Is a translated book just as good as the original? A bilingual reader puts Mikhail Lermontov’s classic A Hero of Our Time to the test. ♦
Fast forward a semester and I’m sitting on my couch at home and eating cheese snacks in my pajamas. (It was summer vacation, alright? Everyone’s got to live a little.) Anyways, I got bored of binge eating and watching American Dad on Netflix surprisingly quick. While thinking of something practical to do, I thought that I would keep practicing my Russian, as to not let it slip through the cracks. That’s when I remembered about my favorite book, A Hero of Our Time. “Hey,” I said to myself, “that book is in Russian, yeah? Why not give that a go?” So I let go of the thought that speaking to myself this way was weird and depressing and grabbed my computer, and a quick search later, bam, there she was. What clinched it for me was coming across a review of the book by Tolstoy (yes, the one and only War and Peace author) which stated that Lermontov’s prose was very economical and efficient, using the simplest language necessary to convey a great story. In other words, maybe it would not be that difficult to read after all. One summer and a notebook full of Russian vocabulary later, I finished the book.
And after reading the two versions, I came to the conclusion that the original is, indeed, the better book.
Before you attack my position with something along the lines of “Well, it was probably just translated poorly, I’m sure it could have been done better,” let me say that the English version I read was translated by Vladimir Nabokov. If that name doesn’t ring any bells for you, just Google top ten greatest writers. Ever. Not only is Nabokov consistently ranked as among the greatest, but he was fluent in both English and Russian and wrote masterpieces in both languages. So he’s not only qualified as a translator, but as a literary translator with a deeper knowledge of both Russian and English prose. In fact, I don’t know if anyone else would qualify better for the job than him. Did I not mention that his translation was one of my favorite books?
You might be asking, then, how it came to be that I found the original, untranslated version even better, knocking its phony predecessor off the throne of “Nick’s favorite book.” As corny as it may sound, the old saying “lost in translation” actually holds a kernel of truth here. Languages aren’t only different because they have different words, sounds, or grammars. Language is an art with its own special rhythm, color, and tone to it. Let’s put it this way: if a German with a thick accent tries to speak to you in English, you pick up immediately that he is not a native speaker. Why is that? He knows the English lexicon, knows all of the grammar rules, yet you can still tell immediately that he is German. Why? It’s because he is speaking English, well, Germanly. Made-up words aside, even putting accent and inflection of voice aside for the moment, you’d still recognize that he is forming English thoughts and phrases while still painting, singing, and drawing with his native, German peculiarities. That is, he can speak English, but he can’t sing it. He can’t paint it. It’s as if a violin player is looking off the sheet of the cellist next to him, playing his notes but with a different instrument. And so it is here, too. There is a certain feel, a certain liveliness in A Hero of Our Time that is simply lost when it is put into English. You can’t notice this while reading it in translation, but once you read the original, once you hear the music being played properly, it becomes very evident. Nabokov knew his task was near impossible, but he also knew the book deserved to be read by others, so he tried his best. I’m glad he did, for without reading it in English first I might have never come in contact with the real thing.
So where does this leave you? Well, there are a couple important takeaway points from this lesson. One, if you do know another language, read in it. Thought Don Quixote was good? Wait ‘til you read it in Spanish. I bet it’ll knock your socks off. Now the second lesson is for die hard readers: if you don’t know another language, learn one. I know it is a very difficult endeavor, one that can even last a lifetime. Hell, I’ll still be learning Russian for years to come. But the truth is learning another language not only provides you with another set of syllables, grammar rules, and vocabulary. Nor does it only provide you with a different rhythm, color, or tone. It provides you with a whole other world filled with different philosophies, lifestyles, perspectives, and, you guessed it, literature. So before you decide on reading Madame Bovary or Crime and Punishment, ask yourself if you’d rather listen to a violin play a cello’s part—or if you’d rather hear it as it was meant to be heard.