• Print

Translation & Revelation

In response to:

On Translation from the September 29, 2016 issue

In the September 29 issue we published three comments on Janet Malcolm’s essay on translations of Anna Karenina, which had appeared in the June 23 issue. Janet Malcolm has now replied as follows:

To the Editors:

I greatly appreciated and admired the letters of Alice Sedgwick Wohl and Judson Rosengrant. In further, perhaps shaky, support of my reader-friendly argument may I cite the following?

A.N. Wilson’s review of Jean Findlay’s biography Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Soldier, Spy, and Translator [TLS, October 29, 2014]:

Scott Moncrieff’s twelve sky-blue volumes…belong to that special category of translations which are themselves literary masterpieces…. It is hard not to feel that—just as Luther was the first translator truly to bring out the essence of St. Paul—Scott Moncrieff is more Proustian than Proust himself. And you can see why proficient linguists such as Joseph Conrad considered Scott Moncrieff actually to be Proust’s superior. It sounds frivolously anglocentric to write such a sentence, but might there not actually be a case for believing this to be true? Might it not be true that Proust, coughing his life away as he failed to finish the masterpiece, actually needed someone else to rewrite it, and make it perfect, in something of the same way that Aristotle, whose writings had long been lost in the mists of antiquity, and which were anyway merely the lecture notes of his pupils, came to the full consciousness of European intellectuals only when he had been translated first into Arabic, then into Latin, and finally filtered through the fertile imagination of St. Thomas Aquinas? “I was more interested and fascinated by your rendering than by Proust’s creation,” Conrad wrote to Scott Moncrieff. “One has revealed something to me and there is no revelation in the other.”

John Nathan’s review of a new translation of The Tale of Genji by Dennis Washburn [NYR, January 14, 2016]:

Which leaves Arthur Waley. There is no question that the Waley version is problematic: he cut and expurgated with abandon, deleting, among other things, the only example of Genji’s bisexuality. Moreover, his readings are often mistaken, and there are passages that turn out to be, on comparison with the original, his own invention. Even so, Waley, a member of the Bloomsbury group, was a genuine poet and a splendid stylist, and he managed to imbue his Genji with a distinctive sound, a voice that we are pleased and relieved to accept in lieu of Murasaki’s own. One recalls Borges’s “The Enigma of Edward Fitzgerald”: adjusting the enigma to fit the Genji, we discover a collaboration between a Japanese lady-in-waiting in the eleventh century and an eccentric Englishman in the 1920s that ushered forth a resonant English masterpiece with the heart and soul of ancient Japan. No translation since has come close.

Janet Malcolm
New York City