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A Matter of Taste

In response to:

On the Western Front from the October 13, 1977 issue

To the Editors:

Generally speaking one does not answer hostile reviews, especially self-refuting ones [NYR, October 13]. But it would be a pity if readers with no Russian were to be put off Solzhenitsyn’s remarkable Prussian Nights by Ms. Muchnic’s strictures on my translation—even though she most equitably displays her disqualifications by giving short renderings of her own which are in turn rhythmless, rhymeless, grammarless, and meaningless.

If it is usually pointless to reply to reviewers, it is because a wide range of opinion is usually possible: but this should scarcely be true of translations, if properly judged. I know the difficulty of selecting reviewers of Russian books. And it is at least to your credit that Ms. Muchnic is not, as some are, involved in unpleasant anti-Solzhenitsyn vendettas. What she plainly lacks is the necessary feeling for English, especially English verse. So it may after all be worth recording that this version has been received with approval or enthusiasm by those with any reputation for being so qualified: such as Max Hayward (“a miracle”), John Bayley (“a near miracle”), Donald Davie, Clive James, Anthony Burgess, Julian Symons, Patricia Blake, and others. Of course no translation is a perfect rendering of the original: but I have yet to find a literate reader who has not admitted to being (at the lowest) emotionally shaken by reading what is, at any rate, the only English version in existence.

Robert Conquest

London, England

Helen Muchnic replies:

I am sorry that Mr. Conquest is indignant, but pleased that he has the support of the eminent critics he mentions, although their good opinion puzzles me. Matters of aesthetic judgment and taste, however, cannot be profitably argued. In my view, Mr. Conquest’s translation does Solzhenitsyn a disservice, especially since it is, as he himself points out, the only one in English. If Solzhenitsyn’s power comes through in spite of it, so much the better. I am happy to learn that this unique version has stirred the emotions of certain “literate readers.” Unfortunately, the reactions of literate readers of my acquaintance have been somewhat less enthusiastic.

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