Camera Obscura and Laughter in the Dark,
or, The Confusion of Texts

by Christine Raguet-Bouvart
translated from the French by Jeff Edmunds

Reading Nabokov, a multilingual author who wrote in Russian, French, and English, poses straightaway the problem of the superimposition of languages to such an extent that the reader is never quite certain whether he is reading an original version by the author, a translation by the author, a translation revised by the author, or the work of a translator. Translation always held a predominant place in Nabokov's literary output, and he valued it highly. His first translation--"The Sheep," a poem by Seamas O'Sullivan (alias James Sullivan Starkey)--appeared in Rul', an émigré journal published in Berlin, in June 1921.1 It would be followed by translations of other poems, by the translation of Romain Rolland's Colas Breugnon, of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, the series culminating in the masterly Eugene Onegin of Pushkin,2 which caused his definitive break with Edmund Wilson, whose reading of the great Russian poet's work understandably differed from his own.

Generally speaking, Nabokov's approach as a writer to the language of composition is variable: he creates now in one language, now in another; he integrates one language into another or he invents languages of his own. At the same time, his approach as a translator is equally multifaceted: if there is, on the one hand, the translator strictly speaking who translates the texts of others from several different languages into several languages, there is, on the other hand, the self-translator who works sometimes alone, sometimes with collaborators such as his son, or even the author proper who merely revises or corrects the translations of his works made by others. In any case, this multiform activity casts the reader of Nabokov into confusion and uncertainty; he is never quite sure of which text he's dealing with, nor of how he might venture to perceive it, for the author in this case is an extremely critical reader in addition to being a fastidious producer of texts.3

To consider comparing readings of Camera Obscura4 and Laughter in the Dark5 is to exclude from the outset the original Russian text Kamera obskura, which, far from simplifying a very muddled situation, would perhaps further complicate it. Nevertheless, a chronology should allow us to situate the many variants of the work and to reestablish some order in this textual and linguistic tangle.

The Russian version of the novel was published serially in Paris between May 1932 and May 1933 in Sovremennye zapiski (Contemporary Annals); the book then came out in Berlin in December 1933. This was the first work by Nabokov to appear in English, published in London by John Long as translated by Winifred Roy under the title Camera Obscura, and reading it so tormented the author that he eagerly accepted the task of retranslating (?) or rewriting (?) this second text for an American publisher, Bobbs-Merrill. Thus was born, in May 1938, Laughter in the Dark, a book which, instead of dispelling the ambiguity of the situation, only serves to accentuate it. In fact the contract stipulates:

1. The Author hereby grants to the Publishers the sole and exclusive book and publishing rights in the English language in the United States of America and in the Dominion of Canada, in and to the novel entitled Camera Obscura.

2. The Author shall translate the said novel into the English language...6

But why "shall translate," if not to make explicit that the original is not English--which is not the case here--or to make clear that a rereading and a modification of the already translated text are necessary, as if to imply that the pleasure of reading can result only from the pleasure of writing, as if the question here were not of translating a text from another language, but only of transstyling7 it so that it might become a new work? The language of the contract implies a triple move undertaken for the reader's benefit: the author-translator's intervention, intended to prevent the death of the words themselves; the author-reader's intervention, in support of the author-translator with respect to the power of the words; and finally the movement of the text, under the impetus of the new words, towards the reader.
Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster. This is the whole of the story and we might have left it at that had there not been profit and pleasure in the telling; and although there is plenty of space on a gravestone to contain, bound in moss, the abridged version of a man's life, detail is always welcome.8
These first two paragraphs of Laughter in the Dark convey three essential ideas.

