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The Translation Wars

By Alice Reynolds, Oisin Harris and Toby Smollett

There is a long history of translation wars. In the 15th century, for example, the Bible’s infamously contested translation saw clergy and scholars fight over how much of the script the common reader should know. Whilst in more recent history translators no longer risk death like in William Tyndale’s case, there still exists battles between translators and contested claims of the best translation of an author.

This is to be expected as translators bear much responsibility and agency in giving the translated text meaning. Indeed, a translation can never be objective. Each translator brings their own personal perspective on a text which can often be political. Their task is difficult too: not only must they lift the original text’s richness of syntax and imagery, but also present the text’s culture and history to a foreign readership. Famous Russian translator and translation war contestant, Larissa Volokhonsky, stated that it “ compared to restoring a painting.” For her, “you have to be true to the thing.” This trueness is the very crux of translation wars: how best to express a text’s verity. Like for the translators of the Bible, contested translations are a very interesting lens from which to view changing politics and society.

War and… war? Translating Russia’s greats

The decision to call academic and literary disagreements over specific translation choices a “war” may seem to be verging on melodramatic, and that criticism is slightly fair, but if anything shouldn’t be a surprise, it’s the seriousness with which academics treat the niche branch of their field they’ve chosen to invest time in.

Combine this natural inclination to defend one’s genuinely expert perspective in a specific field with the scale of long-term translation projects, and the idea of a murky, bitter world of translation becomes more and more sensible. It should make even more sense that this would be particularly true in the case of translating Russian literature, with its famously long works like The Idiot and War and Peace.

The arguments and subsequent fallout of much of 20th century Russian translation wars are fascinating – Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov went from close friends to sworn nemeses, with the latter refusing to see the former on his deathbed due to the damage he’d suffered to his “personal honour” after a stinging review of his translation of Pushkin’s Onegin.

It is, of course, a great irony that one of the central books to the history of Russian translation wars is Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and that the assured self-confidence of his translators seems so at odds with his work.

“People have eternally been mistaken and will be mistaken, and in nothing more than what they consider right or wrong.”

Perhaps the advent of the end of the translation wars is near; we, like Tolstoy, expect these to continue for much longer.

In Search of Lost Time’s various translators and which translated Proust best

To most Anglophone readers if you evoke eating madeleines, their memories will inevitably defer back to Marcel Proust’s ingrained scene in Swann’s Way (the first volume of In Search of Lost Time) when the protagonist (Marcel himself) bites into a madeleine and is instantly ferried back to his childhood and all its memories.

Furthermore, for most Anglophone readers acquainted with Proust’s masterpiece, this familiarity would be via Charles Kenneth (C. K.) Scott Moncrieff’s translation into English, whose translation is widely considered a work of art in itself. But naysayers have and still do lambast Scott Moncrieff’s translation as too interpretive and brimming with Victorianisms. To begin with, Scott Moncrieff translated Proust’s multi-layered title “A La Recherche du Temps Perdu,” as Remembrance of Things Past, which Scott Moncrieff lifted off a Shakespearean sonnet and which was only changed in 1922 to In Search of Lost Time. I personally favour the 1922-onwards title and agree with critics like Sidney Schiff aka Stephen Hudson who lamented that Remembrance of Things Past lacks vitality and elan and has quite a solemn tone to it as a title.

In the 1950s, years after Proust’s death, his brother and Gallimard (Proust’s French publisher) published a much more definitive version of “A La Recherche du Temps Perdu” including much annotated materials Proust had made in his original MS. This French version was translated in the 1980s by Terence Kilmartin (who further revised Scott Moncrieff) and then again, by D.J. Enright. There’s also been a Penguin translation between 2002 and 2005 which applied seven different translators to each volume of Proust’s magnum opus (including Lydia Davis and John Sturrock) and required seven years to complete. It is interesting that (and perhaps that’s due to the small oeuvre of Proust) in Anglophone circles, a translation like Scott Moncrieff’s is almost an origin story for any newcomers seeking to translate Proust, whereas there does not seem to exist such a fountain head translation in other languages (and there exists many) into which Proust is translated. Whilst the proverbial madeleine moment lives on in culture, so does each Proust reader’s affection for one of these translations. If only Proust were around to settle such debates!


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