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Correctly Wrong

May 15, 2012

“The” Red State men’s novel… gutsy, smart, funny, prophetic

 What world famous quote flutters on the tattered flag of 20th century International Modernism?

The character speaking is aghast: Dostoyevsky’s thunder-struck line from The Brothers Karamazov is usually translated as “If God is dead, everything is permitted.”

This is a clumsy English translation from the already sloppy Russian of a novelist of genius who wrote too damn fast. To me, it’s like a stick in the eye. Doesn’t the translator’s choice of “permitted” smuggle a moral dimension back into an absolute statement of the vanishing of all moral dimensions?

That sentence is a loop, a tautology, a snag. It’s the logic of our language. Because, if authority is gone, permission, which in English must always be “given,” obviously no longer applies. If God is dead, then who does the statement suppose lingers on, passing out all these licenses?

It cannot be Satan, of course. God and the devil always oppose each other within the same infinity. If God vanishes, their duplex continuum goes with Him, and so does the devil.

Ah, the 20th century! Words this conspicuously famous always effect real people; or what’s an advertising slogan for? Over the years “…permitted,” with its cosy connotation of negative license, surely has done its prosy little bit  to help corrode many a searching young Modernist.

I ask myself why the translator forced this choice of words on the reader.  Fidelity to text is, for language workers, what hand-washing is to surgeons.  And a translator, of all people, must be especially sensitive to shades of meaning in languages. So…?

Actually, the reason explains itself.

Some editions do indeed print “…everything is possible.” Eying this version of the sentence, I understand, being a screenwriter, why the translator, also professionally sensitive to the needs of an audience, ended up by picking so false a word. The new version turns out to be a thudding dud, a banal truism, and it absolutely doesn’t work dramatically. And in drama, the single greatest rule is that what doesn’t show must go.

The poor translator is up to her neck (American publishing’s two most important Russian translators of the early 20th century were women), struggling with one of the most brilliant and intense scenes in world literature. The English verbage must serve the Russian occasion. Her job is to get across to readers the novel’s human impact. And when voiced by the father, “…permitted” is poignant because we hear not only this truth but also people’s inability to quite even grasp what we are saying when we say God is dead.

Yet the oddment  is how, professionally, the translator was right to go wrong.

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