Translating Turgenev’s Prose: Unveiling The Invisible
Translating literary works is always challenging and controversial due to aesthetic and expressive values such as figurative language, metaphors, and difference in cultural and historical contexts. From the semiotic view point, certain elements involved in the process of literary translation go beyond this conventional area and are focused on semantic and expressive equipoise between different semiotic systems. It is widely known that translation of prose from a semiotic perspective at the interfaces between cultures with major emphasis placed on invariance between the source and target texts represents one of the key issues in contemporary translation studies.
A semiotic approach to translation regarded as a form of interrelation between texts and literatures allows to trace the processes of content emanation within a textual structure. The exchange of semantic messages takes place between texts within contextual identities of the same culture, between two cultures or globally. Thus semiotics allows to interpret the process of creating new texts using approaches and tools that go far beyond standard linguistic or structural concepts. This has become possible due to the fact that translation itself can and should be regarded as a flexible and dynamic system interacting with other systems with major emphasis placed on the systems of languages and meanings contained in the original.
Channelling translation to the realm of semiotics, we have to recognise the former as a complex interpretating system capable of construeing the signs of one semiotic system using the signs of the other. According to Stepanov (1965), a term ’translation’ may be regarded as a basic equivocal concept of semiotics while the term ‘translatability’ should always be identified as ‘translating the meaning’, or ability to convey the core message. The standpoint of Benveniste (1966) concernining the interpretation of sign systems highlights the semiotic nature of the relations that determine the status of both systems – the one which is empolyed by the translator as an interpretation tool and the other one, which itself is subject to interpretation.
As long as the essay focuses on ‘unveiling the invisible’ hidden in the original, it is worth mentioning that any attempt of the textual analysis from the contemporary view point should be carefully adjusted to the cultural contexts of the past with special attention paid to the necessity to adhere to the position of the author of the source text and that of the translator.
Constance Garnett is redoubtable in the magnitude of her achievement as the translator who introduced great Russian literature to the English reading public. After a visit to Moscow and Petersburg in 1893, she translated a lot of Russian classics including Turgenev, Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Dostoyevski. Her translations, highly acclaimed in her time, still serve a brilliant example of stylistic elegance and demonstrate a high level of translation equivalence. However, many critics including Nabokov comment on her ‘incompetency’ and agree that her translations are outdated, which, in its turn, might provoke a thought concerning the subjectivity of such judgements. Obviously enough, any text created at any period of historical time is intended for a particular target audience and whether the translation might seem ‘too accurate’ or too shallow depends on the the cultural, semantic, or semiotic intentions and predilections of the target text recipient to a great extent. However, the significant fact that Constance Garnett's translations of Russian classics are still being reprinted today speaks for itself.
The poetic cycle by Ivan Turgenev called Senilia (‘senility’), or Poems in Prose (1877-1882), consists of 51 short narratives full of symbolism, written in a brilliant metalanguage and elaborating on a number of motifs. The narrative Cabbage Soup was created in 1878 and translated by Constance Garnett almost immediately after it had been published. Those were the last years of Turgenev’s life and the motifs of the inevitability of death, loneliness, wasting away, and sorrow with a hint of disappointment and disillusionment became dominant in his prose.
Turgenev’s artistic manner and figurative romanticist style stood out sharply against the background of the new literary wave emerging in Russia in the late 19th century. The opinions concerning Poems in Prose expressed by his contemporaries varied from enthusiastic and exhalted to partial, critical and even sceptical statements and remarks. This evidence argumentative of Turgenev’s high susceptibility to impacts of spiritual and philosophical concepts caused by diversity in the state of public opinion is likely to prove the fact that the ideological and political novelty of the late 19th-century Russian society coincided with the physical decline of the great Russian writer. The tragic concourse of circumstances under which Turgenev was inevitably becoming more and more aware of the old spiritual values fading away predetermined the apocalyptic tone of his Poems in Prose, which was immediately reverberated through Constance Garnett’s reflexion as a translator and herself a subtle artist. Foreseeing the ineluctability of the revolution in Russia, Turgenev wrote in his notes shortly before his death that in the eyes of the young people, regardless of the political party they might belong to, he had always been and had still remained the old-fashioned liberal in its ‘English, dynastic sense’ displaying himself as the man who was ready to welcome any reforms from above but the one who had taken a principled stand as the adversary of any revolutions not to mention “the recent disgraceful goings-on” (Turgenev v vospominaniyakh sovremennikov. 1969). The latter can indubitably be referred to resoluteness of some progressive Russian young democrats to struggle for new values in the name of generations of revolutionaries to come and ready to take such extreme measures as self-denial and terror.
