Reading of Anna Karenina and why Nobel Prize in literature should not be awarded

Poland has a long history of Nobel Prizes in literature:

1905   Henryk Sienkiewicz

1924   Władysław Stanisław Reymont

1978   Isaac Bashevis Singer (born in Poland, wrote of Polish – Jewish cultural tradition, in Yiddish)

1980   Czesław Miłosz

1996   Wisława Szymborska.

Therefore I should be, and I am, appreciative of recognition my country receives from Swedish Academy.  In addition Maria Skłodowska received The Award twice: in Physics (1903) and in Chemistry (1911).  So we can not complain on lack of honors.

Reading and studying of “Anna Karenina” I learned there are 11 just English translations of this book.  Being familiar with 1901 translation by Constance Garnett done in 1901 English, I know that contemporary work by Marian Schwartz can not be the same as  2008  translation by Kiril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes.  I know my own difficulties in reading 1901 translation and repackaging to contemporary English.  And what about Imperial Russian to old English to contemporary English?  Then come revisions of translations.  All this reminds me of game we were playing in my childhood called “Telephone”.  How adequately one can translate nuances  of Tolstoy’s, master of language in a way of thinking, behavior, social interactions and clothing details,  where every word counts and is important ?

Many books were written critiquing adequacy of translations of “Anna Karenina” or the lack of thereof.

Here are the selected comments;

1911 translation revised 1901 Garnett’s work by “correcting errors…..tightening the prose, converting Briticisms and casting light on areas Mrs Garett did not explore”.  Here are just a few criticisms.

Kitty’s hair were not her own – factual error in translation.

Kitty’s shoes “delighted her feet”, instead “made her feet feel lighter”.

Translator “lacks true sensitivity of the language, leading to missing a many of subtlety”.

Another translation is “readable, but with errors and misunderstandings as well as clumsiness”.

When one looks at the piece of art, he doesn’t need interpreter, just knowledge and educated taste. How do you compare 220 authors selected for Nobel Prize in literature written in many languages to be assessed by Committee in 2011?  Of course they had to have interpreters, but how do you compare prose in one exotic language to poetry in another?

So there is a plenty room for judgement.  In medicine judgement is  decision making process,  when we don’t  have enough data about patient’s condition.  Therefore errors in process can happen.

And there is a room for bias.  Intended and unintended.

Winners are announced on Nobel’s birthday, December 10th.  The identity of all nominees  is withheld for 50 years, so we are separated from the real drama.

There is a sea  of controversies.

Czech writer  Karel Čapek was refused Prize.  His writings were seen as offensive to Germans.

W. H. Auden didn’t get The Prize due to errors in translation and admission, that he was homosexual.

John Steinbeck was given The Prize in 1962.  He was chosen as a “compromise ” between writers, as a “best of bad lot”.

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn was awarded The Prize in1970.  He didn’t want to go to Sweden to personally accept the award for a fear, that Soviet government won’t let him come back to his country.  He proposed ceremony in Swedish Embassy in Moscow, but Swedes refused.  He picked it up later on, when he was deported from USSR.

Argentinian writer Jose Luis Borges was nominated several times, but was refused The Prize based on his political views.  He was too right wing.  Writers like Sartre and Neruda got the award despite their views strongly supporting Generalissimo Stalin.

Salman Rushdie and Arthur Miller didn’t get it, because it would be “too predictable and too popular” (?).  I case of Rushdie, there was also opinion, that fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini was a deciding factor.  Two of commission’s members resigned as a result.

So there we go. Accusations of improprieties are flying.  And that’s just the facts we know of.

I submit, that even in a good faith it is impossible to compare pieces of literature written in different languages, prose and poetry, coming from different socio-economical and political scenarios by judges who are plain human and therefore are biased.

Leo Tolstoy,  author  of “Anna Karenina”, was considered for The Prize in 1902.  He never got it.  The reason – Swedes didn’t like Russians.  The 1902 Nobel Prize in literature went to Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen, who was just a part time writer.

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