The Art of Translation
The New Republic has compiled a selection of the literary reviews Nabokov contributed to the magazine in the early 1940s. This includes a piece on Nabokov’s rules for perfect translation: The Art of Translation.
I was confronted for instance withthe following opening line of one of Pushkin’s most prodigious poems:
Yah pom-new chewed-no-yay mg-no-vain-yay
I have rendered the syllables by the nearest English sounds I could find; their mimetic disguise makes them look rather ugly; but never mind; the “chew” and the “vain” are associated phonetically with other Russian words meaning beautiful and important things, and the melody of the line with the plump, golden-ripe “chewed-no-yay” right in the middle and the “m’s” and “n’s” balancing each other on both sides, is to the Russian ear most exciting and soothing—a paradoxical combination that any artist will understand.
Now, if you take a dictionary and look up those four words you will obtain the following foolish, flat and familiar statement: “I remember a wonderful moment.” What is to be done with this bird you have shot down only to find that it is not a bird of paradise, but an escaped parrot, still screeching its idiotic message as it flaps on the ground? For no stretch of the imagination can persuade an English reader that “I remember a wonderful moment” is the perfect beginning of a perfect poem. The first thing I discovered was that the expression “a literal translation” is more or less nonsense.
Full text here.