It would be a little straightforward to think of Constance Garnett and Ivan Turgenev as a writer and a translator who were found under the circumstance of identity or cognation; however, their aesthetic, ethic and humanistic ideals could have probably shaped the paradigm of ‘self and identity’ in translation of Turgenev’s narratives where the writer still seems to put in the forefront the theme of ‘triumphant love’, hope, renovation of the soul and spiritual rebirth.
The text of Turgenev’s narrative, rich in symbols and implications, builds up a complex cultural and philosophical conceptosphere thus making a translator responsible for creating the translation comparable to the original from the aesthetic perspective at least. According to Bakhtin (Bakhtin, 1979), any fictional text should be interpreted as the aesthetic event. At the same time, the act of fictional translation implies certain parity between the writer of the original and the translator.
Those who have been exposed to Turgenev’s Poems in Prose and his narrative Cabbage Soup might agree that the narrator seems acting as an observer rather than a participant sounding rather reticent or restrained. Besides, Turgenev’s usually stylistically elegant and refined language might seem either too ‘simple’, or too laconic. Semiotic discrepancies in the source text and translation may result from how fully the translator managed to estimate the dialectic unity of the sign and the ideal meaning in the source language attributed to it. It is obvious that in the source text and the target text the unity of the semiotic continuum can be brought about in at least two different ways (not counting ‘the third party’ – the reader). Lotman (Lotman, 2002a) suggests that the semiotic mechanism should be based on discrimination between the synchronism and diachronism of the language; this, in its turn, causes formidable challenge for a translator since every message concerning any plotline and any fictional character should be conveyed with maximum accuracy from the semiotic view point. Thus the analysis of Turgenev’s narrative reveals certain reconsideration of conventional concepts, motifs, tropes, and other elements of textual aesthetics intrinsic to the original. All translators, and Constance Garnett is no exception to the rule, volens-nolens create their own myths thus confirming their demiurgical reputation. According to Likhachov (Likhachov, 1987), any interpretation of the original text results in taking on special mythological significance; so it can be assumed that a translated fictional text becomes a new myth itself since the translator’s ‘self’ inevitably takes away the identity of the original and disrupts its semiotic essence.
The examination of the parallel texts reveals strong emotional and symbolic significance of Turgenev’s narrative. Constance Garnett’s translation contains slight deviations in meaning which could be compared to an almost inaudible whisper. With the semiotic depth of both the source text and the translation in view, we cannot ignore such an important problem as a two-step approach to the text analysis proposed by Lotman (Lotman, 2002b) who described any fictional text (either prose or poetry) as a two-tier model which creates the reliable system of correlations such as ‘language-speech’; ‘structure-realisation’; ‘rule-exception’.
If we consider the evolution of the text semantics in both the source text and translation in the cultural, philosophical and mythological contexts respectively, we should be placing special emphasis on the title of the narrative. As it is widely known, the title can be interpreted as one of the essential elements of semantic and aesthetic organisation of any fictional text. We also know that the symbol or the image introduced in the title can serve as the key to the author's interpretation of the plot and fictional characters. Today we can only guess why Constance Garnett translated the title of the poem as Cabbage Soup, which might seem to a Russian reader of the English translation rather literal or straightforward but still convincing. Probably other more dramatic, explicit, vivid but obviously more trivial solutions could be Tatiana’s Grief, Irreparable Loss or suchlike. The translator perfectly preserved the general idea which goes far beyond the revealing all the hints of the multifarious conflict only from the social or ideological view point.
