Thoughts Arising from an Endnote in Hofstadter’s Translation of Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin”

I love the writings of Douglas Hofstadter. For many, many years I’ve been inspired, influenced, and provoked to unexpectedly deep thought by those writings. On many subjects, not least translation and mourning, I feel his words are essential reading. After seeing Catalyst Theatre‘s presentation of The Vancouver Arts Club production of Onegin at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre I was in equal measure startled into surprise and overcome with excited anticipation to learn that Hofstadter had translated Pushkin’s masterpiece. And somehow I had never noticed.

Translation is an endeavour of the human spirit that has fascinated me, haunted me, and obsessed me for most of my life, at least since the summer of 1967, riding the Montreal Metro and hearing the oddly understandable-to-a-five-year-old-anglo announcement of arrival at “Expo soixante-sept!” Translation, from Old English, Latin, and, more recently, Greek, is daily in my thoughts. I have at times helped friends and relatives puzzle out passages of Swahili and Nahuatl, because friends and relatives have the impression that I “just know stuff”. There is no experience quite like working out the expression of the human mind behind a text and helping another make a connection to that mind.

Translation is important to me, an ongoing challenge, mystery, and joy.

In his translation of Pushkin, Hofstadter is in near constant with another great mind, the Goliath-like figure of Vladimir Nabokov. Certainly, Hofstadter, a native English speaker, fluent in French, and with a journeyman knowledge of Russian, is a David figure in the face of such a brilliant native Russian-speaker and exquisite English wordsmith as Nabokov. The battle of these two, both giants to me, is almost as entertaining as the glittering work of Pushkin which has brought them — the three of them — together across time.

So much to consider, but I will focus on one (and maybe a moment with a second) endnote in Hofstadter’s glittering “novel versification” of Pushkin’s “novel in verse”, Eugene Onegin.

acacias and cherries: Nabokov, in his commentary, flies into a botanicolinguistic paroxysm here, heaping pages of bile and scorn on previous translators’ renderings of черёмуха (“a kind of cherry tree”, says my dictionary), and акация (“acacia”, says my dictionary), and going into all the profound and elusive cultural nuances of these words (and which, it is tacitly implied, are universal among Russians). After over four pages of ranting, Nabokov winds up revealing to his faithful readers what “the correct way” to translate these words is – namely, as “racemosas and pea trees”. Obviously, he would consider my dictionary-lookup methodology of “translation” of tree-names beneath contempt.

This gives a bit of the flavour of things. Nabokov is portrayed by Hofstadter as a bit of a nitpicking, pedantic, know-it-all prone to paroxysms. Meanwhile, Hofstadter has his own defensive paroxysms about his dictionary-lookup, neophyte translation method.

And I stand outside with no Russian and little botany and consider . . .

What does “Acacia” mean to me? Not much more than “ акация”, to be honest. Acacias are not a type of tree I’ve met with, by that name, in my half-century of life in the forests and groves of Canada (with a bit of time in the wooded mountains of Basilicata and Chiapas). But “pea-tree” does mean something to me. I have a hedge at the front of my house of a certain leguminous shrub introduced to my part of the world a century and more ago. It grows wild in the ravine just by my house and throughout the River Valley at Edmonton’s heart. We call it “Caragana”, but I know that it was introduced from Russia, and that it is sometimes called “Siberian Pea-Tree”. Whatever Nabokov’s native-speaker’s intuition (prejudice?) or Hofstadter’s dictionary might say, “pea-tree” is evocative for me of far more than is “acacia”. “Acacia” is descriptive of something outside my experience, however botanically accurate it might be. On the other hand, “pea-tree” evokes springtime walks in the Mill Creek Ravine, of the history of my city, of the long-faded Edmonton, Yukon, and Pacific Railway, whose rail-bed is now a very popular and unbearably beautiful caragana-lined foot- and cycle-path through our wonderful urban forest. And, of course, “pea-tree” evokes for me that hedge I sit behind as I write these words, that hedge of pea-tree that connects me, through Hofstadter and Nabokov to Pushkin and Onegin, Lensky, Tanya and the rest. “Acacia” doesn’t quite do that.

So. Which is the “better” translation? And why?

Well, acacia sensu lato, are members of Fabaceae, the same family to which the pea-tree belongs, and acacias and pea-trees certainly bear a superficial resemblance to each other in some cases. It is perhaps understandable that the term акация has been applied to the pea-tree. And even more understandable that lexicographers have lazily transliterated rather than actually defined the term in Hofstadter’s dictionary. Nabokov’s paroxysm is a democratic shout: “every bloody Russian peasant knows to point to the pea-tree at the edge of the road when some Akademician from Petersburg asks about акация.”

I guess what I’m saying is that both translations are “correct” depending on what is meant by “correct”. But I can’t help feeling that Nabokov is more correct for me (and for English speaking Russians, perhaps) than is Hofstadter, in this particular instance. Unusually for Hofstadter, he defends a dry, unfeeling, dictionary-narrow, non-evocative understanding of the life in акация: “The dictionary says ‘acacia’. If it’s good enough for the dictionary, it’s good enough for me!” Meanwhile, Nabokov: “the people point to the pea-tree. The people live with the pea tree. The people eat the pods of the pea tree. The pea tree is physically in communion with the people. Акация is pea-tree, and pea-tree is part of a living, human narrative.”

As much as I love Hofstadter’s writings on life, death, consciousness, language, and translation, I must side with Nabokov on this not insignificant point: “pea-tree” is a better translation of акация than is “acacia”. “Pea-tree” is life; “acacia” is marks on the page on a dictionary.

I suppose Hofstadter doesn’t help his case for me when in the immediately preceding note he completely mistranslates the very common Latin word “alia”, claiming that “sed alia tempora” means “But time has wings.” Hofstadter seems to have lost his way in his Latin dictionary, mistaking “ala”, “wing” for “alius”, “other”, and thereby strangely grafting wings onto a transitional “but, other times . . . .” (Perhaps Hofstadter is thinking of the common translation of “tempus fugit” as “time flies”, despite the more clearly accurate rendering “Time flees”.)

The looking-it-up-in-the-dictionary translator must be ever vigilant. Translation is not about dictionaries: translation is about communicating one human’s expression of human experience to another human with as much fidelity as possible for the translator. Solutions to translational problems are many and various, and different translators and readers will find different solutions effective for the same problem. That infinitely varied challenge is something that constantly brings me to states of wonder as both a reader and a translator. What a wonderful conversation across cultures and times translation is.

Such joyful frustration and happy satisfaction a word can bring!

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