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La génétique hors manuscrits

The Strange Case of the Nabokovs’ Enchanter

Chiara Montini
p. 15-28


Cet essai propose une approche génétique de la question de l’auctorialité et de la traduction à travers un cas d’étude particulier : la double traduction, d’abord du russe vers l’anglais, puis du russe et de l’anglais vers l’italien, de Volshebnik de Vladimir Nabokov (1939 ; The Enchanter, 1986 ; L’incantatore, 1986, 2011). Grâce à divers documents d’archive conservés dans la Berg Collection (NYPL), j’ai pu reconstituer l’histoire de la publication posthume de ce récit, en anglais et en italien. Faute de traces des premiers jets de ces traductions, cependant, l’enquête restait inachevée.
Dans une deuxième partie, j’interroge précisément cette lacune en portant une attention particulière à la genèse de L’incantatore, la traduction italienne de The Enchanter par Dmitri Nabokov. Dans ce cas particulier, ainsi que dans le cas des traductions réalisées en anglais avec la collaboration (et sous la « responsabilité ») de son père, ce sont l’autorité et l’auctorialité de Dmitri Nabokov qui sont en jeu. Le fils du grand écrivain, qui maîtrisait moins l’italien que l’anglais, a prolongé par la suite la pratique traductive acquise auprès de son père, en traduisant avec d’autres collaborateurs de confiance. Cette pratique, aussi répandue soit-elle, soulève une question d’ordre éthique : que signifie la signature du traducteur dans l’économie du texte traduit ? Et encore : quel en est le sens quand le nom du traducteur s’avère être le même que celui de l’auteur ?

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Texte intégral

1This essay tackles the question of authorship and translation, and authorship in translation, by means of a genetic approach to a very peculiar case study: Dmitri Nabokov’s double translation (from Russian into English and then into Italian) of Vladimir Nabokov’s Volshebnik (1939; The Enchanter, 1986; L’incantatore, 1986, 2011). The material in the archives at the Berg Collection, New York Public Library (NYPL), should have shed light on Dmitri Nabokov’s approach to the translations of this particular work, the publication of which his father did not consider a priority. I thus followed the history of the posthumous publication of this novella, first in English and then into Italian, by analyzing the unpublished documents, step by step. But these documents, which are mostly typescripts with handwritten corrections, left me unsatisfied. I had the impression that there was something missing because the archival material had been carefully selected.

2In the second part of this article I question precisely what is missing from the archives, focusing on the genesis of L’incantatore, Dmitri Nabokov’s Italian translation of The Enchanter. Here, as with Dmitri’s English translations, all done in collaboration with his father, under his father’s “responsibility”, Dmitri’s own authority and authorship are at stake. The son of the great writer, who did not master Italian as well as he mastered English, went on translating in collaboration with other people whom he trusted. This practice, although rather common, raises an ethical question: what does a signature in a translation mean?

A late genesis. Discovering, losing and re-discovering Volshebnik

I soon found in the Montreux archives first one, then two manuscripts of Volshebnik (The Enchanter), the novella that we might now call “The original of Lolita,” which Nabokov had written in Russian in 1939 but been advised not to publish. After writing Lolita itself, he thought he had destroyed its Russian precursor but then rediscovered it and considered translating and publishing it in the wake of Lolita’s international success. But the manuscript had again been misplaced for decades when I re-rediscovered what would be published in 1985, in Dmitri’s translation, as The Enchanter. (Boyd, 2011: 44)

3Brian Boyd re-rediscovered the manuscript of Volshebnik in 1980. This novella that Vladimir Nabokov (1977) wrote in 1939 is, in Nabokov’s own words, “the first little throb of Lolita,” (Nabokov, 1980 [1955]: 310) and the plot is very similar to that of its more fortunate descendant:

I wrote it in Russian, the language in which I had been writing novels since 1924. […] The man was a central European, the anonymous nymphet was French, and the loci were Paris and Provence. I had him marry the little girl’s sick mother who soon died, and after a thwarted attempt to take advantage of the orphan in a hotel room, Arthur (for that was his name) threw himself under the wheels of a truck. (Nabokov, 1980: 310)

Nabokov read the manuscript to some friends, decided that it was not worth publishing and remembered having destroyed it:

I read the story one blue-papered wartime night to a group of friends—Mark Aldanov, two social revolutionaries, and a woman doctor; but I was not pleased with the thing and destroyed it some time after moving to America in 1940. (Nabokov, 1980: 310)

He was mistaken. In the late 1950s, after the success of Lolita, Nabokov found the manuscript and thought that it had a certain charm of its own:

