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Franz Kafka

To the Editors:

I have just read Eric Ormsby's review of my translation of Kafka's novel The Castle (November 1998). As Mr. Ormsby himself notes, previous notices of my translation, including those by J. M. Coetzee (The New York Review of Books) and Robert Alter (The New Republic), have been largely positive. Of course, there is little consensus about literary translation--or for that matter about Franz Kafka--so Mr. Ormsby is perfectly entitled to his own preferences. However, he has no right to insinuate that there was "some surreptitious consultation" between J. A. Underwood, translator of a recent British rendering of the same novel, and me. Speaking for myself, I can categorically say that I did not engage in any such consultation. I did not see Underwood's translation--nor even know of its existence--until after mine went to press.

Given the "almost claustrophobic" world of Kafka studies--there I see eye to eye with Ormsby--I am just as surprised as he is that nobody informed me about that new British translation of The Castle (published by Penguin U.K. in 1997), especially since I had been in correspondence about my project for several years with fellow-scholars here, in Germany, in Britain, as well as in my native Ireland.

To prevent any further misunderstandings, I should like to clarify a few facts: in 1992 I received the commission to translate The Castle from Schocken Books, which owns world rights to Malcolm Pasley's 1982 German critical edition on which my translation is based. In January 1995 I submitted a draft to the publishers. At that time there was still no consensus in literary circles in this country that new translations of Kafka were needed. It was in that context that I wrote an essay for New Literary History (Spring 1996) in which I summarized the debate about Kafka translations that has been going on for over three decades in Britain, largely in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement, and argued the case for new translations based on the critical editions. Although I regret the rather combative tone of that article, I did have to make a strong case against the Muirs in order to upset the prevailing complacency in this country about the adequacy of the old Kafka translations based on Brod's obsolete editions.

In February 1996 I entered a sample (part of the last chapter) in a competition sponsored by the British Comparative Literature Association and the British Centre for Literary Translation. In the interval between the date I first submitted the manuscript and the fall of 1997, I did some work on the manuscript, partly in consultation with freelance editor Melanie Richter-Bernburg, who vetted the translation for accuracy. The book was finally published in March 1998.

My guess is that any existing parallels between the two translations are coincidental and simply reflect the rather obvious fact that Mr. Underwood and I were translating the same novel in the 1990s.

Mark Harman

Millersville, Pennsylvania

Eric Ormsby replies:

While I am grateful to Professor Harmon for his letter of clarification, and take him at his word that no "surreptitious consultation" occurred between him and J. A. Underwood, I fear that yet again, as in his translation, he is being much too literal. I wanted mainly to emphasize the perplexing aura that often surrounds Kafka's work, even in translation. In fact, I could wish that such consultation, surreptitious or not, had taken place, for Professor Harmon's own version of The Castle might have been much improved: the Underwood translation, which I praised, has recently received an award in England for one of the best translations of the year.

Be that as it may, I must take exception to Professor Harmon's remark that my criticism of his version is based merely on personal "preference." To the contrary, I documented my objections; Professor Harmon's infelicities are both abundant and demonstrable, though I had space to cite only a few. Finally, as I made clear in the review, I did not object to Professor Harmon's criticisms of the Muirs' beautiful translations (though these are regarded as classics, and rightly so). Rather, I objected, and still object, to his snide, patronizing, and unjust characterization of Edwin and Willa Muir, both of whom deserved better.

"Absolute nonsense"

To the Editors:

I have just received a copy of Gary Saul Morson's review of our Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, published by Pantheon), which appeared in your November 1998 issue. I hope it is not too late for me to respond to it, because it certainly merits a response.

There is an interesting Russian word that might be transliterated as hamstvo. It means insolent, self-satisfied loutishness, and derives ultimately from the name of Ham, the son of Noah, who saw his drunken father "uncovered" and went to tell his brothers about it, for which Noah cursed him. According to Andrei Sinyavsky, hamstvo came to be the characteristic quality of homo sovieticus and is the worst (and most lasting) product of the Soviet period. But hamstvo is by no means confined to Russia, as the present trial in the U.S. Senate shows. And apparently it threatens to become a new criterion in book reviewing as well.

At least Professor Morson's article seems to have been meant as a review of our collection of Gogol's tales. I hesitate because the reviewer never discusses the contents of the book and refers only to three of the thirteen tales in passing. In fact, he gives more space to arguing with an earlier review of the book (which he does not acknowledge as such) than the book itself. Of the three and a half pages of his article, only the last half of the last paragraph deals in any way with our work. The rest of it is devoted to a sort of encyclopedia entry on Gogol for the ignorant, discussing the author's life, his famous play The Inspector General, his famous novel Dead Souls, and his famous nose (both the tale and the organ). There are occasional hints of hamstvo along the way; for instance: "Everything is olfactory in Gogol, who had quite a schnoz himself." Excursuses on Gogol's nose have become a rather tedious commonplace of Gogol criticism, but Professor Morson also has a little joke of his own in mind. He is building up to the crushing final sentence of his review, which reads: "If you want to know what Gogol doesn't sound like, pick up this version and hold your nose."

There you have hamstvo in a pure state.