If a plot can be reduced to two sentences or seven clauses, it risks being of little interest. Moreover, as the ending is revealed, we find ourselves from the outset in the presence of a form of introduction that comprises at once prologue, epilogue and a summary of the events, and from which only the ups and downs, the chance occurrences, of an adventure that is, all in all, quite banal, are excluded. Thus the desire to discover an ending that is already known will not be what motivates a reading. In point of fact, the introduction reflects Nabokov's analysis of the act of reading, insofar as for him a good reader is a rereader--i.e. someone who reads not a story, but a text. In addition, anyone who has already read Camera Obscura recognizes the story as being identical to the one already recounted in the previous version, the names of the protagonists excepted. What justifies the existence of Laughter in the Dark? What does Nabokov mean by "profit and pleasure in the telling"? Has the author supplanted the translator by reworking the exposition, which is thus improved in this new version and consequently able to afford substantial profit and pleasure as much to the author-translator as to the reader?

Finally, to compare the framework of a novel to an epitaph is tantamount to announcing the death of the novel, to assigning the principal role to the plot and depriving words of any capacity to survive beyond the diegesis, as if they were only conveyors of meaning. This is the reason the author wanted to intervene: to prevent the death of the signifier in the signified.

Let us return to the first question in order to supply a response. Nabokov was able to undertake Laughter in the Dark only after having assumed two roles that we cannot share, especially given the unfolding of the story of the novel's multiple versions: 1) the role of Russian author and 2) the role of reader of the English translation of the Russian novel (this version is unfindable, thus impossible to read).9 The second function inevitably eludes the traditional reader and/or translator, for only the author, in taking on the task of reading a translation of his original text, can decide, according to criteria that are his own, to rewrite it. If Nabokov found Chambre obscure, the French version that Doussia Ergaz made of Kamera obskura in 1934, entirely acceptable, he immediately and definitively rejected the English translation for lack of precision and especially of 'literality':

It was loose, shapeless, sloppy, full of blunders and gaps, lacking vigour and spring, and plumped down in such dull, flat English that I could not read it to the end. [...] Please believe me that had the translation been in the least acceptable I would have passed it. And I am sure that you will agree, in your quality of publishers, that a good translation is most important for the success of a book.10
We understand then that 'good translation' depends not only on criteria of a synchronic nature--to wit, a necessary appropriateness between the different texts so as to recreate the semantic and aesthetic correspondences--but also on criteria of a diachronic nature--to wit, a need to remove the text from the Russian émigré universe, which had been definitively arrested in time and in history by the Revolution, and to give the novel another life within a new space-time linguistic relationship. This fact must be emphasized, because Nabokov, like all Russians of the emigration, was a stateless person, a person who spoke and wrote pre-Revolution Russian, and because it is entirely reasonable to inscribe his Russian creations within Russian literary history and then to view the English versions as new works that manage to enrich previous ones. But Camera Obscura corresponds to neither of these specifications: the English version is unsatisfactory on the stylistic level, and it opens no new horizon to the author, who was still convinced in 1937 that his novels belonged to Russia and its literature.11