As I explained in my essay appended to Lolita, I had written a kind of pre-Lolita novella in the autumn of 1939 in Paris. I was sure I had destroyed it long ago but today, as Véra and I were collecting some additional material to give to The Library of Congress, a single copy of the story turned up. My first movement was to deposit it (and a batch of index cards with unused Lolita material) at the L. of C. [Library of Congress, Washington D.C.], but then something else occurred to me.
The thing is a story of fifty-five typewritten pages in Russian, entitled
Volshebnik (“The Enchanter”). Now that my creative connection with Lolita is broken, I have re-read Volshebnik with considerably more pleasure than I experienced when recalling it as a dead scrap during my work on Lolita. It is a beautiful piece of Russian prose, precise and lucid, and with a little care should be done into English by the Nabokovs. (Nabokov, 1987b)

In this letter, written in 1959 but never sent, the author offered his publisher a translation of Volshebnik by “the Nabokovs”. Nothing happened, though, and Volshebnik was the last out of eight stories to be confined to the “bottom of the barrel,” meaning that those stories were “the final ones worthy to be published” (Nabokov, 2008: xiii).

The history of a posthumous publication. Why Lolita’s anonymous little sister?

4After 1982, when he recovered from a terrible car accident (1980) that put to an end his career as an opera singer, Dmitri Nabokov (1934-2012) decided to devote his life to his father’s legacy. Moreover, he decided to re-exhume Volshebnik, the work abandoned by his father that he cherished more than any other. In fact, he not only translated it from Russian into English, but also into Italian.

5Why was The Enchanter so important to the son of Nabokov, the translator and beneficiary of his father’s fortune? It is well known that, after its controversial début, Lolita turned out to be a bestseller and marked a turning point for the Nabokovs. Before Lolita’s big splash, Nabokov still needed to work as a professor to make ends meet. After the success of Lolita, American publishers were eager to grasp the opportunity of selling Nabokov’s old and new books. Royalties significantly increased, and the author could give up teaching and devote himself to writing and translating. Dmitri hoped that eight years after his father’s death, publishing a “pre-Lolita” could spur a new success through—“an energetic new promotion of all the Putnam VN titles” (D. Nabokov, letter to Peter Israel, 1985).

6The book was less powerful than other works by Nabokov, but an enthusiastic and excited Dmitri Nabokov did not hesitate to consider it as one of “[Father’s] best Russian works”. He added: “Father expressed (in writing) his intention to have it translated by “the Nabokovs” and issued in English.” Dmitri Nabokov—with his mother’s approval—was very proud of his own translation: “We think the appearance of this piece is a major literary event (the translation, incidentally, is at once the most difficult and the best I have ever done).” He was also planning for a movie to be made out of the book, as Kubrick had done for Lolita. Money was not exactly the farthest thing from his mind:

We have already received several excellent proposals for publication in the U.S., in England, and in France, and are currently negotiating cinema rights with a major L.A. filmmaker. We wanted to show it to you before signing a U.S. publication agreement with anyone else. We would, of course, want a substantial advance and royalty structure. (D. Nabokov, letter 1985)

But, apart from its commercial interest, Dmitri Nabokov may have translated Volshebnik because it reminded him of times past. In his afterword “On a Book Entitled The Enchanter” (echoing his father’s “On a Book Entitled Lolita”) he explained:

I was five when The Enchanter was being written and was, if anything, a disruptive influence in our Paris apartment and our Riviera pensions. I recall that between generous periods of play with me, Father would sometimes withdraw into the bathroom of our meager quarters to work in peace, although not, as John Shade does for shaving purposes in Pale Fire, on a board placed across the tub. While I was already aware that my father was a “writer,” I had no idea of what was being written and my parents certainly made no attempt to familiarize me with the story of Volshebnik (I think the only work of Father’s I knew at the time was his Russian translation of Alice in Wonderland and the little tales and ditties he would improvise for me). It is possible that, when Father was writing Volshebnik, I had already been bundled off in Deauville with a cousin of Mother’s… (D. Nabokov, 1986: 845)

Volshebnik not only represented the embryo of Lolita’s success, it was also the first mysterious text written by his father that he remembered. This same text made him feel a “disruptive influence” that took Father away from him. Moreover, he could not have known anything about a story his parents would not talk about in front of him. Their child was not supposed to know, and he was then bundled off in Deauville. I like to think that Dmitri Nabokov’s care for Volshebnik’s posthumous life may be a kind of “innocent retaliation,” a compensation for what was forbidden and lost. A “text set free” (to echo Canetti’s Tongue Set Free, 2011), in his own (and better mastered) language, English. Despite his declared ambition of becoming a writer in his own right, as he mentions for the first time on the dust jacket of The Enchanter, in his letters to his agent Nikki Smith of Smith/Skolnik agency and in some public papers, Dmitri Nabokov could not publish more than translations, introductions, prefaces, afterwords and short memoirs about his father (1979) and himself as the son of the Nabokovs (1988). Neither the announced novel nor his memoirs were published, except for some extracts. On the other hand, The Enchanter, a short story, became an autonomous book. Then came other books, other translations, and many posthumous texts by Vladimir Nabokov edited by Dmitri Nabokov in collaboration with other distinguished scholars (among whom Brian Boyd, Dieter Zimmer, Gavriel Shapiro, Simon Karlinsky). Dmitri added to the short novel two author’s notes, a short translator’s note and a commentary “[i]n the interest of clarifying certain concentrated images (some of which originally stumped me too), and of providing the curious reader with a few informative sidelights” (Nabokov, 1987a: xxi). Like his father, Dmitri Nabokov was very fond of forewords and afterwords.

