Ember, Translator of Hamlet
by Christine Raguet-Bouvart
translated from the French by Jeff Edmunds
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This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him18

The ghost is intelligible only to those ears that can hear, understand, and transmit its words, to him then who will be its interpreter, who will give meaning to the whisper devoid of sense. Moreover the new state, and its new leaders, among them the new president of the university, are not always comprehensible: “Your words are conundrums to me but don’t let that stop you” (BS, 57). They are as obscure as the fantastic elements in Ember’s favorite scene from Hamlet, the first, which lays out all of the mystery’s troubling particulars. The translator’s presence is vital, but the interpreter’s role risks being no less critical. However, before further advancing this reflection on the text, can we define “good translation” as being that whose degree of precision and accuracy is greatest? Such a definition raises the problem of sense, denotative as well as connotative--with reference to the designation of a referant with a quasi-immutable nature--and of meaning. This leads to the question voiced by Jean Molino: “Is there [...] something like a literal meaning which constitutes the starting point and the reference point for all meaning? Positing its existence is possible, but only in specifying from the outset that this literal meaning is never a given; it is something like a regulating ideal which must be constructed.”19 It is precisely because there exist no objective criteria allowing the determination of the limits of meaning that the problem of the translator-interpreter arises. To delimit more closely the problem of meaning, Nabokov advances as initial postulate, besides a knowledge of the language, a knowledge of the author, of the author’s learning (to translate Eugene Onegin, Nabokov went so far as to read all the texts from which Pushkin could have drawn inspiration in the versions and editions in which he had read them), and of all the social, historical, scientific, cultural, or other particulars necessary for understanding. Thus equipped, he established literal translation as a standard, and he was the first to be fearful of the translator’s interpreting his text and altering its essence.20 He also expressed, very early on, doubts as to the moral and aesthetic status of translation and its legitimacy opposite the great works of Russian or English literature, whose “rhyme and reason” it could not render at once since a literal translation transmits only the ashes without preserving the flame, and any other form of translation misrepresents the original.21 Rendering intelligible comes down to intervening at the level of pure understanding by abstracting the sensory faculties, which are always very regularly appealed to by Nabokovian imagery. But to prepare his reader for this disfigurement of the text and throw him into the same fog of obscurity that Krug encounters when he undertakes crossing the bridge over the Kur in chapter 2, his creator has him break his glasses and renders him dependent on the reading of others.

In addition, as the privileged locus of interpretation and play, the theater certainly represented the ideal mirror for Nabokov. The Shakespearean gloss in Bend Sinister is based solely on erroneous interpretations and allows reconstruction of the ideas of Nabokov the translator. If he is wary of the shortcomings of translation, he does not deny its validity when it respects certain rules he made his own. He establishes a typology of errors in translation, which he arranges in three categories as being due to 1) ignorance, 2) the removal of difficult, obscure, or obscene words or expressions, 3) tailoring to public tastes. They can be applied to the readers of Hamlet in the novel.

The exposition on Hamlet is introduced in its relationship to Ember, its translator, and begins with a reading of images. Ember is bedridden with a cold--which surely cannot fail to impair his mental faculties--and the three engravings to be studied are above his bed. Within this approach, the interpretation of signs is always accompanied by textual referents which serve as supporting evidence for the demonstration, like this caption followed by its commentary: “‘Ink, a Drug.’ Somebody’s idle pencil (Ember highly treasures this scholium) has numbered the letters so as to spell Grudinka which means ‘bacon’ in several Slavic languages” (BS, 105). From here, Nabokov ridicules pseudo-erudition that ascribes scientific value to clever stratagems and which is hardly more than a form of ignorance masked by words laden with false meaning. In this operation, the letter takes precedence over meaning because the ignorant translator-adaptor thought it possible to capture the signified in the signifier and let himself be deceived by his senses.

