“How one pines for a translation of Proust by the hand of Nabokov,” wrote Christopher Hitchens a few years ago in a review of Lydia Davis’s translation of Swann’s Way. Hitchens’s remark seems so sensibly surefooted that you hardly notice the subtleties he merrily tramples past. Yes, it might well seem that Nabokov, who admired Proust, whose French was fluent, and whose own English prose–with its sensitivity to color, its priority on evoking sensory states, its resourceful music, and its syntactical complexity–would have seemed the ideal medium in which to reproduce Proust’s French effects. And yet, to pine for such an advent is to overlook Nabokov’s very complex identity as a translator.
In 1922, Nabokov was a liberal hand, translating Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland into Russian (which Russianists can read online). He strove to reproduce Alice’s rhythm and rhyme. For the benefit of those of us unable to read his Anya v strane chudes (Anya in the Land of Wonder), the translator’s wife Véra explained in The American Years, the second volume of Brian Boyd’s great Nabokov biography, that her husband had worked hard to impersonate Carroll’s “tricks of demeanor and speech.” Puns and portmanteaus that would have been deadly if translated literally were liberally recast. Details of British history sure to baffle Russians were replaced with local color (the “French mouse, come over with William the Conqueror” became a mouse left behind during Napoleon’s retreat). Now considered the finest of the seventy substitute Alices that have proliferated through the reading world, the twenty-three year-old Nabokov’s translation showed him already exceptionally able at acting “the real author’s part.”
In age, Nabokov grew conservative, attempting, in his 1964 four volume Bolingen translation of Eugene Onegin, to offer a version that impersonated no one’s tricks. Instead, it gave scholarly access to the exact meaning of the original Russian. It was a translation, but not one that aspired to being a text one read for pleasure: it was a resource for readers, an intellectual gift to an aesthetic marvel, but not itself an aesthetic marvel.
In the quote above, therefore, we can assume that Hitchens was hoping for marvels in translation, not for resourcefulness. Whereas my sense has long been that good translations are always marvels of resourcefulness. On that admirable list I count Davis’s version of Swann’s Way, as I do Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff’s, Terence Kilmartin’s revision of the Moncrieff, D.J. Enright’s revision of Kilmaertin’s Moncrieff, and even James Grieve’s more flamboyant transposition.