Translating Volshebnik: empathy and identification

7In a sense, by translating and publishing a new novel that was strictly related to Lolita, Dmitri Nabokov exhumed not only his father’s bestseller, but time past, his childhood and his renown as a Lolito and a later Don Juan. This venture was at once personal, singular, engaging, moving and enticing. It was an enterprise of enduring affects: from his unconditional love and admiration for his father to the (maybe unconscious) desire to emulate him (albeit on a minor scale, by delivering Lolita’s anonymous and unfamiliar sister). Moreover, Dmitri Nabokov could also and finally proudly declare himself “responsible” for his own translation, adopting this word from his father when he referred to translations of his own texts in collaboration with others (and his son in particular). By “responsible”, Nabokov meant that he took upon himself the result of the final translation, probably because he did not want Dmitri Nabokov to be accused to have modified the text. In the end, the author also decided what was right or wrong and his son had no responsibilities whatsoever. Translating Volshebnik was a homage to “Father” by his son, it was an act of allegiance, but wasn’t it also a way to affirm his own new responsibility? It implied that particular kind of empathy evoked by the Earl of Roscommon (1684: 7) in his “Essay on Translated Verse”:

Then, seek a poet who your way does bend,
And choose an author as you choose a friend.
United by this sympathetic bond,
You grow familiar, intimate, and fond:
Your thoughts, your words, your styles, your souls agree,
No longer his interpreter, but he.

Indeed, Dmitri seemed to identify with his father when he decided that his English version of The Enchanter would be the source text for other translators. Was it really a slip of the tongue when he defined The Enchanter as “mon livre” to Radio France in 1988?

Translation as a source text: from Vladimir Nabokov’s to Dmitri Nabokov’s translations

8The Enchanter, published first in French, then in English in 1986, found its way into print long before the original that was published in Zvezda in 1991. The very first issue was Gilles Barbedette’s French translation of Dmitri’s English version of the Russian original. In the “Note de l’éditeur” of L’Enchanteur one reads:

Like the majority of the author’s Russian texts that he wished to be translated from their English version, and according to his will, L’Enchanteur was translated into French from his son Dmitri Nabokov’s English translation. Nevertheless, the present translation was revised by him, Vladimir Sikorsky and Véra Nabokov, with reference to the Russian original. (Nabokov, 1986a: 7)

Dmitri Nabokv suggested that out of respect for his father’s wishes, his own English version should be the source text for other translators. One might say that his logic was somewhat biased. Vladimir Nabokov decided that his works were to be translated from his English versions made in collaboration with others (including his son) in the late 1950s, early 1960s (the change came with Invitation to a Beheading and maybe The Gift). He chose to do so because he had carefully and thoroughly checked, revised, abridged and expanded the originals in the process of translating them:

VN began to insist (although he couldn’t enforce) that translations be from his English versions, after 1959 (Invitation to a Beheading) or perhaps after 1963 (the translation of The Gift) because he put into the flow of the English text brief explanations of things that would have been obvious to his Russian émigré audience but that non-émigré, non-Russian audiences would not have registered. He didn’t like footnotes in translations, so insisting on translating from his English was a way of ensuring the glosses could be incorporated into the text. (Boyd, 2018 email)

From a genetic point of view, Nabokov’s “self-translations” (even when in collaboration with others) may be considered as the author’s last words. In fact, as I indicated, the bilingual author used to specify that he was the only person responsible for the final result of the English translations of his own Russian texts either in the published works or in his typescripts (Berg Collection). The translation renders the “original” a kind of unfinished version, a draft, and the translation becomes a palimpsest. In other words, Nabokov’s translation was a brand new and up-to-date version that could replace the first one. In Invitation to a Beheading, the author gives his own definition of what we now term self-translation:

If some day I make a dictionary of definitions wanting single words to head them, a cherished entry will be: “To abridge, expand, or otherwise alter or cause to be altered, for the sake of belated improvement, one’s own writings in translation.” Generally speaking the urge to do this grows in proportion to the length of time separating the model from the mimic… (Nabokov, 1989 [1959]: 7)

In the foreword to his second translation in English of Despair, he candidly states:

For the present edition I have done more than revamp my thirty-year-old translation: I have revised Otchayanie [Despair] itself. Lucky students who may be able to compare the three texts will also note the addition of an important passage which had been stupidly omitted in more timid times. Is this fair, is this wise from a scholar’s point of view? (Nabokov, 1966: 8)

Nabokov’s translations of his own texts were a means to improve his works even if, as Jane Grayson (1977) points out, not every one of his works were transformed in such a way. Because of this and because at the time it was easier to find a good translator from the English language than from Russian, Nabokov wished his translators to use his “Englished” versions as a source text. The “original” was no longer the reference text (or source text) because the author had replaced it (Montini, 2016). In fact, the very idea of a bilingual work weakens the romantic concept of the trustworthy original.