In the adaptations offered next, the exegete’s task corresponds rather to a reversal of the idea Nabokov has of the second kind of mistake committed by translators: far from being relieved from cumbersome elements, the text is enriched with all sorts of subtleties which are the signature of their author--seeking thereby to leave his mark. Instead of proceeding to draw meaning from the text (which can be equivalent to a loss, since the operation includes a form of universalization or dehistoricization of the work’s language), that is to detemporalize it, the adpators of Hamlet in Bend Sinister, headed by Ember, retemporalize it. Not only do they commit the sin of omission, they also lie. The examples on which this demonstration is based are really a negation of translation, since they belong to the realm of interpretation, as George Steiner has stated very well: “Translation is, and always will be, the mode of thought and understanding: ‘Giacchè tradurre, in verità, è la condizione d’ogni pensare e d’ogni apprendre.’ Those who negate translation are themselves interpreters.”22

If precedence is given to the abstract by preserving the initial sense laden with symbolic--but at times abstruse in the ‘to’ language--evocations, the etymological significance and the work’s historic corpus are dropped, and thus dehistoricization occurs. A pure and unequivocal meaning is produced.23 Often in the translated text, the relationship to past resonances of the language and culture disappear to give way to language that is purer, clearer, sharper, less vague, less symbolic, less laden with echoes and reflections, thus on the whole more static. The translator may then be tempted to revitalize his text with respect to earlier versions so as to avoid “the horror of hearing the actors lapse with a kind of atavistic relief into the gibberish of the traditional version (Kronberg’s)24 whenever Wern, who is weak and prefers ideas to words, allows them to behind my back.” (BS, 107). In this case, it is a matter of giving primacy to false interpretations, here ideologically motivated, but which are at times the result of aesthetic choices conforming to a fashion: “it was the rule with Russian versions of Shakespeare to give Ophelia richer flowers than the poor weeds she found” (LRL, 316).

But the true role of the translator is to awaken in the reader of the second text an emotion comparable to that which the reader of the first text might have experienced. This occurs at no point in Bend Sinister. When the original text has been corrupted, the spectator, listener, or reader is annoyed, like Ember when he hears actors performing Kronberg’s version of Hamlet, or Krug when he reads the official speech he is supposed to deliver that Paduk has had prepared for him: “this last sentence seems to be a garbled passage from one of my works. A passage turned inside out by somebody who did not understand the gist of my remarks” (BS, 150). He may also cease to control his attention and be transported towards worlds other than that of the text, like Krug as he listens to Ember’s translation: “As he sits listening to Ember’s translation, Krug cannot help marvelling at the strangeness of the day. He imagines himself (...) He listened to the rich-toned voice (Ember’s father had been a Persian merchant) and tried to simplify the terms of his reaction” (BS, 119). In every case, these examples raise the problem of writing, for on one hand are not the written versions of Shakspeare’s plays a form of translation, of translation onto paper of actors’ dialogue? And on the other hand can translation and writing be considered equivalent, as Michel Gresset suggests?

If it is true that, by definition, a translation is and can only be asymptotic because it can never, again by definition, “meet” the original but at best mirror it; and if it is true that the translator’s paradox resides in this, that even if he has genius, his work should strive for transparence, translation is inscribed at the heart of a problematics which probably dates from the Romantics, and which assigns to writing the finality of expressing ‘the essential word’ [...] to translate is not only to write “according to” a preceding text having precedence, to copy into another language, to copy “beside,” that is, once more, as Poe said: “para-phrase.” It is also, briefly put, to write, in the quasi-Mallarméan sense of the term: to know the vertigo of the blank page.25

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18. Hamlet, I, I, 171.

19. See L’interpretation des textes, ed. Claude Reichler, Paris: Minuit, 1989.

20. Regarding the choice of a German translator for Bend Sinister in 1948, see Selected Letters, 1940-1977, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989, p. 80.

21. See the article by Elizabeth Klosty Beaujour in The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov, p. 714.

22. George Steiner, After Babel, New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1975, p. 251.

23. See Antoine Berman’s excellent article, “L’essence platonicienne de la traduction,” (La traduction, Revue d’Esthétique no. 12, Toulouse: Privat, 1987, pp. 63-73), of which I present here but the briefest overview.

24. An allusion to Kroneberg’s Russian translation.

25. Michel Gresset, “De la traduction de la métaphore littéraire à la traduction comme métaphore de l’écriture,” Nancy: RFEA no. 18, 1983, p. 517

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