The comparative analysis of the Cabbage Soup makes it reasonable to trace the evolution of motifs from a semiotinc perspective. It should be admitted that Constance Garnett might have confronted by two mutually exclusive alternatives; the first suggesting that translation should be close to the original as much as possible; and the second implying that the non-native recipient should be able to perceive the translated text as if it were written in his or her mother tongue, at the same time preserving its cultural identity (Raisner, 1979). The relationship between the original and translation still remains the most dramatic subject of the world culture, embracing almost all areas of human thought and defining people’s worldview. In this context, the initial message of the source text might seem a little reviewed or altered:
One of the most weighty arguments in favour of semiotic nature of possible unpremeditated textual distortions seems to be concealed in the way Turgenev identifies the key semantic element of the whole narrative entitled Schi (or Cabbage Soup in English). The invisible message of the source text remains unrevealed due to the objective difference in phonology of the Russian and the English languages. For Russians, the word schi might bear a plethora of meanings conceived by means of subconscious mythological memory, which can be explained by a closer look at the language phenomenon which some scholars define as phonosemantics, or phonosemiotics. The argument might seem to have little force; yet it can be considered as another approach to encode subtle shade of meaning of signs of the language hidden in its sounds (in this case, Russian consonants). Leaving out possible pains prompted by moral and social tenseness of the situation (‘schi, or ‘weak cabbage soup’, which was a traditional meal for the poorest classes of the 19th-century Russia), the reader of the Russian text is likely to experience inexplicable mixed sensations from misery to catatonic remorse.
In her work on iconic signs of the language, Nina Mechkovskaya (Mechkovskaya, 2004) describes sound symbolism as the metalanguage reflection of the speakers of a particular language projected on to the ulterior motives or latent psychological states of different groups of recipients. Traditionally, Russian consonants fall under several classes according to the emotional and associative effect they produce on the listener. Thus, the semantic associations attributed to sibilants and ‘low value’ fricatives like s, sh, zh, sch in Russian are marked by quite a negative connotation.
From the mythological view point these hissing sounds might remind the generations of people of the noises produced by snakes or other dangerous creatures and are deeply engraved in the national mentality as stereotypes of something extremely negative. As in case with schi, the associative memory obligingly offers the whole range of words containing inherent meanings which could be interpreted in a variety of ways where the negative sense tends to dominate: ‘uscherb’ (damage; loss; detriment; prejudice); ‘uscherbny’ (declining); ‘nischiy’ (beggar, mendicant, pauper); ‘nischeta’ (poverty); ‘tschedushiye’ (feebleness, frailty; debility); ‘tschetnost’ (futility), etc. Vladimir Dal (Dal, 1955) an outstanding Russian linguist and a lexicographer, defines another meaning of the noun “tscheta” (vanity) as devastation and emptiness with emphasis placed on unavailing efforts, being left empty with a hidden foreshadowing to draining someone’s spirit. For the Russian recipient of the original text the low value fricatives create a semiotic framework which may act as a mechanism enhancing the emotive and expressive function of the text of Cabbage Soup, at the same time explicating the motifs of loneliness and devastation.
Following Bakhtin’s assuption (Bakhtin, 1981a), linguistics and the philosophy of language acknowledge only a passive understanding of discourse and take place by and large on the level of common language, that is, it is understanding of an utterance’s neutral signification and not its actual meaning.’ The same is quite true for translation practices where the mechanism of interpretation rests on the idea that semiotic systems are traditionally employed to express the actual meaning only. The isomorphic and homomorphic relations stemming from these systems imply complete equivalence of the translated text and its profound identity but for all that, absolute stringency of the secondary, or target text, is hardly achievable. In other words, the translation typifies all inherent features of the original including multiple intrinsic meanings but still it is likely to question the authenticity of semiotic elements due to a number of objective and subjective factors such as simplification, omissions, and assymetry.
When comparing and contrasting the source and target texts, a special significance should be attributed to the fact that two semiotically autonomous and independent subtextual areas are nevertheless united by the same semiotic metastructure (Lotman, 2002c). The text of Cabbage Soup contains a great many of implicatures, which suggests that the analysis of the source text should be both thorough and comprehensive, to avoid purely ‘linguistic’ approach to literary translation and take into account such important issues as cultural and philosophical background of the literary work, its semiotic richness, communicative organisation and the extent of lexical coherence. All these combined, make the source text more transparent thus broadening the emotive and expressive functions of both the source and the target texts. In her translation, Constance Garnett kept unruffled the emotive textual space preserving the two basic areas that determine the textual semantics on the explicit or ‘visible’ level. The first one has to deal with the peasant woman’s grief caused by her irreparable loss: ‘The woman's face was sunken and dark; her eyes were red and swollen’; ‘tears of anguish once more down her hollow cheeks’; 'It's the end of me too, of course; it's tearing the heart out of me alive.’