Dmitri, beneficiary, executor and translator

9To this point, the genetic research has shown that Dmitri Nabokov’s translations of his father’s work go beyond the “simple” concept conveyed by the word “translating”. Before his father’s death, the translations of Vladimir Nabokov’s son are the result of their collaboration, but, after Nabovov’s death, he drew from what he had learnt from collaborating with the author and father but also, as mentioned above, from an act of devotion, loyalty and identification. Analysing Dmitri Nabokov’s “posthumous” (i.e. after his father’s death) translations, complicates the equation. Who has the authority over the translations, now? Can Dmitri Nabokov’s translations be considered as “source texts” as if they were Vladimir Nabokov’s own translations? In his “On a Book Entitled The Enchanter” (that echoes his father’s “On a Book Entitled Lolita”), Dmitri Nabokov explains:

In both translation and commentary I have tried hard to stick to the Nabokov rules: precision, artistic fidelity, no padding, no ascribing. Any conjecture beyond what I have ventured would violate those rules.
The translation itself reflects my intent to be faithful to VN in both the general and the specific, textual, senses.
Many years of translation for and with Father instilled in me those categorical requirements of his. The only cases where he considered departures admissible were untranslatable expressions and revisions of the text itself, in the translated version, by the original author. It is possible that VN, were he alive, might have exercised his authorial license to change certain details of
The Enchanter; I believe, though, that he would have chosen to leave intact this model of conciseness and multilevel meaning. The rare instances where I have taken the liberty of making minor adjustments occur precisely where the technique—as in the telescoped Little Red Riding Hood wordplays (p. 49, l. 16; p. 75, l. 26) or the high-speed imagery of the finale—would have made a totally literal rendering meaningless in English. Elsewhere, on occasion, the English may seem simply a bit unorthodox. But so, in such cases, is the Russian. (D. Nabokov, 1986: 812)

In spite of his professed faithfulness in the above passage, it is difficult to consider Dmitri Nabokov’s translations as source texts. There are at least four reasons against that: first, he was not the author; second, he did not know the émigré world; third, he did not modify the basic Russian original; fourth, in the late 1980s one could find excellent translators from Russian. The status of translation and the status of the “son of” are so commingled here that they turn out to be ambiguous and ethically questionable. The result: a translation becomes a source text, and the translator, who is the son of the author, becomes a signature with and in the-name-of-the-father (Lacan, 2005: 1).

10There is also a more spiritual reason that may justify Dmitri Nabokov’s decision to use his translations as source texts: the Nabokovs believed in a special bond that ensured a kind of life after death through love. This idea features in many of Nabokov’s books. In Bend Sinister, for example, Krug tells his son that Billy’s remark about his mom being dead is “stupid”, and adds “[b]ecause, even if she were dead she would not be dead for you or me” (Nabokov, 1990 [1947]: 161; emphasis in the original). This bond recalls Ugo Foscolo’s corrispondenza di amorosi sensi (“correspondence of loving senses”), a special relationship among people who loved each other in life and whose love remains alive after the loved one has passed away. In his “Translating with Nabokov” Dmitri formulates a similar idea in his own words:

As I come upon Father’s little notes and drawings greeting me unexpectedly in reference works I have inherited, as I peruse such items as a box of index cards marked, in Father’s hand, “Word,” as I sense Nabokov peering over my shoulder and saying “Unh-uh” to a melodious but inaccurate phrase, I perceive my extraordinary good fortune: Father is not dead, but still collaborating with me and amusing me with his splendid good humor, and who knows what delights the mystery of the hereafter may bring. (D. Nabokov, 1984: 1767)

As his work may be considered a prolongation of Nabokov’s because it emanates from the father, Dmitri Nabokov would seem to be acquitted. At least ethically speaking. When I asked Brian Boyd if Nabokov would have approved of his son’s peculiar way of seizing his father’s work, he answered: “If Dmitri was following his principles, VN wouldn’t have minded” (Boyd 2018, email). It is, in my opinion, the only explanation that can save Dmitri Nabokov from being guilty of (minor?) ethical misconduct. Truly, in defense of Dmitri Nabokov, his translations into English—whether they were the result of his own work or of his collaborating with others—were good enough to be praised by the majority. And The Enchanter is no exception.

