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A Vulgar Style

In response to:

Young Strindberg from the July 7, 1966 issue

To the Editors:

In his July 7 review of my translation of Strindberg’s The Son of a Servant Mr. Michael Meyer makes much of my alleged verbosity. It is, of course, a reviewer’s privilege to make his point by using extreme and isolated examples. But I think it is only fair to point out that if he had considered the translation as a whole he would have had to report that I have increased the number of words by only 18 per cent. This happens to be the same figure as for the Scott Moncrieff translation of Proust, which puts me in very good company. However, Meyer may find Scott Moncrieff verbose too. Fortunately, he supplies us with a standard of his own. He praises a recent translation of Strindberg’s Inferno as “brilliant.” Yet I find that there the translator has added 13,000 words to Strindberg’s original 48,000—an increase of 27 per cent. Mr. Meyer does not mention his own translations of Ibsen and Strindberg—whether out of modesty or prudence is difficult to say. I note that in his version of the last two paragraphs of the preface to Miss Julie the number of words has been increased by 35 per cent. The numbers game has always been a racket, but in literary criticism it’s very poor policy.

Enough chaff. Ultimately a translation must be evaluated on the basis of its overall effect. Now Meyer does not give a single instance in which I have distorted the meaning of the original; his objections concern only matters of style and tone. And he sums up by saying that the overall effect of my translation is that “of Strindberg ghosted into vulgar journalese.”

Inadvertently Mr. Meyer has paid me a fine compliment and indicated how successful I have been in capturing the flavor of the original. Strindberg prided himself on being a journalist; much of his training as a writer was received while working as a newspaper reporter; and during the 1880s he deliberately cultivated a vulgar style in order to find readers among the lower classes. Of The Son of a Servant in particular he said, “I believe there is scarcely a single figure of speech in the whole book, or any ‘style’ for that matter; not a single witticism, no satire, no landscapes, and no women.” Meyer’s reaction to my translation is precisely the same as that of an Austrian translator, Mathilde Prager, to a new Strindberg work in 1886—the year in which The Son of a Servant was written. She was shocked to find the style so unliterary and journalistic, even-though Strindberg had warned her that he had “lowered his style to the vulgar level.” It should be borne in mind that when he wrote The Son of a Servant Strindberg was still in his socialist period and that the book was regarded as a weapon in the class war.

Behind Meyer’s disapproval of my translation lies, in addition to an unfamiliarity with American idiom, an obvious dislike for the real Strindberg. How else can one explain the blatant inconsistency that runs through his review? He begins by saying that The Son of a Servant (the original, of course, not the translation) is valuable for the light it throws on the author and that “nothing that has been written about him is nearly as illuminating as what he wrote about himself.” Yet at the end of his review Meyer says that the book “tells us little more about Strindberg than would a brief summary…by another hand.”

Apparently Meyer disdains Strindberg and my translation equally. Could it be that he disapproves of both for the same reason? Could it be that the Strindberg translation he would most admire would not be Strindberg at all?

Evert Sprinchorn

Jamestown, New York

Michael Meyer replies:

Of course the use of extra words when translating is not in itself proof of verbosity. Any translator knows that six words sometimes have to be rendered by ten, for the sake of clarity or to interpret a nuance. But Mr. Sprinchorn’s expansions, of which I quoted numerous examples in my review, serve neither purpose. What is gained by translating “however difficult their marriage” as “however galling the bonds of matrimony”? The one is (as the Swedish is) economical, the other flabby.

Meyer does not give a single instance in which I have distorted the meaning of the original; his objections concern only [sic] matters of style and tone.” I should have thought that to translate widows as old maids and infidelity as breach of promise was very seriously to “distort the meaning of the original.” And if Mr. Sprinchorn does not realize that to alter the style and tone of a passage also distorts the meaning, he knows very little about translation. Anyone who has acted as a law court interpreter, as I have done in Stockholm, could tell him that.

What Strindberg cultivated was a simple and economical journalistic style, which, as any of Mr. Sprinchorn’s pupils could tell him, is not the same as vulgar journalese. Strindberg, like my friend George Orwell, deliberately set out to avoid literariness; but he never, as Mr. Sprinchorn seems to think, set out to be slipshod and cliché-ridden.

I see no inconsistency in stating that “nothing that has been written about him [i.e., Strindberg] is nearly as illuminating as what he wrote about himself,” and then remarking that this particular book of his “tells us little more about Strindberg than would a brief summary by another hand.” I repeat that The Son of a Servant is, to my mind and despite its title, one of the least revealing of Strindberg’s books. As I wrote in my review: “Well translated, it would be of value in the way in which even the worst of D. H. Lawrence…is of value. Lacking the style and flavor of the original, it seems very flat stuff.”

I am lot, as Mr. Sprinchorn states, unfamiliar with American idiom. He used no word or phrase in his translation that was unfamiliar to me.

As regards his final suggestion, that my disapproval of his translation stems from “an obvious dislike of Strindberg,” and that “the Strindberg translation he [i.e., I] would most admire would not be Strindberg at all,” I feel bound to point out, at the risk of immodesty, that in 1964 the Swedish Academy gave my volume of Strindberg translations (published that year by Random House) their Gold Medal, which I understand has been awarded only eleven times in all since its inception over fifty years ago, and never before to any translator. They may be wrong and Mr. Sprinchorn right. That is a matter of taste. But that Strindberg’s prose, when he set out to write simply, was not slipshod and cliché-ridden, and that Mr. Sprinchorn’s translation is both, is not a question of taste but a statement of fact.

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