Ember, Translator of Hamlet
by Christine Raguet-Bouvart
translated from the French by Jeff Edmunds

Pity the elderly gray translator
Who lends to beauty his hollow voice
And--choosing sometimes a second rater--
Mimes the song-fellow of his choice.

"Rimes," Vladimir Nabokov1

In an essay published on 4 August 1941 in The New Republic, “The Art of Translation,”2 Vladimir Nabokov characterizes translation as “the queer world of transmigration.” Having arrived in the United States a year earlier, he had himself effected a transmigration from one continent to another, fleeing Hitler’s troops to protect his family and to preserve his use of language. But for the shift to be complete, the Russian author would have to give way to the American author. The move had been initiated in France a few years earlier with the rewriting of Laughter in the Dark,3 then with the writing of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight,4 and was followed, in America, by work on translations of Russian poetry into English.5 In 1942, he begins composition of Bend Sinister, a novel whose plot does indeed take a sinister turn, but whose working title was first “The Person from Porlock.”6 This allusion to the interruption of a poet’s inspiration cannot but evoke the author’s situation and the echoes of it he gives in his novel by means of two distinct characters: the philosopher Krug, and Ember, “an obscure scholar, a translator of Shakespeare in whose green, damp country he had spent his studious youth” [BS, 29]. Published in 1947, Bend Sinister7 is set in an imaginary state and relates the story of the last seven months of the life of Adam Krug, a brilliant philosopher with a striking force of character. The action opens just after the death of Olga, his wife, and shortly after the seizing of power by a tyrant, Paduk, nicknamed “The Toad,”8 who happens to be a former classmate and scapegoat of Krug’s. The party of “The Average Man,” which heads the state and whose philosophy is based on a theory of egalitarianism, “Ekwilism,” developed by a certain Skotoma, has as its object the glorification of the commonplace and the ordinary. Nonetheless, Paduk seeks to obtain the official support of Krug, the only thinker in the state whose renown is international. To provoke his submission, Paduk causes to disappear, one after the other, all his friends and colleagues, but Krug attaches no importance whatsoever to these threats until the day his son is abducted, then tortured to death in an absurd and brutal manner. Thereafter, the sole means of pressuring him having disappeared, Krug no longer has any reason to yield to the blackmail. It is at this moment that his creator decides to deliver him from his suffering by rendering him insane, then to lead the reader amidst the mass of bescribbled sheets that constitute the novel. Within this relatively simple frame are inserted a series of literary, notably Shakespearean, allusions and evocations, and more specifically an entire exposition, which occupies a good portion of chapter 7, on the version of Hamlet that Ember is in the midst of creating for the state theatre. If a number of commentators have sought to explain the relationship established between the action of the novel and that of Hamlet, the function of translation itself has, until now, hardly been touched upon. But not only does Ember offer us examples of his translation of Hamlet into the vernacular, which he goes so far as to justify by retranslating it into French (an act absurd in itself, and all the more illogical for the Anglophone reader for whom the novel is destined), but the narrator peppers the entire text with odd foreign expressions, generally in italics, sometimes included in the English text without explanation, but most often followed by a translation (or by what the reader must take for a translation) in English within parentheses. The effect produced is extremely disconcerting. In all this work on the text, the intertext and the translation, it would seem that the reader is first invited to find a thematic relationship between the story of Adam Krug and the proposed translations, with Ember as mediator. Ember has, however, a very personal idea of his function as translator, and one quite rightly adapted to his situation in the bosom of this autocratic state, whose ideology he seems to be very unconsciously and naively serving: he fashions himself interpreter and renders the obscure intelligible. But he takes this national mission so much to heart that in order to trans-late, Ember metamorphoses as if to transport the reader beyond the mimetic. All these transformations draw the translator toward the commentator, and, far from doing credit to his work, make it a laughing stock, as Krug obliquely remarks: “Worte, worte, worte. Warts, warts, warts. My favourite commentator is Tschischwitz, a madhouse of consonants--or a soupir de petit chien..” (BS, 115).9

Fear no more the frown of the great; / Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;10

Ember, thanks to the national scope of his activity, and Krug, thanks to his notoriety, both believe themselves to be beyond the tyrant’s reach, and their error stems perhaps from the fact that they believe themselves able to escape from their fictional reality with the help of their own writing. Translation raises the question of passage, which appears in the novel in conjunction with the abstract notion of death and the concrete image of water: puddles, lakes, rivers whose other shores are visible, but whose crossings are always problematic or even fatal; Krug even goes so far as to confuse the death of his wife and that of Ophelia, leading the reader with him in a thematic superimposition encouraged by Ember’s work. If Nabokov, in using Hamlet in his novel, considers the play a unique and first-rate creation of the English tongue,11 the door opening onto modern English, in sum the foundation play, it is easy to understand why Ember’s translation is important and how much it must count for in the foundation of the “Ekwilist” state at the head of which Paduk finds himself, in the recognition of Ember-the-translator, and, through him, in the recognition of the author. But these three propositions are contradictory. In order for the power of Paduk, a fictional tyrant, to be invested with official authority in the heart of the work of fiction whose hero he wants to be, he must acquire a universal stature, conceded to Hamlet, but not to Claudius, the usurper in the mise-en-abyme play. Thus, to suit the tyrant, Ember’s translation must adapt Shakespeare’s text to the needs of the novel; in this case, he becomes a translator whose political correctness cannot be questioned, but whose skills become suspect. Finally, it seems difficult to do justice to the author once, like opponents of Paduk’s regime, he has lost his voice and his life:

L’égorgerai-je ou non? Voice le vrai problème.
Est-il plus noble en soi de supporter quand même
Et les dards et le feu d’un accablant destin-- (BS, 118)
It is indeed the author whom the translator kills: in cutting his throat, he deprives him of speech. Consequently, the novel would be a good “translation” of the theme of tyranny. As for the translation that Ember offers of Hamlet, it will be a good illustration of tyranny thanks to the evocative value of the images. It should be emphasized too that the appearance of the translation and the translator are not only synchronous with the loss of the loved one,12 since the memory of Olga is simultaneously evoked, but moreover, Ember, the translator with the emblematic name, is charged with Olga’s cremation: he will thus reduce her body to ashes, in spite of himself and despite the love he could feel for her: “She would lie now, a pinch of blue dust in her cold columbarium. / He had liked her enormously, and he loved Krug with the same passion” (BS, 31). It is to be feared that the text he is charged with translating may suffer a similar fate, a fate which is implicitly foreshadowed a few lines later: “the unfinished translation of his favourite lines in Shakespeare’s greatest play-- / follow the perttaunt jauncing ‘neath the rack / with her pale skeins-mate.13 / crept up tentatively but it would not scan because in his native tingue ‘rack’ was anapestic” (BS, 32). In citing a fictitious passage--a collage of Shakespearean elements-- the translator reveals straightaway that the discrepancy between translation and original text is so great that his method amounts to textual torture. He prepares the reader for the relationship of equivalence between the intratextual violence against the characters inside the fictional system of the novel and the intertextual violence against words by words. Thus the absence of precision in the translation becomes paradoxically representative of the general theme of the work, whereby a homology is established between error and horror, a detail which Nabokov perhaps wanted to point out, with a certain measure of humor, in the introduction to the novel added in 1963: “Paronomasia is a kind of verbal plague, a contagious sickness in the world of words” (BS, xv).

The discussion of Hamlet in chapter 7 unfolds in three phases: Ember speaks to reject the stage adaptation proposed by Wern, which is inspired by Professor Hamm14 and perverts the original, making of Fortinbras, to be read “fort-en-bras” and nicknamed “Ironside,” the hero. This text presents a sick world: “as with all decadent democracies, everybody in the Denmark of the play suffers from a plethora of words” (BS, 108), for which the sole remedy would be “the simple word, verbum sine ornatu, intelligible to man and beast alike, and accompanied by fit action” (BS, 108-109). In this version, at times the ideas dominate the words, at times the words by their number smother the dimmist impulse to act. Once again, the situation is disconcerting and somewhat confused, without considering that in addition to the diverse transformations of the plot, the text itself undergoes all sorts of distortions, presented in the form of interlineal translations: “this quarry cries on havoc (meaning: the foxes have devoured one another)” (BS, 110), or in the form of lexico-phonic slippages: “Osric and Yorick almost rhyme, except that the yolk of one has become the bone (os) of the other” (BS, 110). This stage adaptation does volence to the text: it overturns and then destroys the order established by the author.

In the second phase, Krug mentions a Hollywood project of adaptation which seeks to exploit all of the play’s even mildly sensational events. On the verbal level, this second version functions differently: it works by amalgamation and echoes the evocation of Ember’s favorite verses cited above, adding paradoxal juxtapositions to the burlesque effect. Here is how the play would begin: “Ghostly apes swathed in sheets / haunting the shuddering Roman streets. / And the mobled moon...” (BS, 111),15 and Hamlet’s first monologue would be “delivered in an unweeded garden that has gone to seed” (BS, 112): in both cases the transformations are situated at the level of the intelligible. At other times, they function rather at the level of the sensory, with the help of simple sound or lexical effects. Hamlet is seen “dragging the dead Ratman from under the arras” and his father “smiting with a poleaxe the Polacks” (BS, 113). Moreover, the two pages devoted to this digression abound in literary and cultural references, all raised to a playful pitch by the philosopher Krug. But the reader (in contrast to the effect produced by the preceding pages) places no faith in the remarks that have come to insert themselves in the heart of novel’s tragedy like a moment of “comic relief” for the two friends still obsessed by the idea of Olga and “the big beautiful body (...) burning behind a thick wall” (BS, 111). The two friends are nevertheless unaware of the danger threatening them, despite the clever mirror games offered by the tragedy of Hamlet.

