Thanks, Carla!
June 28, 2010 5:32 PM   Subscribe

There is a before and an after André Markowicz. In the early 1990s the translator, born to a Russian mother and French father, began translating the complete works of Dostoyevsky for Babel / Actes Sud. By the time he finished the mammoth undertaking in 2002 he had proved something: what people had been reading by Dostoyevsky wasn’t Dostoyevsky. - an interview with André Marcowicz, writer and translator.

Translating is reading with your fingers. You don’t just read the story, but the words as well. It’s more accurate. Translating involves keeping up two levels of reaction simultaneously, emotion and detail, without ever choosing one over the other.

On a mistake he made while translating Chekhov: That gave me an insight: in order to translate, you don’t just have to know the language, but life. For instance, I talked about the smell of hay in the rain. I’d translated literally, without realizing that hay left out in the rain is a sign of dereliction, of famine to come.
posted by Monday, stony Monday (12 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
(Unfortunately, there isn't much written in English on/by Marcowicz on the Internet)
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 5:34 PM on June 28, 2010

but, wow, it would be great if there was. that was awesome. this bit stood out for me:
But the way I translate, not respecting the canonical norms for French literature because the author is Russian, well, that of course upsets those readers who only see foreign literature through the lens of French literature. But it seems to me that we should be able to go beyond this difficulty. For me this is extremely important. It is in this respect that translation is a political act. It is not simply a question of turning what is foreign into French, but of understanding that it should not be the same as we are. Translation should be a process of reception, not of assimilation.
most of what I read is in translation; there's a strangeness and newness to it that's exhilarating, precisely because it's a translation, and it's nice to see someone articulate both that feeling and its value so clearly. until I can get it together enough to figure out how to read in other languages, I am glad the world has people like this.
posted by spindle at 5:57 PM on June 28, 2010

Interesting article, thanks.

Did anyone else find his interpretation kind of weird, though? I can't quite put my finger on it, but it seems like he never mentions the sheer awkwardness of how Dostoevsky's characters interact. Markowicz talks about high-level stuff like symbolism, but Dostoevsky spends a lot of time down in the trenches, focusing on miscommunications, embarrassments, thwarted plans--his characters have high-level ideas, but they generally run into trouble trying to implement them, and eventually realize how naive they were. Dostoevsky is kind of playful/tongue-in-cheek about this stuff--on the one hand, he does have big ideas, but on the other hand, he fills his stories with characters whose ideas don't do them any good. But Markowicz seems to take the philosophical stuff really seriously.

Well, maybe I'm just crazy, I don't know. (Or maybe we just read different translations!)
posted by equalpants at 7:34 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

well, without having read his translations I would hazard a guess that the awkwardness is reflected in the style, in what I would describe as the form determining the content.

this is the relevant bit from the introduction to the interview:
By the time he finished the mammoth undertaking in 2002 he had proved something: what people had been reading by Dostoyevsky wasn’t Dostoyevsky. It wasn’t his style, there was nothing of his collision of linguistic registers, which had been smoothed out to obtain a language far too literary for an author whose strokes of the pen were like axe blows.
and I can see that deliberate crudeness in the style setting the stage for the awkwardness of events you describe -- that it would make it possible, or even necessary, to imagine that what happens in the novels is the inevitable outcome of any effort to act; that the style is what determines what kind of a world the novel takes place in and that if Marcowicz got the style right (which is what he was trying to do) then everything else would just fall into place.

which is a great big wild guess that has more to do with how I write than anything else. but maybe.
posted by spindle at 8:07 PM on June 28, 2010

Marcowicz's approach is kind of particular to French, because of the large distance between everyday speech and "proper" written French. I a course, our prof had us read 5 translations of the same passage from Crime and Punishment, including one by Marcowicz. In the extract, the protgonist (as a child) passes a group of druken peasants. They are encouraging one of them to whip his horse.