The second one reveals utter perplexity displayed by the landlady due to the ‘coarse feelings’ of her surf ‘scooping up weak cabbage soup from the bottom of a blackened pot, and swallowing it spoonful by spoonful’ as if she was making a pagan or a religious ritual of funeral repast: ‘Tatiana!’ she said. ...’Really! I’m surprised! Is it possible you didn’t care for your son? How is it you’ve not lost your appetite? How can you eat that soup!’
Although Bakhtin (Bakhtin, 1981b) warns against confusing the ‘real’ and ‘represented’ worlds, there seems to be no boundary as absolute and impermeable. The two worlds are in ‘continual mutual interaction.The world represented in it enters the real world and enriches it, and the real world enters the imaginary world as part of the process of its creation. Thus the hidden or ‘invisible’ message conveys a growing feeling of resuscitation, regeneration of life and hope rising from the ashes, which becomes the implicit dominant purpose of the woman despite her son’s death. The textual dynamics shows the gradual increase in Tatiana’s inner strength. Despite her inconsolable distress, she does not indulge in a wild and inconsolable lament: ‘The woman's face was sunken and dark; her eyes were red and swollen ... but she held herself as rigid and upright as in church.’ The adjective rigid in the English translation reveals a tangible change in meaning contained in the source text. The semantic field of the adjective rigid shows a variety of synonyms with multiple meanings, among them stiff, hard, tough, unbending, unyielding, and inflexible. The Russian word istovo used by Turgenev means earnest, assiduous, fervent, zealous; true; grave with the latter sounding as a key semantic element domineering in the whole context.
James Atlas (Atlas, 1973a) suggests the three modes proposed by Roman Jakobson: intralingual translation, or interpretation within the same language; interlingual translation, or interpretation ‘by means of some other language’; and intersemiotic translation, or ‘transmutation of nonverbal into verbal signs’ might imply that ‘translation is a component in all language transactions, and that the second mode Jakobson cites, which applies to the translation of literature, is no more than a single term in a complex equation.’ With regard to ‘untranslatability of poetry’, relying heavily on ‘transposition’ only, any translator is likely to face a lot of irrefutable difficulties. Thus, Atlas assumes:
‘the sheer singularity of a poem resides in its willingness to suspend or violate rules, employing only those elements in the language which cannot be reproduced in some other phrase. This reverts to Jakobson’s first mode, translation within the same language, an event even less possible in poetry than the second, since what determines a poem is its exact nature, the sense that nothing else will do.’
The poetic substance of Cabbage Soup does not display explicitly Tatiana’s sufferings; rather, she is described as a soulless, cold, unemotional and mechanical creature whose inadequate behaviour seems shocking to the landlady. Constance Garnett’s translation does not impair any element of the semantic field of the narrative where the landlady and a peasant woman seem to be ‘divided by a common language’ within their native cultural context: ‘A peasant woman, a widow, had an only son, a young man of twenty, the best workman in the village, and he died’; ‘the lady recollected that when, a few years before, she had lost her little daughter, nine months old, she had refused, in her grief, a lovely country villa near Petersburg, and had spent the whole summer in town!.’ The impact of bereavement on the reader does not seem intangible due to existence of two parallel worlds within the same context with emphasis placed on antipodic values that are shockingly opposite.
For Constance Garnett, it was crucial to grasp the essence of mythologism of Turgenev’s narrative. Even minor deviation from the original is likely to result in upsetting the semiotic balance, emergence of unwanted semantic shifts, and queer confusion of motifs, symbols and messages. Even superficial examination of Garnett’s translation demonstrates correctness in conveying the multidimensional configuration of Turgenev’s narrative, dynamics of the key mythologic images, nevertheless allowing a certain degree of reinterpretation.
No longer being regarded as a naïve attempt to describe the environment, to satisfy the curiosity of a savage oppressed by the formidable elements and possessing but a meagre experience, for Constance Garnett a myth serves as a form of thinking and a product of unconscious poetic imagination. Another ‘invisible’ hint of the source text is the “mother-child” dichotomy, which, according to the Russian cultural and mythological tradition, rests on the explicated ‘bread and salt’ mythologeme which has a wide range of semantic features in the Slavic cultural context (bread as a symbol of fertility, child-bearing, birth and life). When Tatiana‘s son dies (in this context, it is her child, her bread and a breadwinner who leaves her alone), this unity is disrupted to a great extent. It can be assumed that the motif of salt (salt in the cabbage soup, salt in Tatiana’s tears) in this context could be interpreted as the symbol of the corporeal, mundane incarnation of a human being who receives communion through swallowing weak schi. The plot which is read above the text, or between the lines of the text, suggests that Tatiana’s pain and tears break the tragic chain of mournful motifs and mark the vague perspective of a future harmonisation of the tragic substance of the reality.
