek) “soul” we could never have such a poet as Osip Mandelshtam with his “fantastic of word”. The generations of the Orthodox Christians got used to know by heart the liturgical hymns and prayers without any attempt – not to translate them into Russian, but to understand it word by word! The situation formed a special sensitivity to the words that affect you immediately – and not inform you. A word as a portion of power rather than of meaning.

The next explosion of cultural activity of translation took place in the Eighteenth century. It was the time of rushed modernisation of medieval Russian culture. This time the models were taken mostly from France (but German, Italian and English played their part as well; e.g. Alexander Pope with his “Essay on Man” was one of the most influential English writers of the 17th century; he contributed to the philosophical language of Russian poetry). The West European models transformed the Russian language no less than the Greek ones. For instance, the so-called metaphysical language (the vocabulary for the abstract reflections and psychological observations) was created by the translators of French novels, such as “Adolph” by B.Constant, “Rene” by Chateaubriand and others. In the same way as we would not have our Mandelshtam without having the Greek element infused into the Russian language, we would not have E.Baratynsky and his followers – up to Brodsky – without the French implantation.

What I meant to tell you is in no way the historical review nor a sort of archaeological study of the sources of the modern Russian language. I touch the past of our language to feel its present; not the sources but the resources of language is what I am interested in. The old dictum “In my beginning is my end” seems to be valid for the language. And that is why I’ve begun my discussion with the theme of freedom and boldness in translation.

So, I’d like to underline one thing. In both cases, in its Greek and West European adventures, the Russian language behaved in a quite amazing manner: modestly and boldly at once. Modestly, because it demonstrated readiness and even pleasure to follow its new guide without any anxiety about losing its own identity. And boldly, because it (I mean, language and his writers) did not worry much about what is possible and impossible, fas et nefas. They did what seemed impossible before their deed. “It is not good Russian!” ,the phrase already mentioned above , would sound absurd to S.Cyrill and his followers. “Sure, it was not good Russian before – but henceforward it can be good Russian, and that’s why I am working now,” this would be the response of our great translators. What they obtained for the Russian language, for is writers and readers was not only the new texts or some new, borrowed means of expression but the strange and precious gift. Theirs was a gift of freedom in confronting the native language, the source of the linguistic carelessness that distinguishes the great style of Russian literature, the open and “irregular” writing of Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy. It was the art of translation, the art of being passive and obedient and hopeful, that made them fantastically free.

As you can easily guess, in my own translator’s practice I try to follow the Cyrillian tradition. First of all, it means that to follow tradition is in no way to dread the tradition (as if it were a set of rigid imperatives): the tradition begins with the creation of the unprecedented things and demands to recognise what we lack now. We can use this or that expression even if they “don’t sound Russian”, if “nobody would say like that”: it’s enough for me if they sound authentic. As Marina Zwetaeva advised: if they tell you “Nobody would do like that!”, you can answer: “But I am not Nobody!”. Besides, I don’t know any other ways to render, for instance, such an author as T.S.Eliot, and every poet which is essentially remote from Russian prosody and modes. Perhaps, not so many people share my attitude now: the previous years formed other translators’ habits. But one of our best authors, V.V.Bibikhin , who managed to create the Russian versions of the most giddy theological and philosophical works, also calls his method of translation “Cyrillian”. It means for us not to “use” the words but to deal with a word that occurs as an event.

Finally, I need to apologise for the great lacuna in my history of Russian translation. I haven’t mentioned here the Soviet period. I had to leave it aside, with its brilliant achievements and tragic losses, with its peculiar school of translation; it deserves a long and separate talk.
A lecture held in April 1997 at the The British Library, Centre for the Book
The Issue of Man in Modern Secular Culture
"Non-Mortal and Mysterious Feelings": On Pushkinʼs Christianity
"In the Vestal Abyss of a Line of Verse": On Meaning in Poetry and Meaning in Doctrine
Mediocrity as a Social Danger
The Light of Life. Some Remarks On the Russian Orthodox Perception
 The Art of translation. Some remarks
The Morality of Art, or the Evils of Mediocrity
Once again about Childhood, Poetry, and Courage. Answers for Elena Stepanian
Hermes. The Invisible Aspect of Classical Literature
A Discourse on Method
Poetry and Anthropology
On the Nature of Tradition
Freedom as Eschatological Reality
Waiting for a Response
Totus Tuus
In Memory of John Paul II
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