Monday, 5 September 2011

The Invisible Translator

The Writer's Almanac records: It was on this day in 1958 that the novel Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak, was published in English by the Italian firm of Feltrinelli, in a hurried translation by Max Hayward and Manya Harari (ER). Doctor Zhivago is set during the Russian Revolution and World War I, and it tells the story of Yuri Zhivago, a doctor and poet, and his love for a woman named Lara. Pasternak worked on his novel for decades, and finished it in 1956. He submitted the book for publication, but although Pasternak was a famous writer by then, his manuscript was rejected --the publishers explained that Doctor Zhivago was not in line with the spirit of the revolution, too concerned with individualism. An Italian journalist visited Pasternak at his country house and convinced the novelist to let him smuggle a copy of Doctor Zhivago out of the country to the leftist Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. Pasternak is said to have declared as he handed over the manuscript: "You are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squad!" He was not executed, but when the upcoming publication was announced in Italy, Soviet authorities were furious, and forced Pasternak to send Feltrinelli telegrams insisting that he halt publication of the novel. One of them said: "I have come to the profound conviction that what I wrote cannot be regarded as a finished work," and in another Pasternak called his novel "in need of serious improvement." But Feltrinelli was not fooled, and continued with publication. Soon enough, Feltrinelli received a private, scribbled note from Pasternak begging him to continue. Pasternak wrote: "I wrote the novel to be published and read. That remains my only wish." Feltrinelli published Doctor Zhivago, and helped get it published all over the world. The Soviet Union's attempts to stop its publication only made it more interesting to readers. When it was first published in Italy in November of 1957, the first printing of 6,000 copies sold out within the first day. Doctor Zhivago was published in the United States on this day in 1958, and even though it wasn't published until September, it was the best-selling book of 1958. It quickly became a bestseller in 24 languages. Pasternak was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1958, and when he first head of the award, he sent a telegram to the Swedish Academy that said: "Immensely thankful, touched, proud, astonished, abashed." Two days later, Soviet authorities forced him to write again, this time to say he would refuse the prize. Pasternak died two years later, in 1960, and Doctor Zhivago was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988. Doctor Zhivago begins: "On they went, singing 'Rest Eternal,' and whenever they stopped, their feet, the horses, and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing. Passers-by made way for the procession, counted the wreaths, and crossed themselves. Some joined in out of curiosity and asked: 'Who is being buried?'--'Zhivago,' they were told.--'Oh, I see. That's what it is.'--'It isn't him. It's his wife.'--'Well, it comes to the same thing. May her soul rest in peace. It's a fine funeral.'
There was no mention of the translators of Dr Zhivago in the Writer's Almanac's otherwise praiseworthy original account posted online today - I added their names. Quite coincidentally, yesterday evening I received the following round robin from Robert Chandler:
'Many of you will know that the BBC is about to do a long dramatisation of Vasily Grossman's LIFE AND FATE. This is based on my translation of the novel. This is a dramatization, not a reading, and therefore it does not use only the words of my translation. Nevertheless, most episodes use a large number of my words, and at least one - The Last Letter - uses few, if any, words indeed that are not mine. If you read through this press release, you will find credit duly given to directors, producers, dramatizers, actors, composers and players of music. There are no prizes for guessing who is not mentioned: the invisible translator.
Some of you will have noticed that this seemingly wilful ignoring of the role of translators is a part of the culture of the BBC. If you listen to a translated novel on the programme "Book at Bedtime", the translator is usually credited after, on average, one in five episodes - whereas both reader and adaptor will be mentioned after each episode. And it is the same with all too many programmes. Nowadays no respectable newspaper or journal treats translators in such a cavalier manner. Why the BBC behaves in this way I do not know - but I think it is important that we do what we can to change things. I'll be very grateful to everyone who can write a brief letter of complaint. Here is an email address: ' (message from Robert Chandler ends)
If you visit the Boris Pasternak entry on Wikipedia you will see that Pasternak himself was a translator, and cared passionately about this highly skilled art. Having translated and co-translated several non-fiction books myself from Russian, I know how hard it is. Incidentally, the English subtitles in the film The Hedgehog (Le Herisson) that I reviewed in my blog yesterday were a laughably inaccurate rendition of what was being said in French in the movie.

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