Finally the third phase occurs when Ember, the translator, retakes control of the discussion, which he continues in the same playful tone until the authoritarian intervention of the narrator, who interrupts the verbal game to give as examples three translation excerpts, in three different forms and without direct reference to the text. Here again, the reader cannot but be disconcerted. The first (III, I, 56) is written in an eccentric blend of Russian, Ukrainian, Yiddish and German16 and is perfectly unintelligible for someone who has no knowledge of these languages. This translation is then falsely “explained” by the French translation cited above, but remains just as inaccessible for the Anglophone reader for whom the text is destined. Moreover, Ember informs us that he is still joking and it is not until the second example (IV, vii, 165) that he actually broaches his topic. This time translation (Russian) and original are a free adaptation of the Queen’s lines. As for the third (III, ii, 259), it is given only in Russian in a mix of vulgar and theatrical language, peppered with obsolete terms.17

Thus, this discussion, which pauses only on these few striking examples, comes to inscribe itself as an echo of the theme of tyranny and poses the problem of translation in its mystifying aspect. It is not so much the degree of error that matters as the subterfuge. Collective mystification, whether it be intellectual or political, serves in a certain manner to assure control over the persons it deceives. It allows assertion of superiority, assurance of dominance, and establishment of power by the force accorded to falsification. Here, Vladimir Nabokov means to translate a factual reality (Nazism and communism) into fiction by emphasizing all their absurd distortions, and a fictional reality (Hamlet) into a false reality by means of translation’s deviances. He thus presents the shift from ‘what is’ to ‘what one wants to be.’ In short, he attributes to the translator the power of imposing his will on an entire world of readers, and he exposes the dangers thereof.

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(The original French text of this article is to be published in the force of heaven-bred poesy : mélanges offerts à Henri Suhamy, Paris, Didier-Erudition, "Etudes Anglaises," 1998.)

1. Unpublished poem; date of composition unknown.

2. “The Art of Translation.” The New Republic (Washington, D.C.), August 4, 1941, pp. 160-162. This article was reprinted in Lectures on Russian Literature, ed. Fredson Bowers, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981, pp. 315-321. All references to this work will be in the form LRL.

3. Laughter in the Dark, 1938. London: Penguin Books, 1986. Camera Obscura, London: John Long, 1936, translation of Kamera obskura [in Russian], Paris: Sovremennye zapiski, 1933.

4. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, 1941. London: Penguin Books, 1964.

5. These translations were published as Three Russian Poets, Selections from Pushkin, Lermontov and Tyutchev. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1944.

6. See The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, ed. Simon Karlinsky, New York: Harper & Row, 1979, p.86. “The Person from Porlock” interrupted Coleridge while he was copying out “Kubla Khan,” a poem he had composed while dreaming and whose redaction he was unable to resume after being interrupted.

7. Bend Sinister, 1947. New York: Vintage International, 1990. All references to this work will appear in the form BS.

8. The choice of the tyrant’s name and nickname refer back to Hamlet, III, iv, 190, where they are applied to Claudius.

9. The beginning of the citation echoes Hamlet, II, ii, 193. Dr. Benno Tschischwitz is the author of the following works: Shakespeare’s Hamlet in seinem Verhältnis zur Gesammtbildung namentlich zur Theologie und Philosophie der Elisabeth-Zeit (Halle, 1867) and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, vorzugsweise nach historischen Gesichtspuncten erläutet (Halle, 1868), works in which he tries to discover traces of the thought of Giordano Bruno in Hamlet. (Dieter Zimmer in the annotated German version of Bend Sinister, Das Bastardzeichen, Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1990, p. 341). See also BS, 112.

10. Cymbeline, IV, ii, 264-65.

11. Rul’, an émigré journal published in Berlin, had printed Russian translations by Nabokov of three extracts from Hamlet: Act IV, sc. 7 and Act V, sc. 1, Rul’ no. 3010, 19 Oct. 1930 and Act III, sc. 1, Rul’ no. 3039, 23 Nov. 1930. (See Michael Juliar, Vladimir Nabokov, a Descriptive Bibliography, New York: Garland, 1986).

12. See Herbert Grabes’ brief comment in The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov, New York: Garland, 1995, p. 499.

13. This is a citation fabricated from several Shakespearean elements: perttaunt appears in the form perttaunt-like in Love’s Labor Lost, V, 2, 67, jauncing in Richard II, V, 5, 94, rack in Hamlet, II, 2, 506 (The Tempest, Anthony & Cleopatra, Sonnet XXXIII) et skeins-mate in the form skains-mate in Romeo and Juliet, II, 4, 162.

14. All this is a critique of the commentary of Franz Horn, taken up by Horace Howard Furness in 1877.

15. See I, 1, 116, and II, 2, 502.

16. See The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, Simon Karlinsky ed., New York: Harper & Row, 1979, p. 186.

17. I am grateful to Svetlana Mailhot for her precious help in tracking down and explaining the Russian passages in Bend Sinister.

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