On the beauty of foreign language prose (January 7, 2017)
Reading long form in a foreign language is always difficult. I was withdrawing myself throughout all of 2016 from doing this — in my usual “provocative” manner, I was telling people who were willing to listen, that I don’t read fiction in English any more, only in my native Russian. The quoted reasons for the withdrawal were pretty simple: when dealing with fiction written in any of the two foreign languages I can speak and read, I can’t tell good prose from bad. Translation happening in my mind nullified any literary merit that a novel can hold. Every time I was trying again to put myself through a fiction book in English, I was fighting hard the desire to throw it against the wall.
But around a month ago, I began re-reading Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49″, for which I had a Russian-translated copy. I first read it in 2002, liked it a lot back then, but never came back to this book — until recently. I took it from the bookshelf and standing, without even walking away from the shelf, read a first translated chapter.
What a terrible text it was. Participle clauses, climbing onto each other, like monkeys on the rock. Clearly, my literary tastes changed in fourteen years. But look, Pynchon is expected to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature every year now — this book can’t be so bad, I thought. So I immediately went on and bought an English-language copy: it’s just 160 pages, how difficult can this be?
I finished it today. I know that some languages differ structurally from others; this means, you can’t keep the same order of sentence parts when doing translation between them. It looks like this issue hits Russian translation of “Lot 49″ the hardest: the same participle clauses flow smoothly in English, evoking quick, vivid glances into different parts of the author’s universe as we proceed through just one sentence. Having the capacity to trigger some sophisticated imagery is what we love literature for, after all.
And what about all that “nullification” of the foreign words’ beauty in my head? Pretty simple — just read good books.
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