Origins: Russian Romanticism, or Nabokov vis--vis Russian and Western Translation Theories

Julia Trubikhina, New York University

Despite Nabokov's insistence on the uniqueness of everything he wrote, the theoretical framework of translation allows us to situate Nabokov within/without tradition. In this context I will address Nabokov's evolution--from free translation to literalism.

I will draw on the roots of Russian free translation, Russian romanticism, and will capitalize on Andrew Benjamin's theorizing of origin to ponder the capacity of "reworking" to generate an origin, a "source" that is at once the same and different, and to probe origin as the origin of convention. In light of this redeeming logic I will examine important and revolutionary innovations in Russian poetic language brought about in the process of translation by Russian sentimentalism and romanticism. Since most of European literature came to Russia in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century through translations from the French (which renders the idea of authorship problematic), I will explore how the very existence of French translations served as a sanction for the subsequent translation of literary texts into Russian. It was precisely the erasures and choices made by the French translators that affected the formation of Russian romanticism.

I will address how, from Cicero and Goethe to Walter Benjamin and beyond, conventional wisdom about translation is plagued with the desire for complete translatability. Nabokov's theoretical triads concerning translation--in the foreword to Eugene Onegin he defined three modes of literary translation: paraphrastic, lexical, and literal--derive both from Romanticism that nurtured the Russian tradition of translation and the lasting influence of his reading of Hegel. The ideas of the romantic aesthetic as a whole, postulated in Hegel's Aesthetics, come closest to the possibility of the "absolute solution" or "absolute identification" in translation.

Nabokov shares with Romantics their contempt for the classicist understanding of fidelity in its narrow, practical sense, the notion of romantic irony (equally crucial for Benjamin), the superior status attributed to translation as criticism, and preoccupation with the discourse of truth. Just as Ezra Pound's "ideogrammatic," "re-energizing" translation method was an extension of his vortex theory, Nabokov's approach was first an outgrowth of the Romantic tradition and later its countersurge, especially as far as Symbolist, post-Romantic translation is concerned. Nabokov's "servile path" of fidelity in translation is at odds with the Poundian influence that largely informed Western and especially Anglo-American theory and practice in the twentieth century.