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This article is taken from PN Review 184, Volume 35 Number 2, November - December 2008.

Impossible Cruxes and Happy Coincidences Roger Caldwell

A new series of Cahiers - in themselves works of art in their beauty of design - from Paris prompts us to think anew about translation, translation not only from one language to another but also in the rather more inchoate sense of conveying or introducing ideas from one art-form to another. Not, of course, that there is consensus about the feasibility of translation in itself. Richard Pevear, in the very first of this series, quotes Voltaire: 'To translate poetry is impossible. Can one translate music?' And certainly the issue is at its most acute in poetry, though the Voltairian qualm can equally apply to artistic prose.

Translation is very much a serendipitous business, and it is hard to lay down any general principles that will not at one time or other meet exceptions, but Pevear offers some wise precepts. He stresses the historical situation of the translator. He sees translation as taking place 'in a space between two languages and most often between two historical moments'. In translating Tolstoy, for example, we should remember that we are reading a nineteenth-century novel: 'it should not read as if it had been written yesterday'. To go for a simply idiomatic translation is not to be true to the text. He cites a translation that has one of the characters saying 'Oh, he's got his head screwed on has old Kutuzov. What a character!' In fact the speaker is a prissy Russian aristocrat and what he ...

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