Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The Other Side of the Tapestry

Translations have always fascinated me and even more so when I read this quote by Miguel de Cervantes: ‘Translations are the other side of a tapestry.’ That set me thinking. You have the original writer writing in their own language. Then you have the translator writing in theirs and, in some cases, you have translations from translations, not to mention literal translations. Most early English translations of Turgenev were not from Russian, but from French!

One of the great Chekhov translators was Constance Garnett (1862 – 1946) who translated seventeen Chekhov works, seventeen volumes of Turgenev, thirteen volumes of Dostoevsky, six of Gogol and four of Tolstoy. She worked so quickly that when she came across an awkward passage, she would leave it out. D H Lawrence remembered her ‘turning out reams of her marvelous translations from the Russian. She would finish a page, and throw it off on a pile on the floor without looking up, and start a new page. The pile would be . . . almost up to her knees, and all magical.’

In 1994 Donald Rayfield compared Garnett's translations with the most recent scholarly versions of Chekhov’s stories: ‘While she makes elementary blunders, her care in unravelling difficult syntactical knots and her research on the right terms for Chekhov's many plants, birds and fish are impressive . . . Her English is not only nearly contemporaneous to Chekhov's, it is often comparable.’ In the 1998 anthology, The Essential Tales of Chekhov, the Constance Garnett translations were used by its editor, Richard Ford.

In the spirit of exploration I thought it might be interesting to look at the first sentence, and title, of one of Chekhov’s most famous stories. Here goes:

‘People were saying that someone new had appeared on the seafront: a lady with a little dog.’ “The Lady with the Little Dog”, translator: Rosamund Bartlett

‘It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea-front: a lady with a little dog.’ “The Lady with the Dog”, translator: Constance Garnett

‘People said that there was a new arrival on the Promenade: a lady with a little dog.’ “The Lady with the Little Dog”, translator: Ronald Wilks

‘There was said to be a new arrival on the Esplanade: a lady with a dog.’ “A Lady with a Dog”, translator: Ronald Hingley

‘The appearance on the front of a new arrival - a lady with a lapdog - became the topic of general conversation.' “The Lady with the Lapdog”, translator: David Magarshack

On the basis of the story title and the opening sentence alone, which ‘other side of a tapestry’ would you choose as the most authentic ‘voice’ of Chekhov? Which has the most nuance and style? Having read all the various versions of this story, I know who my money would be on. 

Stay tuned . . .

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