Monday, July 14, 2014

A Nabokov Complex

On Saturday, I ended up at the Rozhdestveno Memorial Estate, the country house of famed writer Vladimir Nabokov. If you haven’t heard of his masterpiece, Lolita, then you should probably familiarize yourself with a library and stop reading inane internet posts like this. If you have heard of Lolita but haven’t read it, then you should read it posthaste and not hold me responsible if you discover that a pedophilic love story is not your cup of tea. Now that we’ve got those disclaimers out of the way, let’s continue with the story of how I got roped into translating a Russian tour of Nabokov’s former dacha for a dozen Americans.

I’d long for Russia too if I had a summer house like this to visit

I first realized how difficult it is to translate when I tried to do it for two friends who were visiting me in Spain last spring. On a tour of a honey farm, I only managed to share a few Spanglish factoids and one racist joke—and I’m actually pretty fluent in Spanish. But when you throw in an audience and my fairly laughable command of Russian, my translations become even more atrocious:

Guide: And on top of the house you’ll notice a rectangular belvedere…
Me: So that thing on the top is a “belvedere.” Anyone have any idea what that’s called in English?
Tourist: A belvedere. That’s a word in English too.
Tourist #2: I just thought it was a brand of vodka.
Me: Same.

Guide: The estate was built in the 18th century…
Me: The estate was built in the восемнадцатого века. God, I’m so bad at numbers. Um…
Guide [in English]: Eighteenth century.
Me: Are you sure you don’t want to just do this in English? No? Okay.

Guide: He inherited the estate from his uncle, who never married.
Me: Nabokov inherited this place from his uncle, who never married.
Guide #2: He didn’t just “not marry,” he liked boys.
Me: So they’re telling me the uncle batted for the other team.

Guide: Here is the ballroom where they danced.
Me: In this ballroom, danced. [long pause] I need a subject with that verb, don’t I? This is where they danced.

Guide: And at parties and balls, the orchestra and musicians played in the balcony you see above us.
Me: The muzikants and the orchestra played up there.
Tourist: You mean “musicians.”
Me: Do I have to translate everything for you?

In the end, I understood most of the tour, even if I didn’t always render it into the most eloquent of English. The guide even complimented my Russian, which I probably shouldn’t be too flattered by since she mostly just heard me speaking broken English. Not surprisingly, my abilities in my native language didn’t garner any praise, but I think the group assumed I was embellishing with my more elevated turns of phrase like “Nabokov was a lepidopterist” and “he wanted to preserve the sanctity of the Russian language.” Which I mostly was.

I guess I figured I hadn’t shamed myself enough because I was even convinced to play a tune on Nabokov’s piano.  Normally I wouldn't be bold enough to bust out the few bars of Für Elise buried in the recesses of my memory, but my love for Nabokov runs deep, and I knew that my mother would clap her hands in glee when she saw this photograph.  See, Mom, those twelve years of piano lessons weren’t in vain.

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