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In other words

The translator's double life

Slavic and Eastern Languages 427/English 675: "The Art and Craft of Literary Translation"

Associate Professor of Slavic & Eastern Languages and English and Graduate Program Director of the Department of Slavic and Eastern Languages Maxim D. Shrayer

Eugene Onegin
by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Vladimir Nabokov; The Translation Studies Reader by Lawrence Venuti

Five female graduate students sit in the cozy library of the Slavic and Eastern Languages Department in Lyons Hall. Surrounded floor to ceiling by books in an assortment of languages, they comprise a class that professor Maxim D. Shrayer--a writer of fiction and literary criticism--calls his laboratory. The students themselves represent five languages: Russian (two of them), Polish, French, and Latin and Greek. They are learning, in Shrayer's words, the science and art of translation.

So how is translation taught to students who speak--but don't share--five languages? Shrayer starts by having them translate English into English.

The centerpiece of the seminar is Vladimir Nabokov's 1964 English translation of Alexander Pushkin's Russian novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. Shrayer calls Nabokov's translation the "bible of literalism," because Nabokov, by his own admission, set out to translate Onegin without "pounding the clavichords," keeping his text free of what Shrayer calls "jingle rhymes and metrical monotony." "Deliberately plain and neutral in tone," says Shrayer, Nabokov's literal version is the shared source that the students use to produce their own individual English versions--but this time, on Shrayer's instruction, they must follow the meter and rhyme scheme of the Russian original. The assignment: to move beyond Nabokov's translation "into the realm of Anglo-American poetry."

For nearly every class, the students are expected to translate a 14-line, iambic tetrameter stanza from the English of Nabokov into versions of their own. In this way, they will complete 22 stanzas, or about one-third of the book's first chapter, by semester's end--a significant accomplishment in light of the fact that some of them will spend up to three hours on each stanza. Shrayer collects the assignments and circulates them via e-mail, separately providing each student with his individual comments on her handling of such matters as syntax, rhyme, meter, and sound. All are read aloud during the next class so the students can assess their literary choices alongside their classmates'.

The students who take "The Art and Craft of Literary Translation" do so, by and large, either to fulfill a degree requirement or because they are curious about translation as a possible career. They all say they've been surprised and greatly rewarded by the experience. Few expected the course to be so challenging.

"I thought translation was simple, that the hardest thing would be looking up the words in the dictionary," says Emelye Crehore, a master's student in Russian language and literature. Several of her classmates, lingering after class to talk about the course, nod in agreement. One bonus, says Heather Braun, has been learning a lot about English poetic structure in the process. "It's helping me in my poetry classes and to read poetry, to get an ear," says the doctoral candidate in English, who's specializing in 19th-century British Romanticism.

Students also say they are riveted to the class by the force of Shrayer's personality and his passion for the subject. "I came to meet with him [before the course started]," says one, "and he was so enthusiastic I knew I'd like working with him." Another adds, "I'd be focusing on how hard it is, if he weren't so intense."

The youthful Shrayer is a warm, effusive man who speaks with a Russian accent and talks so rapidly that it's often not until after class that listeners can begin to absorb all that he's said and how elegantly he's said it. An e-mail to his students illustrates his style: "I've discovered a slight infelicity in the syllabus. Namely, Feb. 14 is listed twice, first as Tuesday, then as Thursday (my Polyhymnhia is getting a bit old and senile, I'm afraid). . . ."

One march day, the class is working on Onegin, stanza 11. Shrayer often punctuates a student's recitation of her translation with a general "very good" or "very nice," a specific, "The accumulation of m's and n's there is a very nice device for orchestrating rhyme," or, as was the case after the group had wrestled a particularly stubborn word into submission, "Good, we've rescued it." On an earlier day, Shrayer's practiced eye had detected on the printout of translations before him a student's obvious stretch for a rhyme. He'd nevertheless been amused by her invention and said to her, appreciatively and without sarcasm, "That's a nice, desperate solution." Now he listens as Jaime Goodrich, a doctoral candidate in English with a background in Latin and Greek, reads her translation of stanza 11. She has changed Nabokov's last two lines from And afterward, alone with her, / In the quietness give her lessons! to Then after, while with her alone, / In quietude ideals intone. Shrayer is impressed. "A very elegant ending," he says. "On a phonetic level, it's very elegant."

The greatest challenge to translators, according to Shrayer, lies in the vast number of choices they face.

He has designed his translation "laboratory" to clearly expose this prospect while controlling for, or distilling, the (Shrayer uses this word advisedly) "best" choices. The key ingredient is the oddly democratic process he employs. Sharing translations enables each student to see how many of her own choices were also those of her classmates. There is a synergy that develops, Shrayer says, when the students read their stanzas aloud and take others' reactions into account; as they rework their stanzas, the students often incorporate one another's words, phrasing, or rhymes. Moreover, translating someone else's translation, as the students do with Nabokov's version, helps them become comfortable with yet another translation conundrum--what Shrayer calls the translator's "double existence" vis--vis both the original and the emerging translation.

Through various other assignments--for instance, the 25-minute presentations in which each student critiques an existing translation of a poem or short text of her choosing and submits an alternative--Shrayer hones his students' appreciation of the nuances of translation. His assignments force them to consider how interpretive they can be, how to adhere to an original's meter and rhyme without sacrificing meaning, and vice versa. Are certain works "less than translatable?" asks a student. What are the particular challenges of different authors? "There is no one best way," Shrayer emphasizes. Translation is "an open-ended process based on aesthetic predilection."

Because everyone works on Nabokov's English Onegin, all the students learn the same techniques, but they also have occasion to use their foreign languages. Shrayer deals with the students' multilingualism by tailoring the midterm exam and the final project to each student's designated foreign language. It works this way: For the midterm he gives each a short poem in her designated language and asks that she translate it into English using the skills learned in the Onegin exercises. On this semester's midterm, students translated from the Polish of Krasinski, the Russian of Akhmatova, the Latin of Horace, and the French of Rimbaud.

Similarly, the final project is a foreign language-to-English translation of 300 lines of poetry or 20 typed pages of prose. Shrayer has enough proficiency in his students' languages to evaluate their work. If it ever happened that he didn't, he says, he would arrange for an outside reader.

Shrayer displays his gentle brand of humor in class one afternoon as he coaxes his students to relax about the midterm exam coming up the following Thursday. "Questions, concerns, cavils?" he asks, explaining that the poems will be 14 lines, either sonnets or similar stanzaic forms. He tells them that they should "feel free to walk around and hum" during the test and that they may stay longer than the 75-minute period if they need to. "I don't want you to leave the exam with a heavy heart," he says.

Shrayer expects to offer "The Art and Craft of Literary Translation" every other year. The seminar can accommodate up to 10 people (qualified undergraduates are welcome). One of his aims is to inspire students and future teachers of literature to become translators. The amount of world literature that has been translated for English readers is relatively small, Shrayer explains--only a fraction of what is possible. One of Shrayer's intentions, when he asks his students to select previously untranslated works for their individual projects, is for them to produce publishable translations. And in that small way, one seminar at a time, he--and they--begin to fill the gap.

Vicki Sanders

Photo: Shrayer: "A nice, desperate solution"

Lee Pellegrini

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