On the delicate art of translation

Excepted from Tales of a Misanthrope.

As all itches are inevitably scratched, I endeavor to burden the reading public with yet another translation of Boris Leonidovich Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. This is partly in response to Pasternak’s Sestra moya Zhizn’ having so affected me in my youth and having left upon my better and younger self a prolonged impression.

Translation is a colossal undertaking and is frequently under appreciated. Not only must the translator understand the historical and social realities which underpin the original work, he must so fully respecting the sensibilities of his intended audience, an audience unfamiliar with the cultural exigencies of another set of distinct life-affirming values; furthermore, it is of singular importance to pay close attention to every crease and fold in the fabric of this untidy drop cloth known collectively as language. It is often said that poetry is untranslatable, which only heightens the difficulties one must face when broaching Pasternak, the poet and novelist. Is a true translation even possible?

The question burning on your lips–those lips, pouting slightly, cranberry red, moist and inviting–is probably why now. Why do we need a new translation at this time?

The answer is that I am bored. But rather than dwell on such a grievous admission, let us jump headlong and unguarded into the text of the translation itself, which was incidentally influenced by a previous translation and found by means of crawling dirtily inside a series of caverns under the echoic halls of this great institution, in an underground library, built on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis and modeled after the catacombs in Lima, all in the hope of preserving books and drug paraphernalia collected from Peruvian gangsters over the course of one particularly fine decade.

And as the front and back covers, and a beautifully illustrated frontispiece (apparently replete with fat cherubs dressed in thin raiment) were repurposed as bedding material for the birthing of merry moles (which, after having read said book, interpreted it as a menage a trois featuring small mammals with bad eyesight) the translator’s name is undiscoverable. Only the date, 1968, remains legible, thus situating its publication after the universally-adopted 1957 translation.

Concomitantly, my interest in moles was piqued, and I did some extracurricular research, learning that moles are the most literary of the burrowing animals, evincing high intelligence, especially as compared to rodents, which are dimwitted and generally offput by the humanities.

And now, without further ado, let’s figuratively get our hands and knees dirty, taking care not to inadvertently crush an opium pipe in the damp floor litter, and look at the text, starting with the 1968 translation:

Lara, Babe, pass the suture.

As a craftsman and man of the times, I wanted the new translation to be more hip hop friendly. For example:

Lara, what a ho. Your Adidas walk through hospital tents.

Those who floss twice daily or who curse mainly at inanimate objects, may posit that a worthy translation must obligatorily start with the text in its original language. And here I beg to differ. Too much of the author’s baggage can taint the fledgling manuscript (here I use ‘manuscript’ as a synecdoche). Best to commence from a sensible English translation and then contextualize.

The scene where Zhivago looks across the Suez Canal and is seen by a gangrenous-looking fellow on a motorcycle who yells, “Who are you?”, should be re-situated near a strip mall, thus functioning, metaphorically, as a lament for the death of such commercial spaces. Small detail, but highly important. Besides, what was Zhivago doing in the desert? A felicitous blunder in the original, I suppose, which was finally corrected after several translation passes. There is nothing like the disinfectant of multiple rewrites.

The complete translation is soon to be available for purchase on Amazon. I contacted Jeff Bezos directly. He wrote back saying he was tied up at the moment with a personal matter. Then he launched into a tirade, incoherent at times, about exchanging goods or something peculiar as that. My honest opinion: Jeff has spent too much time in shipping. He ought to work his magic in one of those glass penthouses, the ones with a motorized bar and satin bed sheets. Are you really telling me you can’t find a place for a new translation, I thought to myself, now displaying evidence of an ague fit. Who are you, Jeff Bezos, just a guy who wants to have current events whispered lovingly into his hungry ears by a professional news anchor? (Money does not buy happiness, but rather encourages it, like a desk lamp encourages the hatching of a mysterious egg, brought to your attention by unsupervised children in the community, and where surprise is the key component.)

And here I end this Faustian tale with a direct plea to JB. Please make room for ‘A New translation of Dr. Z’ in one of your sub-zero temperature warehouses. Hasn’t the public had enough of meat dehydrators or those electric bars used to heat bath towels?

And so, there you have it, related to me practically at gunpoint, the first person account of one of my colleagues at the sanatorium, who exudes from every pore the chill sense that his work is not being taken seriously. He maintains that his next English translation, that of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, coincidentally another framing narrative, will be the one to launch his career into the thermosphere–his word–so that he too may join the pantheon of writers who are too mentally unstable to recognize their true worth in society.



  1. You and Jonathan Swift have a great deal of misanthropic energy in common – except you write it with even more style. As one who spends most of my days (and nights) formatting chemistry documents so that they can be translated into 82 languages (I exaggerate not) I concur with the observations on translators’ skills. It still hardly pays the rent. What I most related to about your “piece” was the mention of boredom. Oh dear… How not to keep taking myself off to bed throughout the day…

    Liked by 1 person

    • To agree to the immodest proposal of formatting or otherwise beautifying chemistry documents is commendable. Such work is no doubt food for the soul. And for a scrappy pittance, I bet, making your devotion to the task even more laudable. I mean, the price of your eyesight and sanity is such a small price to pay. Hopefully workers around the globe (except for parts of North Africa) should be buoyed by your example of working selflessly for a sole purpose: that of enriching the boss man, all without regard to your own health and safety. Your sacrifice brings a small tear to my otherwise jocular mien. And if you should in the discharge of your duties fall flat upon a stone floor in pure exhaustion, know that someone else just like you will recruited to the task and that you will be forgotten instantly.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well it’s good you put a positive slant on it… I just typed our the biodegradable properties of Copolymer polypropylene with a song in my heart.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. hello Prospero.Happy new year. congrats on completing your work if you are not kidding.haha.
    well I strongly feel that translation is all about a mad passionate love for innuendos.
    to me nothing is more boring than what is clear and straightforward.
    life is an innuendo.if stand up comedy wasnt an innuendo it would have to sit down.
    we have always joked about Timbuktu.if someone was lost we would say they are in Timbuktu.
    then a new neighbour moved in and he actually goes to Timbuktu Africa in the summer.
    I said you cant go to Timbuktu, because Timbuktu is an innuendo where there are the worlds oldest documents translated from the dust and the document is actually an innuendo of the dust mixed with the translation and binary numbers added.
    tata. I have to go.I am getting a headache but that is an innuendo.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Funny you should mention Timbuktu, as it has the same population as the Isle of Devils to which I am anchored; moreover, the main transportation mode is the camel, and both places are sufficiently mysterious.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Bermuda is pretty.

        Crederae is my usual username in blogger.

        Liked by 1 person

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