There once was a minor poet, writing in Russia in the 1920’s, who had been educated at the University of Heidelberg yet never acquired the airs of a German pedant. I recently ran across a short fable of his, and threw together an English version of it because the eight lines seemed such a concise formulation of what one sees nowadays whenever one happens upon an academic journal:
The Ass is better educated lately.
Has he become much wiser? Scarcely,
But if, of old, being of donkey stock,
He only used to bray, instead of talk,
These days the educated fiend
Has put on a pedantic mien
And now, when he emits his rants,
He references them as Kant’s.
The moral proved of some relevance this past week as I slaved day and night to finish a monumentally long article for our literary editor, Chilton Williamson. Don’t miss it when it runs, probably in the April issue of the magazine. At first glance, the subject seems rarefied and of limited interest to the general reader, namely, how one married couple – she Russian, he American – have over the last 25 years translated anew all those great Russian novels.
In the article, I found myself apologizing for having used the word “approach” when describing the couple’s modus operandi. It’s a little like using the word, I wrote, “to describe the unaccountable behaviour of a pharmacist who sells you the medicine your doctor has prescribed, or the bizarre conduct of a lawyer who does not use his office to transfer your life savings into his private account.”
In short, these are honest people – an assertion that, even a romantic populist like me must admit, almost begins to sound improbable when one learns that their versions of the Russian classics are now selling in the millions. Suffice it to say that when their translation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina had been chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her book club, the publishers upped the print run by 800,000 copies.
Just imagine the jealous fury of some tenured professor of literature – author, most recently, of Essays in Postcolonialism and Postmodernity, forthcoming from the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople Press – in his moth-holed cardigan in front of the television. Oprah Winfrey! Even more disgusting than Tom Wolfe getting a $5 million publisher’s advance for one of his reactionary lampoons!
Not surprisingly, in the academic journals where their translations are discussed, you can cut the envy with a butter knife. Not since my own scandals at university, when the academics treated me as though I were a CIA stooge, an Islamic jihadist, or a child molester because my literary magazine was printed on exceptionally good paper and carried advertising from Rolls-Royce and Hermès, have I seen anything so virulent. “How can anything highbrow be a commercial success?” wailed the denizens of academe’s barren groves. “And how can there be something of value that isn’t highbrow?”
With these questions, to which references to Kant – in the original German, if necessary – may be appended, I leave you until next Wednesday.
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