Consequently, the reader must determine what distance separates Kamera obskura from Camera Obscura and justifies the writing of Laughter in the Dark. In effect this distance is first the result of temporal experience with regard to a prior lived event, circumscribed, in Husserlian terms, within a horizon of attention wherein everything "which is grasped in a mode of 'attention' [...] has as horizon a background of inattention which presents relative differences of clarity and obscurity, as well as of relief and absence of relief."12 The gap between the work and its translation may then depend upon the temporal space that distances Nabokov from his Russian perception of Berlin, or, stated differently, on the confusion between the Berlin 'present' of the emigration and the author's imagination sustained by the Russian language. But this transformation, in the form of enlightenment, can take place only when there is a change in language, at a moment that happens to correspond with a change of place: in January 1937, Nabokov left Berlin once and for all, and if the desire to change the language in which one writes is borne of necessity, this desire was able to manifest itself only as a result of a reading--in this case unsatisfying--of the translated text. Such a reading entails an aesthetic experience, equivalent to the gap between the work and what Jauss calls the 'horizon of expectation'; in the present case, the judgment passed by Nabokov-as-reader does not at all live up to his expectations as defined by Nabokov-as-author's criteria for the successful reproduction in another language of one of his works. This kind of expectation, common to both the author and the receiver of the work, would normally be of a transsubjective nature. In the present case the distinction does not arise, since author and reader are one and the same person, a person who himself brings about the intervention of another, Nabokov-as-translator, thus broadening the field of transsubjectivity. Moreover, onto Nabokov-as-translator, whose role it is to correct the work of an outside translator (Winifred Roy for the novel under discussion), is superimposed Nabokov-as-author, implying that the novel could not, unaided, leave the Nabokovian realm, situated within the émigré circle, to enter international space through the mediation of an English translator and thereby acquire independence. The active appropriation of the receiver, whose object is to modify the value and the meaning of the work and who facilitates its exit from a closed oneness, is here effected by the author in a final rush of reappropriation, motivated, perhaps, by a desire to accompany his novel out of the narrow space of the Russian emigration. This operation finds itself aptly summed up in "profit and pleasure in the telling" because, if the reader of Laughter in the Dark justifiably thinks that he will discover a new text, he is not necessarily aware of the complexity of Nabokov's motivation. In fact, if we admit, in agreement with the author-reader, that the text of Camera Obscura was indeed in need of retranslation or rewriting (the term remains to be defined), the reader does not know that it was the author who carried out this 'translation' (which I would define here as a transfer of signifier, and not of the signified, according to the mathematical sense of the operation, that is by means of a spacial shift within the same language to find an identical disposition along the plot's axis). The work benefits, certainly, but the act originates with the author and 'profits' him; the act of retranslation or rewriting enriches him as much as it does the text and is possible only because he has been able to enrich himself throughout the chain of successive interventions: the author had divided to become both author and reader, then author and reader and translator, and finally had reverted to his initial status of author to open up the horizon of a text which, in every language of translation, concludes with an open door.

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(The original French text of this article appeared in La lecture du texte traduit [Paris: Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1995], Palimpsestes no. 9, pp. 119-134. The English translation appears here by permission. Note that this article is accompanied by four passages as they appear in the five existing versions of Kamera obskura.)

1. Which appeared under the title "Ovtsy" in Rul', no. 165, 5 June 1921, p. 2. All bibliographic information is drawn from Vladimir Nabokov: A Descriptive Bibliography by Michael Juliar.

2. Nabokov first made translations from English and French into Russian, then in 1937 he began translating into English; it was only in 1954 that he returned to translation (or rather to adaptation) into Russian with Drugie berega, his autobiography. He also translated Lolita into Russian in 1967.

Colas Breugnon (Nikolka Persik) Berlin: Slovo, 1922. Alice in Wonderland (Ania v strane chudes) Berlin: Gamaiun, 1923. Eugene Onegin, New York: Random House, 1964.

3. In "The Art of Translation," first published in The New Republic, 4 Aug. 1941, pp. 160-162, reprinted in Lectures on Russian Literature (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), Nabokov analyzes the kinds of errors committed by translators out of ignorance, negligence, or out of a desire to 'sterilize' the original text, or out of a desire to satisfy a prevailing fad. All lapses which Nabokov, a critical reader, is apt to notice.

4. All citations from Camera Obscura refer to the first edition, in the form of a manuscript by Nabokov in the Vladimir Nabokov Archives, Montreux and New York.

5. All citations Laughter in the Dark refer to the Penguin edition, 1986.

6. Contract dated 27 September 1937, Vladimir Nabokov Archives, Montreux and New York.

7. A term borrowed from Gérard Genette (Palimpsestes, 257), to which I will return in developing this concept.

8. Laughter in the Dark, p. 5.

9. A current inventory reveals the existence of seven copies of this work worldwide: one in the Nabokov Archives; one in the Lilly Library at Indiana University; one in the British Library, London; one in the National Library of Scotland; one at the Humanities Researhc Center, University of Texas, Austin; two copies in private collections.

10. Letter to Hutchinson & Co,, 22 May 1935, in Selected Letters, p. 13.

11. Letter to Altagracia de Janelli (Nabokov's New York agent), 16 November 1937 (though dated 1938), in Selected Letters, p. 29.

12. E. Husserl, Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie, translated by P. Ricœur as Idées directrices pour une phénoménologie, Paris: Gallimard, 1950, p. 280. [The English rendering here is a translation from the French.--Translator's note.]

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