11I wonder if it was in this process of emulation, empathy and inherited freedom, that the son of Nabokov ventured to self-translate “his” Enchanter into Italian, a language he seemed to have learnt easily as we are going to see.

Doubled in translation: Dmitri’s L’incantatore

12In “Translating with Nabokov” Dmitri Nabokov confirms that “Father” had carte blanche on their work in collaboration: “He and I had an inviolable compact. I was to furnish as literal a translation as possible, with which he could take whatever liberties he pleased” (D. Nabokov 1984: 149). I will not address the manuscripts of those English translations in collaboration (because of lack of space), but the material at Berg confirms what Dmitri himself has written. His rather rough but at times powerful translations were thoroughly rewritten and shaped by his father. Before going any further in my analysis of the Italian translations of L’incantatore, I would like to quote Dmitri Nabokov:

My first unassisted task, assigned while Father was still alive, was to revise another translator’s Italian version of King, Queen, Knave. Encouraged by my success in a language I had learned effortlessly because I loved to speak and sing it, and buttressed in approaching its literary niceties by secure foundation in Latin and other matters. I then undertook my own Italian translation of Transparent Things, published by Mondadori, as Cose trasparenti. (D. Nabokov, 1984: 162)

This self-assurance turns out to be naïve and provocative at the same time. When I first read this statement, I thought that if he really believed that loving Italian, singing it, knowing Latin, and “other matters” (meaning Italian women), were enough elements to translate in that language, he did not really know what translating meant. This gives rise to several questions: how did he translate? What was translation to Dmitri Nabokov? Was there anything behind his role as the Italian translator of his father’s work? Since the very beginning of his “career” as a translator, which started with the collaborative translation of A Hero of our Time (Lermontov, 1958), and continued as a translator of his father’s—and only of his father’s—work, he was supported, helped and accompanied by “Father” and “Mother”. The manuscripts available do not show the importance of Véra Nabokov’s work on the translations signed by her son, but it seems that it was fundamental and necessary. Moreover, he thanks her for her precious help: From the elements that I could collect during my research, and from the interviews to those who collaborated on his translations, I realized that Dmitri Nabokov was precise and demanding, but that he delegated to others. He made use of the capable and helpful collaborators who surrounded him. Is this a lack of discipline or self-confidence? Is this a desire of control (and authority)? And why did not most of these collaborators claim (more) visibility?

Collaborators in the shadows

13In this context, it is easier to understand why Dmitri Nabokov needed to sign his own translations into Italian, a language that he mastered orally but whose grammar and written specificities, as he earnestly suggested in the quotation above, he did not bother to study further. In fact, as with his work in English, Dmitri Nabokov translated with others. In his translations into Italian he thanks people who helped him, all of whom are friends or professionals, translators and intellectuals. But, as he did with his English translations, he signed them and, as he did not do with his English translations, he thanks those who helped him, without specifying their role.

14When I checked Dmitri Nabokov’s translations of L’incantatore into Italian (published first by Guanda, 1987, then, in a new translation, by Adelphi, 2011), I had to admit that they were accurate enough. The second one by Adelphi, though philologically faithful to the first one and both the English and Russian versions, may be considered more refined, as it were. Both translations include the same two notes by the author and the afterword by Dmitri Nabokov, and contrary to the other European translations of the book that I had previously consulted, they both seem to have been translated from the original (in the paratext, we can read: “Titolo originale: Волшебник”). The last translation published by Adelphi—that “is a thoroughly revised and new version of the one that was published in Italy in 1987” (Nabokov, 2011)—was considered such an excellent translation that it won the prestigious prize “Italia Russia attraverso i secoli” as the best translation of the year from Russian to Italian.

The prize: Italia-Russia attraverso i secoli

15Among all the excellent translations from Russian into Italian published in 2011, why was Dmitri’s chosen as the best? Why give a prize for the best translation from Russian into Italian when in the preface Dmitri writes that he translated if not from the English text only, from both the Russian and the English (and the latter, as I pointed out, had to be the source text for translators into other languages)? In fact, a short note by Dmitri indicates the central role played by his English version in the process of his translating into Italian:

I would like to make it clear that where there are deviations between my English version and the Italian one, this is due to two factors. First, the possibility of using the Russian original allowed me to take some shortcuts and thus, I hope, to be more faithful. Second, after reading several times your own translation, even though very accurate, we sometimes realize a slip to expunge before going through another language. (D. Nabokov, 2011: 77)

What I read here is that: first, Dmitri “self-translated” from his own English version but could also access “the Russian original” in order to “take some shortcuts” and be more faithful; second, translating into Italian allowed him to find out that the English version contained some “slips to expunge” that he discovered while “going through another language”. But when I asked Anna Raffetto, the editorial manager in charge of Nabokov’s texts with Adelphi since 1999, she was categorical on this point: Dmitri translated only from the Russian version and this is what he meant in his “Nota del curatore” quoted above.

