To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz’s attempt to deal comprehensively with the entire phenomenon of Solzhenitsyn [“The Terrible Question of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,” February] is as ambitious as it is thought-provoking. But it is also very unfair in dismissing all the major works of the writer except The Gulag Archipelago and The Oak and the Calf.
Mr. Podhoretz fails to recognize that by reading Solzhenitsyn in English translations only, he has in effect read texts produced by other persons, individuals who may or may not have transmitted the original in a reliable manner. A comparison with Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (two names Mr. Podhoretz repeatedly cites) is appropriate here, for the 19th-century writers became familiar to the Anglo-American world in the translations of Constance Garnett, a Victorian lady with great literary flair who set high standards of both accuracy and readability. Solzhenitsyn, in contrast, has until recently been very poorly served by his English-language translators.
There are special reasons for this, with the major one being the publicity that surrounded his name in the 1960′s and 70′s. In order to cash in on the latest sensation, publishers pressured translators to produce as quickly as possible, at an inevitable cost to quality. Good translators, it seems, simply work slowly, and one must assume that they were bypassed by publishers for this very reason. As I have tried to show elsewhere (“Solzhenitsyn in English: An Evaluation,” in Kathryn Feuer, ed., Solzhenitsyn: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1976), the net result has been that virtually every translation of Solzhenitsyn published before the mid-70′s is seriously deficient, at times to the point of resembling a parody of the original. No reasonable or even meaningful evaluation of the author is possible on the basis of these texts alone.
Things have improved dramatically since Harry Willetts has begun to translate for Solzhenitsyn, and it is not accidental that Mr. Podhoretz has such high regard for The Oak and the Calf, a text in which the author’s stylistic virtuosity has at last received a worthy English rendition.
A different set of variables is involved in The Gulag Archipelago, the other work admired by Mr. Podhoretz. Although the translation of the influential first volume exhibits some very serious flaws, these defects are to a degree compensated by the vividness of the account and the intensity of tone. The texture is so rich and the subject is so appalling that partial losses due to translation errors tend to be obscured.
But Solzhenitsyn also writes in a different key. His earlier works, in particular, are tightly drawn narratives that depend heavily on understatement and irony. Mistakes or missed notes in this context can completely distort the aesthetic impact of a work.
Literary judgments, of Solzhenitsyn based on translations alone cannot be justified.
Department of Russian Vassar College
Poughkeepsie, New York