In the more "literary" translations, the peasant speak in a kind of French you'd expect from a university-educated person, and even then, only when speaking in a somewhat-formal setting. It's actually kind of weird. A fairly recent translation has the peasants speak using a more "vernacular" language, but the narrator has a "perfect" written style. In Marcowicz's version, the peasants speak completely in vernacular (an example: where the Gallimard version has them saying "Mais il faut que tu aies perdu l'esprit" [~"But you must have lost your mind"], in Marcowicz you find "Mais t'es maboul" [~"But you're nuts"]).

But Marcowicz really departs from the other versions in the narration. I wouldn't say it's vernacular, because it's not, but he doesn't shy away from repetition, or the use of "oral" expressions.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:58 PM on June 28, 2010

Doesn't sound too different to me from what Pevear and Volokhonsky have been doing in their English translations of Dostoevsky.
posted by Mocata at 3:09 AM on June 29, 2010

> Marcowicz's approach is kind of particular to French

Exactly; I like his approach a lot, and the interview is fascinating (thanks for the post!), but it's pretty irrelevant to English, which hasn't had the kind of classical/stuffy tradition he's fighting against since the eighteenth century. To say of an English translator that "what people had been reading by Dostoyevsky wasn’t Dostoyevsky" would be foolish; in French, it's simply a statement of fact.

> Doesn't sound too different to me from what Pevear and Volokhonsky have been doing in their English translations of Dostoevsky.

Oh yes it is. P&V are just another couple of translators—they do some things better and others worse; what distinguishes them is their superb publicity machine and their hubris. They do claim that when people read them they're reading Dostoevsky or Tolstoy or whoever for the first time, that they're the first to truly render blah blah blah, and it's bullshit and lies. Furthermore, they're completely unable to deal with criticism (see this LH post for an example). I have nothing against new translations of classic authors, the more the merrier, but I despise that kind of kill-the-competition approach. Note the contrast with Marcowicz's pleasing humility:
People quoted me as saying that I was restoring the true face of Dostoyevsky. I never claimed to be doing so much. The earlier translations were clearly inaccurate in terms of style, but they did give a certain face to Dostoyevsky. Mine gave him a different one.
posted by languagehat at 5:31 AM on June 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Interesting but not deep. For those wanting more:

Walter Benjamin's The Task of the Translator is a fascinating perspective on translation even though I can't read the original German.

Jorge Borges has talked about translation as well, although I can't recall where I saw it. The introduction to Labyrinths - a collection of his works in English - has some interesting things to say about translating his work. You can read all of it in the Amazon look inside.

Brian Friel's play Translations gets closer to the nut of the thing than this interview does.

Finally, there are a few pages in Erich Auerbach's Mimesis regarding the work of Dostoevsky and his Russian contemporaries. IIRC, Auerbach claims that Dostoevsky et al were self-consciously attempting a dialogue with French literature. However, their received understanding of French literature was deeply flawed due to consistently poor Russian translations. I can't really remember what he felt the consequences were. I couldn't evaluate them anyway as Russian novels don't like me.
posted by putzface_dickman at 6:12 AM on June 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Thanks Hat, that's interesting to hear, and I'm glad I can feel less bad about not digging their translations as far as reading experience goes. How about I change my comment to something like 'Doesn't sound too different to me from what Pevear and Volokhonsky claim to have been doing'?
posted by Mocata at 6:14 AM on June 29, 2010

Another one that (I think) is worth reading is Umberto Eco's Mouse or Rat?
posted by monkey closet at 7:01 AM on June 29, 2010

> How about I change my comment to something like 'Doesn't sound too different to me from what Pevear and Volokhonsky claim to have been doing'?


When people ask me which translation of X to read, I generally say to look at as many different ones as they can and pick the one that reads best to them. It's bound to have the occasional error or infelicity, but that's far less important than having it be appealing enough that you'll enjoy reading the book. (And Constance Garnett gets maligned too frequently, especially by P&V; she does have a distinctive Victorian style that puts some people off, but if you don't mind her style, she's OK.)
posted by languagehat at 8:10 AM on June 29, 2010

And long live the late Rosemary Edmonds.
posted by Mocata at 8:47 AM on June 29, 2010

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