Vladimir Nabokov once said in an interview: “I don’t think that an artist should bother about his audience. His best audience is the person he sees in his shaving mirror every morning.” There are many ways to interpret this, especially when the artist writes in several languages, as Nabokov famously did, having switched to English in his early forties, but never completely abandoning his native Russian. Did Nabokov really only ever write for himself? The jury may still be out, but this much is clear: his one-man audience was more demanding than most.
Speak, Memory, Nabokov’s memoir covering the first four decades of his life, up to his emigration to the U.S. in 1940, was written in English and initially published in America as Conclusive Evidence. To his British publisher Nabokov suggested a different title, Speak, Mnemosyne, which was rejected on the grounds that “little old ladies would not want to ask for a book whose title they could not pronounce.” Yet another idea was The Anthemion, “but nobody liked it; so we finally settled for Speak, Memory.” Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory, makes frequent appearances in all the book’s versions, including the authorial Russian one, produced under the title Другие берега (Other Shores). In his introduction to the Russian edition Nabokov explains his decision to rewrite the book significantly by the drawbacks he noticed when he first embarked on the “mad enterprise” of translating Conclusive Evidence—the drawbacks that would make an exact translation “a caricature of Mnemosyne.”
From the start, the memoir prepares us for a linguistically rich life. Nabokov learned English and French as a child, and learned them to the highest standard. He recalls a “bewildering sequence of English nurses and governesses” in both English and Russian editions of the book: “At a certain point they faded out of my life. French and Russian took over.” It is Russian that takes center stage when Nabokov quotes his mother’s words verbatim, transliterated and followed by English translations: “Vot zapomni [now remember]”; “Da chto ty [something like “good gracious”]!”
Nabokov was always interested in the multilingual experience, both in writing and speech. When Martin Edelweiss, the protagonist of his novel Подвиг (published in English as Glory), fluent in several languages, half-Swiss but profoundly Russian, is mistaken for an Englishman by a fellow passenger, he is happy to remain in disguise; the scene gives the impression of being autobiographical. Nabokov’s own English bore traces of his education—after fleeing Russia in the wake of the 1917 October Revolution, he studied at Trinity College, Cambridge—as well as traces of his mother tongue. Having settled in the States, he did his best to Americanize his language.
Nabokov’s Russian was a composite phenomenon too. He occasionally adorned his prose with words adopted from English: such verbs as “побрекфастать” and “отсаппать,” cognates of “breakfast” and “supper,” to mention just two. Looked at in isolation, they are reminiscent of the lazy habit of peppering your speech with bastardized words taken from the language of your environment, a much derided phenomenon. That they don’t sound ridiculous in Nabokov’s prose is because they are part of a deliberate word game, justified by his mastery of old-school, pre-revolutionary Russian. On the other hand, his linguistic purism sometimes played games with him: for example, when he, working on the Russian edition of Lolita, translated “jeans” as “синие ковбойские панталоны” (“blue cowboy trousers”), unaware of the fact that the word had already been modified into “джинсы” and firmly entered the modern Russian vocabulary.
Nabokov didn’t generally favor literal translation: his Russian version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, done in 1922 “[f]or five dollars (quite a sum during the inflation in Germany),” is an early example of that. In it, Alice is christened Anya; orange marmalade turns into strawberry jam; William the Conqueror is replaced by the twelfth century Russian ruler Vladimir Monomakh; puns are, naturally, reworked, while poems are rendered as variations on popular Russian verses—in other words, the book is thoroughly russified. Where Nabokov went literal was in his annotated translation of Eugene Onegin, a monumental work considered by many the best English rendition of Pushkin’s novel in verse. Keeping the original iambic stanzas, he abandoned the rhyme structure for the sake of following the text very closely, convinced that it was the only way to allow the Western reader to understand the work.
Translating his own books, however, he took liberties whenever he felt like it—that is, whenever he saw that the book could be improved. For instance, he transformed his 1933 novel Камера обскура (Camera Obscura) into Laughter in the Dark, a more mature work. Its whole chapters, including the opening one, are heavily revised; some passages are redacted altogether, some rewritten, usually to sober things up. Most characters are renamed: the young seductress Magda features as Margot, her blind suitor Bruno Kretschmar as Albert Albinus, his cynical rival Robert Horn as Axel Rex. A talentless writer prosaically called Segelkranz is replaced by another writer, Conrad “(not the famous Pole, but Udo Conrad who wrote the Memoirs of a Forgetful Man and that other thing about the old conjurer who spirited himself away at his farewell performance).” The author’s name on the cover is different too: Nabokov wrote the book during his Berlin exile and published it under the pseudonym of Sirin, the name of a mythical bird from Russian folklore.
Writing to his American publisher in 1941, Nabokov called Camera Obscura one of his “worst novels;” he was also unhappy with the English translation by Winifred Roy, published in Britain in 1935. The journalist John Colapinto managed to get hold of Nabokov’s own copy of the rare British edition, full of the author’s edits in blue fountain-pen. Colapinto’s close reading “exonerates, to a degree, poor forgotten Winifred Roy, whose supposed ineptitude has long been the accepted reason for Nabokov’s rewrite. Clearly, there were other motivations behind his decision to retranslate the novel.” Were Nabokov’s attempts to improve the text also aimed at popularizing it? The cinematic quality of the original title, reflecting the novel’s film motif, is lost in retranslation; instead of the dark chamber with a complex system of mirrors, we now have something simpler, louder, crueler. Was it done to accommodate those same “old ladies,” potential readers with no encyclopaedic knowledge? Did Nabokov regret the sacrifice? Was it called for by the circumstances in which the new version was created?
Nabokov’s perfectionism didn’t stop at his own prose: he was often dissatisfied with existing translations of Russian classics and sought to rectify them. “The old translations of Dead Souls into English are absolutely worthless and should be expelled from all public and university libraries,” he wrote in his study of Nikolai Gogol, and retranslated the passages he wanted to quote. As for his revisions of his own prose, we can only guess what artistic goals he pursued. Perhaps he wasn’t, after all, writing just for the reader he saw every day in the shaving mirror. Or perhaps the thing was that the reader wouldn’t be satisfied with manuscripts: he also wanted to see the books published, read, and even—why not?—enjoyed by others. Whatever the truth, that lonely reader in the mirror proved extremely difficult to please.
Anna Aslanyan is a journalist and translator. She writes for a number of publications, including 3:AM, the Independent, the London Review of Books, and the Times Literary Supplement—mainly about literature and the arts. Her translations from Russian include Post-Post Soviet? Art, Politics and Society in Russia at the Turn of the Decade, a collection of essays edited by Ekaterina Degot (University of Chicago Press, 2013).