Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0003065, Fri, 24 Apr 1998 15:13:08 -0700

Gogol in Russian and English (fwd)
Galya Diment <galya@u.washington.edu>

I have taught plenty of courses by now where I had to use Gogol in
translation. None ever approached the original (which translations very
rarely do) but students overwhelmingly respond very well to him,
especially to stories like "The Nose" or "The Overcoat" (James Joyce
apparently enjoyed those as well or, at the very least, their titles --
there is a place in ULYSSES where he appears to play with them, as when
Stephen remembers how, in Paris, he "used to carry punched tickets
to prove an alibi if they arrested you for murder somewhere.... Other
fellow did it: other me. Hat, tie, overcoat, nose.") They find G funny
in a wacky and wicked way that they can appreciate. They love G's
non-sequiturs, fantastic situations he creates, and the way he teases and
confuses his reader, so in many ways they do get to like and appreciate
what is quintessentially Gogolian.

And yet, Gogol in English does not read at all like Gogol in
Russian -- and it's not really just the question of stylistic oddities or
intricacies, I think, it is also a question of the basic sentence
structure. His sentences often weave and wiggle, gather force, then
suddenly dissipate and leave you breathless at the end. They are like
unpredictable waves, and reading him is akin to surfing -- for which
Russian, which is in love with long sentences, is wonderfully
accommodating, while English is not. It's not rare to see a Gogolian
sentence split into three in an English translation. While for
many other authors such a linguistically justifiable transformation does
not make that much difference, to Gogol it does. I sometimes think that
translators should forget the silly idea, promulgated by Belinsky and the
Soviet critics, that Gogol is somehow "a realist" and stop translating him
the same way they would translate Turgenev, for example. Let them imagine
that he is an innovative, experimental 20th-century author -- and let him
get away with things in English that modernists could get away with. I
don't know if it may solve anything -- but it's worth trying, in my humble

Galya Diment