ross benjamin

Laudatio for Ross Benjamin, Translator of Michael Maar's Speak Nabokov

David Dollenmayer

Chicago Cultural Center

June 21, 2010

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my very pleasant duty this evening to explain to you why the jury has awarded this year’s Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize to Ross Benjamin for his translation of Michael Maar’s Speak, Nabokov.  Two of the criteria considered by the jury are the significance of the book itself and the importance of the translation in bringing it to the attention of English-speaking readers, and so before launching into an encomium for its translator Ross Benjamin, I would like to say a few words about Speak, Nabokov.

One can only feel pity and terror for any literary scholar venturing out onto the potentially stormy seas of Nabokov commentary. Michael Maar has now managed this perilous undertaking twice, first in 2005 with his The Two Lolitas, a piece of literary-historical sleuthing that uncovered a forgotten 1916 short story entitled “Lolita” by the forgotten German writer Heinz von Lichberg.  Now, in Speak, Nabokov, Maar takes on the entire career of the great Russian-American writer.  In his preface, the author informs us (in the words of Ross Benjamin’s splendid translation) that his study will take into account, “the trees, their bark, and the bugs crawling beneath them . . . but above all it will not lose sight of the whole dark forest.”

But what makes this book particularly worth translating for English-speaking readers —written as it is in a language Nabokov himself professed disingenuously not to speak well despite having lived in Berlin for fifteen years?  One of the things that makes it deserving of a place of distinction among recent Nabokov studies is precisely its examination of this German connection.  Maar is able to tease out, for example, Nabokov’s many affinities to Thomas Mann concealed beneath the Russian’s oft-proclaimed contempt for that “quack” writer; he is also able to demonstrate how well-acquainted Nabokov was with both the literature of German Romanticism and the philosophy of Schopenhauer as well as the subtle ways they show up in his work.

Anyone familiar with Nabokov’s prose will realize the daunting task of writing about one of the greatest stylists and most intimidating polymaths of twentieth-century literature.  Maar’s challenge, which he meets with triumphant verve, is to penetrate the depths of “the whole dark forest” but with punning sparkle and a deft touch.

And this brings me to Ross Benjamin’s achievement.  His translation renders Michael Maar’s elegant, witty German into equally elegant, witty English, more than ready to sally forth into the listservs of Nabokov exegetes waiting to pounce upon and destroy anything less than elegant and witty.  A glance at any page of Speak, Nabokov will reveal Benjamin’s brilliant solutions to the unexpected problems the source text is constantly strewing in his path.  Sometimes this means discovering the perfect English monosyllable to compress the wit of a pleonastic German locution: wie Field nicht ohne Witz deutet (literally, “as Field interprets, not without wit”) becomes simply: as Field quips.  

At other times, it means the exact opposite. Speaking of Nabokov’s biographer Brian Boyd, Maar writes that one never knows was er als Gentleman vielleicht schonend weglassen würde.  In this case, Benjamin’s solution requires more words, both to capture the trace of irony inherent in the German’s use of the English word “gentleman”  and the compact economy of the present participle schonend (literally “sparing, saving, going easy on”). Benjamin translates, With Boyd one doesn’t know for sure what he, gentleman that he is, might omit out of consideration for his subject.

If there are witty turns of phrase in German that simply can’t be duplicated in English, Benjamin has the confidence to supply some in English where they’re not present in the original.  My favorite is when he renders the slightly ponderous Gegenmoment (literally “counter-element”) as flipside.  Similarly, when Maar expresses a polarity central to his interpretation with the elegantly alliterative words Grauen und Glanz, Benjamin hits on the equivalent horror and shimmer that yokes growling double R’s and languorous double M’s.

I will mention only one more example of Benjamin’s art, one that is directly germane to tonight’s occasion.  Maar is discussing a sly poke Nabokov took at Thomas Mann in a pun the Russian makes on the name of Helen Lowe-Porter, Mann’s first translator into English, die auch den Doktor Faustus ins Englische übertrug (literally, “who also translated Doctor Faustus into English”).  The verb Maar uses for “translate” is übertragen, a slightly outdated and less frequent synonym of the more standard übersetzen.  Like the Latin roots of English “translate,”  the Germanic etymology of both verbs involves “carrying” or “setting” something “across.”   But since Lowe-Porter’s translations don’t accomplish this task very well, Benjamin comes up with a word that makes its own pun on poor Lowe-Porter’s name.  She becomes Mann’s translator who transported Doctor Faustus into English.

“What is translation?” asks Vladimir Nabokov in his apology to Pushkin for daring to translate Eugene Onegin into English: “What is translation?  On a platter / A poet’s pale and glaring head, / A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter, / And profanation of the dead.”  Thankfully, Nabokov wasn’t always right.  Thankfully, the very much alive Michael Maar, far from being profaned, is now available in a splendid English translation.  Great pleasures await its readers, and the jury takes great pleasure in awarding the 2010 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize to Ross Benjamin.