Lauren Leighton
Kornei Chukovskii, Vysokoe iskusstvo: o printzipakh khudozhestvennogo perevoda

Canadian Slavic Studies, University of Virginia / 1964

Moscow, «Iskusstvo», 1964, 354 pp.

There has been a tremendous growth of interest in the art of translation during the past decade in the Soviet Union, and the degree of some achievements has been impressive. In actual practice landmarks have been set by Marshak’s Robert Burns, Rita Rait-Kovaleva’s Faulkner, Mikhail’s Lozinskii’s Benevenuto Cellini, Etikind’s Brecht, Brodskii’s John Donne, and, of course, Kornei Chukovskii’s Walt Whitman. On theory of translation there have been important studies written by E.Etkind (Poezia i perevod, 1963), A.V. Fedorov (Vvedenie v teoriyu perevoda, 1958), and the growing flood of critical and theoretical essays in the dozen or so recent sborniki, most notably the Masterstvo perevoda series (1955, 1959, 1962, 1963, 1964). The book under review here is one more indication of this renaissance.

Wealth and variegation of information are the chief values of this book and they are reflected by the many things which could be said about it. It would not do to overlook Chukovskii’s chatty style and there is the importance of his casual, even rambling, yet always coherent and absorbing presentation. There is the warmth of his praise of translators in Russia and abroad, as well as his courteously strict criticisims of what he condiers lapses in taste or skill. There is the remarkable number of devices he has contrived for conveying the fine details of foreign language problems to an unskilled audience. There is the fact that he has made fascinating reading of a subject that is usually appealing only for its dry technicalities. There is much more, but really, variety is such an overwhelming feature of this book that one could do worse, by way of review, than to simply underscore some of its highlights.

Most indicative of variety is the number and nature of problems and subjects Chukovskii has packed between the covers of his book. Here one could easily list the whole book, but perhaps just a few items may illustrate for all. There is a close analysis of K.D. Balmon’s florid translation of Whitman and Shelley (Chukovskii calls the result of the latter «Shell’mont») (20-26), an examination of Marshak’s ingenious translations of some of Burns’ most difficult colloquial phrases (67-72) and a praise of Marshak followed by a defense of his Burns (202-21), a sharp criticism of A.A. Fet’s strictly literal translations of Shakespeare (79-82), a study of recent Soviet translations of Shakespeare, including a severe criticism of the «bukvality» who dominated Soviet translation in the thirties and forties (185-201), a praise of Tat’iana Gneditch’s translations of Byron’s Don Juan (233-239), a criticism of the translation of Constance Garnette (245-248), a kindly protest against recent American and English mistranslations of Chukovskii’s own verse for children, entitled «Zapiski postradavshego» (250-259), and several essays on Shevenko in Russian translations (316-344). These and a host of other problems discussed make the book a storehouse of the lore of translation — a lore drawn not only from Chukovskii’s sixty-year career as a translator, but from the studies and experiences of others.

One particularly fascinating indication of variety is to be found in the profusions of «crabs» — glaring errors in similar to some notoriour Russian mistranslations of the British expression «to fish for crabs». There is the time, for example, when a telegram from George Bernard Shaw, containing mention of Chekhov, sent Russian officials scurrying to find a writer named Jerry Orchard. Or the incident when an Ukrainian expression «Chase him away!» was translated into Russian as «Marry him off!» because the Ukrainian equivalent of the Russian verb «gnat» is «zhenit». Or the fact that Marian Fell translated Chekhov’s reference to the poet Batiushkov as «an Orthodox priest» confused another reference to the critic Dobroliubov with St.Francis of Assisi because of the similarity between «Dobroliubov» and «dobroliubec», and even translated the title of his Kashtanka, the story of a dog as the «Chestnut Tree». Or the fact that Bal’mont titled his translations of Whitman «Pobegi travy» — «Shoots of grass» and that Lermontov once confused the English words «writ» and «wit». Or there is Bernard Guilbert Guerney’s translation of a mention in Gogol’s Revisor of a popular novel of the time with the anachronism «best seller», and there is an actual case where the English expression «many happy returns» was translated into Russian as «zhelayu vam kak mozhno chasche vozvraschat’sia».

Chukovskii has a great deal to say about Western translators (his favourite translation of Eugenie Onegin is Reginald Hewitt’s), and he seems to be deliberately provoking a dialogue. One excellent indication of this is «show trial of those masters of translation who have avoided colloqual style — an actual trial with prosecutor, advocate and judges, so that, thanks to clash of opinions, readers may gain a clearer understanding of the problem». Harshly prosecuted for their «smoothing» of Russian slang and jargon are the translators Ralph Parker, Bela von Block, Maxy Hayward and Ronald Hingley, Thomas P. Whitney (all for their translations of Ivan Denisovich), and Bernard Guilbert Guerney (for the Inspector General). The advocate has his turn, however, and he not only defends these «fellow-workers abroad», but attacks Soviet translators for their same «slander» of the rich English styles, of, among others, Mark Twain and Charles Dickens. Both viewpoints are reconciled (at least as far as this «problem without solution» is reconciable) by the judge’s summarisations and his decision that the culprits are guilty — «subject, of course, to appeal».

It has occured to this reviewer that it might be possible to mention also the negative aspects of Chukovskii’s book. But having been entertained and educated so grandly by this Russian «master of translation», the faults of his book seem beside the point. Vysokoe iskusstvo is highly recommended to scholars and students of Russian literature, particularly those interested in the art of translation.

Lauren G. Leighton