Sunday, June 18, 2006

On translation. titles. (Nabokov/Bukharin).

In the introduction to Speak, Memory, Nabokov writes about how the original title had been Conclusive Evidence, "conclusive evidence that [he] had existed." Having decided that it sounded too much like a mystery novel, he wanted to call it Speak, Mnesomyne for the later edition, but was informed that "little old ladies would not want to ask for a book whose title they could not pronounce." Finally, Speak, Memory became the title, and was thus translated into Parla, Ricordo (Italian) and ¡Habla, memoria! (Spanish). It is interesting to note that the Russian and French titles are different from the English and other versions: Другие Берега (Russian), or Autres Rivages (French), which if my translation is correct, both actually mean Other Shores.

Thus begins the question of titles and translations. (This is the sort of thing I think about at midnight when I should be asleep). The two different titles of the book I know as Speak, Memory give different meanings to my perception of the story. The title I know gives the feeling of a free-flowing narrative, the writer telling the story of his life, his memories. The other title conjures up the feeling of looking across time, to the distant shores of a past life, memories viewed across an expanse of time as if across a river, an ocean. Would I have read the book any differently with a different title, would it have meant something different to me? Perhaps.

I came across the same question again when I read Nikolai Bukharin's How It All Began several years ago. It differs from Speak, Memory in that Nabokov was responsible for the naming and translating of his own work; How It All Began was published several decades after the writer's death (execution, I should say) and it is on the translator's shoulders that the title rests. The novel was written by Bukharin in the 1930's while he was imprisioned in the Lubyanka, and the manuscript (among all his other papers) was lost in the NKVD/KGB archives until the 1990's. The title, as given by Bukharin, is Времена, or The Times (or perhaps, Those Times), and it is not so much an autobiographical novel as a thinly veiled memoir, covering pre-Revolutionary Russia from the turn of the century to the eve of the 1917 revolution. In his introduction, Stephen F. Cohen writes that literally translated, the original Russian title would lose its "resonance and simple elegance," and that he chose How It All Began because it captured at least the essence of meaning, the feeling of the original Времена. It seems that those times, those years between the failed revolution of 1905 and the October revolution of 1917 are pivotal to the boy who would become part of that second revolution, that those times were where it all began, that this novel, this memoir shows how, indeed, it all began.

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