Concerning Translations

—The writer of this little note has often wondered why Lamartine, in asserting an infinity of distance “ between that which is felt and that which is expressed,” did not make a special application of this famous truism to the constantly recurring antagonism of author and translator. For surely vaster interval never yet separated the spoken or printed word from its physiological stimulus than that which is thrust with such provoking frequency between good ideas in one language and the faint simulacrum so often made to represent them in another. How, for example, do we repay these poor Russians for that new world of song and idea whereof they have given us glimpses so deep and strange and new ? Do we not rob them of their finest passages, and with ignorance afore-existing suppress out of their texts the very marrow of their work, the choice idioms and turns of expression that make bold and vigorous and musical alternately the native speech of the Northern Slav ? Or can it be denied by any consciencestricken artificer (periodically visited, say, by the ghost of his outraged original) that, after having patched up our “ English version ” by whole passages borrowed from French or German translations, we do not, with almost incredible dishonesty, trick out our dummy author in a Regent Street coat of passable English, deftly shaped to delude newspaper critics into the parrot cry of “ excellent translation ” ?

I shall not exaggerate when I say (with righteous exception of those exceedingly few translators from the Russian, whose work is not less sound and genuine than their scholarship) that most of these versions of Russian literature have as much value for the earnest student of Slav authors as the moon of a muddy frog pond possesses for the telescope-aided investigations of a selenographer. Yet it must be admitted that to a not inconsiderable extent we have treated these Russians exactly as they have been treating us. I once deemed the Slav polyglot, in matters of language, to be infallible ; but recent examination of some St. Petersburg versions of American and English classics shows me that the Russian translator, by serious trippings of his own, has long anticipated, if not provoked, the blunders of his American and English prototypes. Longfellow has been travestied in this way even oftener than Shakespeare, Byron, and Shelley, but perhaps the most remarkable failure to reproduce for Russian readers a poetical English composition appears in the last number of the European Messenger (Vyestnik Yevropy). I cite both translation and original, thus : —


WHEN I am dead do not come to my grave;
Do not trouble me in my sweet sleep,
And in thy childishly weak grief
Do not shed unnecessary tears.
The wind will sweep the dust from my tomb ;
The rain will weep over it.
Why, then, shouldst thou tread on my poor ashes ?
Go by!
Have no concern as to whether thou art guilty or not,
And, like me, forget all!
Thou art free, — wed whom thou wilt.
I am tormented to death,
And now I am lying deep under the ground.
My heart sleeps calmly in my breast:
For overtaxed strength rest is delicious.
Go by!



COME not, when I am dead,
To drop thy foolish tears upon my grave,
To trample round my fallen head,
And vex the unhappy dust thou wouldst not save!
There let the wind sweep and the plover cry,
But thou, go by!
Child, if it were thine error or thy crime,
I care not, being all unblest;
Wed whom thou wilt, but I am sick of time,
And I desire to rest.
Pass on, weak heart, and leave me where I lie.
Go by, go by!