In Constance Garnett’s translation, the symbolism of tears brings to harmony the spiritual and the mundane. Serving as evidence of life and its oxymoronic, contradictory nature, tears can be considered as the analogue of pain described by Dostoevsky as a means of defence, when a human in trouble shows his or her sufferings to the God to ask for protection and salvation. At the same time, the very act of crying reveals unconscious hope to solve the tragic situation. If it hurts, it means that Tatiana is still alive: ‘It’s the end of me too, of course; it's tearing the heart out of me alive. But the soup's not to be wasted; there’s salt in it.’ Implicitly, the last quotation seems to bear distant but nevertheless life-asserting and optimistic reverberations of the ancient ritual of trizna, or the Russian mythological funeral repast. In Turgenev’s narrative, according to classical mythologemes deeply rooted in the Russian national consciousness, merely mechanical swallowing of the ‘weak cabbage soup’ could be undeniably regarded as the obscure symbol of death followed by indispensable revival, gaining further strength to survive.
According to Atlas (Atlas, 1973b), ‘translation does not find itself in the centre of the language forest but on the outside facing the wooded ridge<...>’; the language forest, in its turn, ‘like Baudelaire’s forêt de symboles, is impenetrable; all we can hope to do is listen to the original and establish a resemblance more tonal than exact.’ With these ideas in view, we tend to regard the semiotic approach to translation of fiction as the most comprehensive, sophisticated and accurate method providing reliable interpretation of aesthetic conventions, historical, cultural and social circumstances, and authorial identity. The translator’s success relies heavily on his or her ability to decode author’s choice in three major spheres: real, ideal, and that predetermined by the particular sign. Occasional complaints of Constance Garnett’s translations being ‘outdated’ or scholarly to display distinctive features of the original might have resulted from her manner to keep close to the syntax and vocabulary of the original. She is still claimed to have ‘retold Russian literature in Victorian English’, which, in fact, is not strictly true, as the English she used was rather ‘Edwardian’ than ‘Victorian’.
To sum up, it must be said that the key element of translator’s endeavour to encode the signs of the source text at the interfaces between the Russian and the Western cultures is the presence of the universal semiotic space in the text of the original. Moreover, this space should have the capacity for unlimited expansion thus allowing the translator to overcome all hurdles and barriers of comprehension and to eliminate the distinction between multiple meanings and various semantic connotations. Equally demanding, understanding of indivisible nature of both temporal and spatial logic of the narrative realised simultaneously on the actual and the irrational levels is of critical importance for a translator. The original as well as the translation is shaped by the existing distinctions, while the interdependence between the source and target texts is determined by the ‘superiority’ either of the writer or the translator. As long as we assert the preference of the translator’s intention, the original immediately imposes its own intention hierarchy, in this case acting not as a mere text but rather as a domineering element saturated with more expressive and meaningful message in the ‘original-translation’ dychotomy.
It is worth mentioning that the comparative analysis of the source and target texts shows that in interlingual translations the full equivalence between code units is hardly achievable, which results in sporadic semantic shifts and circumlocutions. However, we can say that not only did Constance Garnett accurately conveyed the style, morphology and syntax of the original text, but she also preserved the very essence of the key message in now historically distant context. Rephrasing Goethe, it can be concluded that in her attempt ‘to unveil the invisible’, Constance Garnett can be described as the translator who had ‘brought to her fellow countrymen a true and clear picture of the foreign author and foreign circumstances, keeping strictly to the original.’ At the same time, she had treated the foreign work as Turgenev had treated his material, altering it after her own tastes and convictions, so that it is brought closer to her fellow countrymen, who could then accept it as if it were an original work.’ It would be reasonable to assume that a great Russian narrator and his English translator came to an agreement which established an unrivalled parity between them, allowing both to retain the very essence of the literary work in the form and intrinsic meaning that would make Turgenev’s fiction ‘European’ for the European readers at the same time preserving the bitter taste of salted schi for the Russian audience.
1. Atlas, J, 1973. On Translation.
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