It is admittedly difficult to review a translation. The reviewer needs to have an equal knowledge of and feeling for two languages, and to have grasped what the art of translation involves. And then there is the sheer bother of comparing texts. I've rarely seen it done well. Bernard Guerney's translation of Dead Souls, which Nabokov praised (and which has now been reissued in a bowdlerized version by Susanne Fusso, described by Professor Morson as "even better") has been used as a stick to beat our translation of the same book, as have Nabokov's own renderings in his little study of Gogol written in 1944. But no reviewer has gone so far as to compare our version, along with Guerney's and Nabokov's, to the original tale--to take, for instance, just the opening paragraph of Dead Souls, which would have been easy enough to do. The results would show that Nabokov was often rather cavalier as a translator, and that Guerney's "upholstered" prose (as one reviewer admiringly called it) does not render any similar quality in Gogol's Russian. A reviewer who does not take the trouble to conceive what the task of translation involves or to make even the most minimal comparisons is not doing an honest job. Criticism by incantation is an intellectual dodge.

But it's one thing to have Nabokov waved at you and another to be dismissed with a rude and insolent sneer. Professor Morson says that our translation of Gogol's tales is "bedeviled by an almost perfect sense of the least apt choice" and that "anyone who knows Gogol will only be able to `gasp and spit' at their tin ear." That (along with the crushing last sentence) is quite literally all he says about this 435 page book, which contains works of enormous stylistic variety and complexity, posing enormous problems for the translator. He doesn't give a single example; he doesn't make a single comparison. Shouldn't readers be offered a few instances of our collective "tin ear" in action? Doesn't such a sweeping claim require some substantiation? Professor Morson would have a hard time proving his case. But he has so little respect for his readers (not to mention the present translators) that he doesn't think he needs to. And that's where the hamstvo lies.

I'm surprised that The New Criterion finds this sort of reviewing acceptable.

Richard Pevear

Paris, France

Gary Saul Morson replies:

I was amused by Richard Pevear's response to my review, especially by his assumption that a detailed comparison of translations with the original belongs in The New Criterion rather than in Slavic and East European Journal. I was even more amused that, after objecting to my failure to sustain my dismissal of his translation with detailed examples, he does just the same to Susanne Fusso.

Pevear and Volokhonsky have translated several volumes of Dostoevsky and Gogol, and their versions have one great virtue: they are as close to literal as possible. They make excellent trots for the student learning Russian. But they suffer from a set of interrelated defects. The authors have no sense of English tone, and consistently pick words in the wrong register. Still worse, they do not understand the works they are translating. As readers familiar with Garnett or other versions will be aware, the key concept of Notes from Underground is "spite"--totally gratuitous harm inflicted on others or oneself, even against one's best interest. The concept is central to the underground man's attack on the rationalist and utilitarian view of man and has had profound influence on twentieth-century thought. The first sentence of the novel ("I am a sick man.... I am a spiteful man") is one of the most famous Dostoevsky wrote. But Pevear and Volokhonsky render the word as "wicked" rather than spiteful, here and elsewhere in their version. Now, the Russian word in question can indeed mean "wicked" and Garnett quite properly renders it as such when her version of The Brothers Karamazov has the narrator describe old Karamazov: "He was sentimental. He was wicked and sentimental." But to choose "wicked" for Notes from Underground can only reflect a failure to understand the book as a whole. This sort of problem is common in their work.

To translate literature, one must have a feel for the literary. Philosophers and artificial intelligence experts like to debate the famous Turing test: if one cannot tell from a machine's responses whether it is conscious, then it is. Pevear and Volokhonsky prove the reverse: one would guess that their versions were produced by a very sophisticated machine.

Queer theory in Russia

To the Editors:

In the February 1999 issue, on page three, you publish at the foot of the page a brief item under the heading "From the archives of academic publishing." The heading suggests that we are to be treated to some fresh inanity, some further instance of the silliness routinely generated in the contemporary academy--a silliness often remarked upon in the pages of The New Criterion.

But what follows, so far as I can tell, is not in the least silly or inane. The brief book description taken from the Spring 1999 catalogue of the trendy Duke University Press includes the following opening sentence: "In Queer in Russia Laurie Essig examines the formation of gay identity and community in the former Soviet Union." Subsequent sentences are similarly straightforward, which is to say, descriptive. They make no case, contain no polemical excesses. The book by Ms. Essig would seem to be a scholarly work asking legitimate questions about lives and institutions before and after perestroika. Nothing in the description of the book--again, so far as I can tell--would indicate that it is the product of a particular bias.

And so I ask a simple question: Do the editors of The New Criterion wish to suggest that any book devoted to studying the lives of gay people, no matter what it says, no matter its language or its disposition, is inevitably a reflection of the triviality, political correctness, or philistinism so often on display in the books coming out of our academic presses? Because I find it hard to suppose that this, indeed, is what the editors intended to convey in the excerpt taken from the Duke catalogue, and I can see no other motive for selecting this passage, I ask for some explanation. Surely the editors agree that the lives of gay people in the Soviet Union, or in any other country, are as fit a subject for scholarly investigation as any other. Or is there something here I have not understood?

Robert Boyers

Skidmore College

Editor, Salmagundi

The Editors reply:

Like the editors of The New Criterion, the editor of Salmagundi knows very well that there are certain politically correct priorities now governing the publications of many of our university presses, and high on the short list of top priorities are books in the recently created field of "Queer Studies." We consider it news that this form of academic political correctness has now been extended to the study of Russia, where for so many decades a somewhat different tradition of political correctness was enforced. Exactly why the editor of Salmagundi should now pretend not to know all this is a question we dare not attempt to answer, for that would involve speculation about his motives that would inevitably be invidious.
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Publication:New Criterion
Date:Mar 1, 1999
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