Saturday, November 21, 2009

A translation mystery, solved I think

There's an oddity in Louise and Aylmer Maude's translation of Anna Karenina that has puzzled me for some time. The passage in question is Part I, chapter 16, third paragraph, about Vronsky falling in love with Kitty in Moscow. Most translators  have something like this:  (from Constance Garnett's translation)
 "In Moscow, he had for the first time felt, after his luxurious and coarse life in Petersburg..." etc.

A newer translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhinsky is similar.."In Moscow, after the luxurious and coarse life of Petersburg, he had" and so on.

And Google Translate renders it like this:
In Moscow, the first time he experienced after a luxurious and coarse Petersburg life, the beauty of intimacy with a charming and innocent girl who fell in love. (Not bad!!!)

But then we come to Louise and Aylmer Maud's translation:
 "In Moscow, after this luxurious course of Petersburg life, he experienced" etc.

A Russian interepreter hearing the English homonyms "coarse" and "course" might conceivably confuse them, but here we're talking about a translation from Russian into English.  Is there a Russian homograph (word with same spelling, different meaning, like "bark") or  heteronym (word that has common spelling but different meaning and pronunciation, e.g  invalid and invalid) that could account for this gaffe? My Russian speaking friends said no, and having no further ideas, I tucked it away in my big store of things to wonder about.

Then last week I stumbled upon Jeffrey Trachtenberg's article Translating Tolstoy in the Wall Street Journal, about the translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I decided to send Trachtenberg a note about this little conundrum, and he graciously responded by directing me to David Remnick's fascinating 2005 New Yorker article "The Translation Wars" which discusses more generally the challenges of translating Russian, the famous feud between Nabokov and Wilson, and some of the translators (including Pevear and Vohlokinsky) and their translations. One detail in particular, about Constance Garnett's production line methods, grabbed my attention: She hired a secretary, who read the Russian text to her aloud; Garnett would dictate back in English.

Eureka, this is precisely the kind of method that could twist "coarse" into "course."  And although this was about Garnett and her secretary (who got the passage right), it is not implausible that the Maudes might have engaged in the same kind of mischief. I can think of no other explanation.

p.s. - in Russian, in case someone might have a better explanation, the passage looks like this:

В Москве в первый раз он испытал, после роскошной и грубой
петербургской жизни, прелесть сближения со светскою милою и невинною
девушкой, которая полюбила

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