13 December, 2012

On translations

Larissa Volokhonsky & Richard Pevear
"Dear Al,
Do you suggest a specific translation of 'The Master and Margarita?' Also, you're right, covers do matter! Thank you.
From, M "

Dear M,

Why yeeeessss. Да. Oui. . Ja.

On translations:

In translating literature from one language to another in GENERAL, it is important to convey not only the literal meaning of the story, but the culture, dialogue and thought flow, and essence of the characters being conveyed.

Because Russia, but particularly Soviet Russia is such an extra foreign mystery to Westerners, cultural conveyance is of even more import.

Russians (and of course, subsequently, their LANGUAGE) are very... VERY direct in their everyday conversations. They say exactly what is needed, often coming across as harsh or rude to the smiley, overly polite English speaking world. But keep in mind, Russia is cold, you don't want to have long talks in the street. And in Soviet Russia people never wanted to display their true emotions or feelings in public, lest they be overheard, doubted, and subsequently punished for any reason. Out in the "world" Soviet Russians were (and in many ways still lingeringly are) very suspicious. There was no sidewalk restaurant culture (anyone might overhear your lunch conversation!), shopping and socializing were not about personal pleasure but about necessity.

HOWEVER, once a Russian trusts you and welcomes you into their HOME? Well, you might not ever make it out for they will shower you in love and affection and pet names and pickles and guitar serenades and litres of vodka and ostensibly a veritable tsunami of emotional openness and truth we hear so often in their music. This is so prevalent in their language I don't even know how to fully convey it other than in ALL CAPS. [*she yells*] TO YELL AT YOU ABOUT IT IN ALL CAPS!!

You know who does this best?

     Husband and wife team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
     They nail it.

Not only in the prose (which is *ga ga ga gorgeous*-- particularly in their recently released War and Peace, a translation that made the book readable and not dry at ALL)
     but crucially, in the dialogue.

Also crucial is the footnotes. Their footnotes explain everything you could ever want to know about what you are reading (and probably many things you did not realize you wanted to know, plus a few things you didn't really need to know but now you feel like a freakin' Master-MIND and Margarita...sorry...). Anyway they manage to do all of that in a comprehensive, yet utterly concise way. Best footnotes out there. [1] Here is a link to their brilliant essay on The Master and Margarita -- I highly encourage a perusal.

CONS: The bummer about the Penguin Classics edition of M&M?
     1. the font is so tiny you get an ocular migraine.
     2. The main character's name is 'Bezdomny' which is the literal word for "Homeless"-- it is clearly a direct joke, like Dickens naming a bumbling workhouse officer Mr. Bumble. However, there is something about using the word "Homeless" as his actual moniker throughout the book that... irks me. Not sure why. Just personal preference I suppose.
     3. [::sigh::] The cover...? The American cover anyway is (I'm so sorry Kasimir Malevich!!) not whimsical. It is "An Englishman in Moscow" and basically just not what I want...
          ...which is a black cat. 

And YES, M, yes: covers matter
They matter very much. 
[*evidence below*]

I want bat-shit Bulgakov-crazy shit liiiiike...

[1] truly

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