16Maybe. Some months later, I happened to interview a friend of Dmitri Nabokov, Nicoletta Pallini Clemente, who helped him for the first draft of the translation and who spent entire days with him to help him with his Italian translation. She remembers that he was using both the English and the Russian texts. This makes sense. Otherwise, why should Dmitri mention his English translation to the Italian reader (of an Italian translation from Russian)? Because, Raffetto answered, Dmitri was very concerned with the cultivated reader who would compare the Italian version to the English one (Raffetto 2018, email). Curiously enough, in a note added to the Russian publication of Volshebnik, Dmitri Nabokov confirms both my theses: first, that the Enchanter becomes the reference text for other translations; second that L’incantatore was no exception to this rule, promoting the son of the authors as self-translator:

It is worth reminding the bilingual readers who would like to compare the Russian text to my English translation that the first American edition (hard cover, Putman, 1986) contained many lapses and mistakes that have been thoroughly amended in the following [or “subsequent”] publications in English and in most translations into other languages.

This note lets me think that “the lapses and mistakes” in the translations in other languages are due to the fact that they reproduce the same errors that were corrected from the English version, the reference text. I did compare the two versions to the Italian one, as Raffetto suggested.

A comparison: archives and agency in translation

17Consulting the archives often yields surprises and reveals more about agency in translation than can be observed from the published text alone (Cordingley and Montini [dir.], 2015: 7). My next step was to analyze the avant-textes (mostly “endogenetic” sources, that is the drafts produced during the text’s composition) and the post-textes (the next evolution in the genesis of the translation after it has become a text) and compare them to the published versions of L’incantatore, The Enchanter and Volshebnik. Then, I checked the documents in the archives and compared what I found there to the published versions of L’incantatore, The Enchanter and Volshebnik. On the basis of this comparison, I tried to answer some questions raised by my analysis of Dmitri’s translations. What was Dmitri’s agency in his Italian translation? Why was the Italian version published twice? And, was the second translation a thorough revision of the first by him or by somebody else? From which version did he translate (from his English translation or from the Russian original)? To what extent did his name, the name of his father, the name of the author, shape his role as a translator?

18If the documents in the archives prove that Dmitri did not master Italian to the point of being the only author of his published translations, my interviews with those who helped him confirm that he was not the only translator of L’incantatore, in spite of his name being the only one mentioned as “translator”. As Cordingley and Manning (2017) point out, collaboration in translation is a common practice and can be welcomed.

19Within the documents, I could find only two typescripts of Dmitri’s L’incantatore at Berg. They are the last drafts of the first published translation and, judging from the handwritten corrections, they appear to be edited by two different persons: probably the publisher’s editor and Dmitri Nabokov himself. Before the emendations, and sometimes in the very emendations by Dmitri, one can find some mistakes that a native Italian translator could hardly make. During my research I interviewed those who collaborated with him and they all corroborated this point: Serena Vitale (who helped Dmitri in his translation of Transparent Things), Anna Raffetto (who edited the second translation of L’incantatore before publication) and Nicoletta Pallini Clemente (who helped Dmitri in the first draft of the translation into Italian) agreed that Dmitri’s spoken Italian was excellent but that translating was another matter. Margherita Crepax, who translated Ada or Ardour, and never met Dmitri Nabokov in person, thought that his Italian was not good enough judging from his corrections to her work, which she had to reject; she was firmly supported by Roberto Calasso, the editor in chief for Adelphi. The son of the author did not consider that Crepax was good enough for the delicate task of translating his father’s work. Concerning Pale Fire, in particular, he writes to the publisher: “I do not see who on earth will grapple with Pale Fire. Se sarà la Crepax o la Mella citerò tutti quanti in tribunale” (Letter to Anna Raffetto, 2000). Moreover, the comparison between the two Italian versions confirms that the second Italian edition of L’incantatore was done on the basis of Dmitri Nabokov’s first translation edited by Anna Raffetto according to the Russian original. But a comparison of the first draft of Dmitri’s L’incantatore (at Berg), the original Russian and its English translation seems to endorse the hypothesis (reinforced by Dmitri Nabokov’s above-mentioned “nota del curatore”) that he used his own translation into English as the source text for his Italian translation, notwithstanding his referring to the Russian original.

20Some examples from the typescripts support this hypothesis. First, they give some evidence of the fact that Dmitri’s translation needed to be edited by somebody who mastered Italian better than himself; second, they corroborate the hypothesis that the English text is also (even if only partially) the source text for Dmitri’s translation. In fact, many expressions in the draft come directly from English (and also from French) and do not fit either Italian or Russian; and, in the typescript, where doubts are expressed, the English version is mentioned and only once refers to the Russian original.

