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The nuances of language

An independent-study class in Russian lit opened my eyes to the nuances of language.

I didn't know Russian, so I was forced to rely on translations. I started with some poetry of Boris Pasternak, known for the novel, "Doctor Zhivago."

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It soon became clear how unsatisfactory and limited the English versions were. The pathos and passion, which I could feel trying to break free of the clumsy translation, eluded me. By not understanding Russian, I was at the mercy of mediocre translators.

A few years later, I came across a magazine article that explored a new, quirkier English version of French author Marcel Proust's "In Search of Lost Time." The article compared four existing translations of the same passage - and what a contrast. Some merely translated the words; others tried to capture the peculiar flavor of Proust's language and cadence.

Some time later, I had an opportunity to interview poet Richard Wilbur. For decades, his versions of Molière's plays were considered definitive. As I spoke with him, I was struck by another truism: Most readers or playgoers think they're getting Chekhov or Strindberg by exact translation. But this can't be the case. As Mr. Wilbur explained, no matter how faithful one is to the original, the finished translation can't help bearing the stamp of the translator and his period.

Many scholars would agree that, in general, translations have gotten better. The dreary volume of Pasternak poetry that I labored over has been replaced, I hope, by a newer, less academic version.

Of course, there's no substitute for learning the language. But few of us are conversant in so many languages, and who wants to miss out on the world's great literature?