21Some “unusual” mistakes (for a native) often reproduce the structure of English:

“non c’è nemmeno questione di scegliere” instead of “non se ne parla nemmeno” (Ts. 29); English: “there isn’t even any question of choosing” (35);

“lasciando cadere i capelli frescamente messi in piega” (Ts. 31); English: “letting down her freshly waved hair” (38); corrected as “sciogliendo i capelli messi in piega di fresco”. Here the expression is clumsy in Italian, and the adverb “frescamente” does not exist;

“denti anteriori” instead of “incisivi” (Ts. 6); English: “front teeth” (9);

“capelli recentemente assestati” then corrected as “messi in piega di fresco” (Ts. 6) (from “recently trimmed”, 9); here we can also notice that the same expression as in the previous translation is used as a correction in spite of the expressions in English being different;

“certi piccoli oggetti estremamente anziani” corrected as “antichi”, “anziani” can only be referred to persons, and the literal meaning here is “estremamente vecchi; vecchissimi”; English: “exceedingly old small objects”. Here Dmitri also asks: “nuance?”, because the three Italian terms – anziano, antico, vecchio – have different meanings that he appears not to grasp.

Verb tenses are often incorrect, the subjunctive in particular (less used in oral Italian):

“se ne vadono” (Ts. 22) instead of “vadano”; “era convinto che finché permaneva la novità ed ella non si sarebbe [instead of “fosse”] guardata intorno, sarebbe stato facile”; “finché l’abisso fiorito non avrebbe” instead of “avesse”; “convinto che suonava naturale” (Ts. 13) instead of “suonasse”; “trasparirebbe” (Ts. 47) instead of “sarebbe trasparita”; “ladove” (Ts. 19) instead of “laddove”.

Some expressions that come directly from the English language whereas the Russian was closer to a better Italian solution:

“con una palma al suo centro” instead of “al centro”; Russian: “pal’moy v tsentre”;

“In forma conservata” (“canned form”), while the Russian was closer to a more appropriate Italian expression “solo nelle conserve”; Russian: “tol’ko v konservah”.

Other details made me think that Dmitri is closer to the English version than to the Russian. When he has doubts about the correct translation, either he writes “see Eng.” or “check Eng.” or he writes directly the word used in the English translation and only once refers to the Russian original:

“collana?” and added in English: “necklace” (Ts. 2); “color pan di zenzero” and added in English: “gingerbread” (Ts. 4); “montatura” (erased and replaced by “inganno”) and added in English: “trickery” (Ts. 14); “svanente distanza (che svaniva)” and added in English: “Melting” (Ts. 27).

If we consider that we do not have the manuscripts of the translations and that the documents available are the last drafts before publications probably edited by somebody who worked on behalf of Guanda, the evidence above that Dmitri Nabokov was not the main translator is not unassailable. He probably was. Still, one wonders why Dmitri wanted so much to translate into Italian while declaring that he is not qualified to translate Nabokov’s work into Russian:

A certain Mel’nikov … reproached me for criticizing, at NABOKV-L’s invitation, the (execrable) existing translations of Ada while challenging me to do my own. The reason I don’t is very simple. My Russian is good enough for the correction of blunders and for stylistic suggestions, but I would not dream of translating all of Ada myself unless I were capable of doing it on a level at least approaching that of Vladimir Nabokov’s Russian Lolita and Speak Memory. I truly fear to tread where a battalion of fools and hacks has gone rushing in.

Was his Italian better than his Russian, or did he just translate into Italian because he did not have to compare his skills to his father’s in that language?

Evidence and further inquiries

22The typescript of L’incantatore shows some awkward mistakes even if Nabokov translated mostly with the help of Italian collaborators. The analysis of the archival documents prove—as his collaborators confirm (see above)—at least that Dmitri did not and could not translate The Enchanter or Volshebnik into Italian by himself. Moreover, they confirm that he did not translate only from the Russian Volshebnik, as he himself writes in his above-mentioned translator’s note. That he used both his English version and the Russian original was also corroborated by Nicoletta Pallini Clemente, who helped him for his first draft. However, as I have already pointed out, the archival material does not represent the whole translation process, rendering it therefore difficult to reconstruct the role of each collaborator (some of them are thanked in the first Italian edition). I learnt, from those who helped Dmitri, that he preferred to work on the phone or de visu in Montreux (Raffetto, Vitale, Boyd), or in Monza (Pallini Clemente). This could be one of the reasons why there are so few traces of these collaborations. The second translation for Adelphi was made not only because Nabokov was dissatisfied with the work done by Guanda, but also because Adelphi had become the publisher of almost all of Nabokov’s texts and, as a new publisher, needed a new translation. Indeed, as Raffetto later wrote to me, Dmitri Nabokov did not translate L’incantatore twice, but left to her the task of editing the first version.

23It is thus a revision of a revised translation which he had already done in collaboration with others that won the prestigious prize. And here is the crucial point. Who was “responsible” for the translation? We know that Vladimir Nabokov used the word “responsibility” to refer to the translation of his own works in collaboration with others. As he checked, edited and thus altered the work previously demanded from a competent translator, he was responsible for the final version. The same happened with his son when he became his father’s “best translator” (as Nabokov said of his son; Zanganeh, 2012).

24After his father’s death, Dmitri Nabokov was responsible (together with his mother) for what was to be published or not and in what form. As for his Italian translations, he may have known that he would “tread where a battalion of fools and hacks has gone rushing in”, but he also found valid collaborators to avoid making a fool of himself. Of course, collaboration in translation is a common and welcome practice, but there is something unclear about Dmitri’s practice as a translator into Italian. A desire to assert his competence and authority that resulted in a bunch of letters written to agents, friends, publishers and translators, almost always in capital letters, went along with a kind of lucidity about his own limits. The interviews and documents available confirm that Dmitri repeated a cliché learned with and from his father, and his signature, his name on the book as a translator (and the person responsible for it) was less the evidence of his own work than the authenticity of his identity as the son of the author who would decide what was to be published or not, what translation was to be accepted or refused. Dmitri Nabokov chose carefully his collaborators, and when he was sure he could trust them, he used to give them carte blanche. Serena Vitale, Ugo Tessitore and Anna Raffetto are among his trustworthy Italian translators.


25There is something blurring about Dmitri Nabokov’s work as a translator. When Jane Grayson wrote her pioneer study (1977) about Nabokov and translation, his son did not allow her to consult his drafts of the translations in collaboration with his father, without explaining the reasons for his refusal.

26In the end, instead of finding a method that would shed light on the way Nabokov taught his son how to translate his own works, instead of being able to show how Dmitri Nabokov really translated, I found out that his right to sign his translations was a way to exercise his imprimatur, but also a privilege granted to Nabokov’s only son. Can we call this practice translating? As Benjamin wrote, “translation is form”, and form is exactly what is missing from Dmitri Nabokov’s translations both into English and Italian. His versions recall the so-called podstrochniki, the literal translations in the Soviet Union that were used as a basis for literary translations by translators who did not know the source language.

27When Dmitri Nabokov was awarded the prestigious prize “Italia-Russia attraverso i secoli” for “his excellent translation of L’incantatore”, he was said to “master the language as a native speaker” (Colonnelli, 2011). Stefano Garzonio, one of the members of the commission that awarded the prize, wrote to me, though (email, 2018), that people suspected he did not really translate his father’s texts alone, but he was nevertheless chosen in “a broader cultural perspective” (as usual, translation is a little unfortunate sister of the text) and for the good of the relationship between Italy and Russia. Obscure though this is, I understand that Dmitri Nabokov had to thank the broader context for his prize as “best translator”. He was already very sick at the time, and he would die the following year. This prize may also have been a way to recognize his work in Italy on behalf of his father.

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Boyd, Brian, 2011, Stalking Nabokov, New York, Columbia University Press.

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Colonnelli, Lauretta, 2011, Corriere della Sera, 4 December, (accessed on 10 November 2018).

Cordingley, Anthony & Frigau Manning Céline (dir.), 2017, Collaborative Translation. From the Renaissance to the Digital Era. London, Bloomsbury.

Cordingley, Anthony & Montini Chiara (dir.), 2015, “Genetic Translation Studies: An Emerging Discipline”, Linguistica Antverpiensia, New Series: Themes in Translation Studies, n° 14.

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Zanganeh, Lila Azam, 2012, “His Father’s Best Translator”, New York Times, Sunday Book Review, 20 July, (accessed on 10 May 2020).

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Chiara Montini, « The Strange Case of the Nabokovs’ Enchanter », Palimpsestes, 34 | -1, 15-28.

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Chiara Montini, « The Strange Case of the Nabokovs’ Enchanter », Palimpsestes [En ligne], 34 | 2020, mis en ligne le 30 septembre 2020, consulté le 29 novembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Chiara Montini

Chiara Montini, traductrice et chercheuse associée à l’ITEM (CNRS-ENS), a enseigné la littérature comparée en France et en Italie. Elle a consacré de nombreux articles à Samuel Beckett et l’autotraduction, au multilinguisme, et à la génétique des textes et de la traduction ; elle a traduit en italien Mercier et Camier de Samuel Beckett (Einaudi 2015) et un recueil d’essais de Vladimir Nabokov. Elle a notamment publié La lingua spaesata. Il multilinguismo oggi (BUP, 2014) ; Traduire : Genèse du choix (Archives contemporaines, 2015) ; « Genetic Translation Studies: an Emerging Discipline » (co-dir. Anthony Cordingley, Linguistica Antverpiensia, n° 14, 2015) ; I Nabokov si traducono. A Cloudless collaboration (Mucchi, 2020).

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