Translating Zembla; Or, How to Finish Pale Fire

August 7th, 2013 § 0 comments

In a conversation with René Alladaye about his brilliant new book (The Darker Side of Pale Fire – the best introduction to Pale Fire currently available, although it’s only available through currently) at the recent Nabokov & France conference, the question of translating the Index came up. In most languages, this is not a problem, because the final entry, “Zembla, a distant northern land.” (PF, 315), which works as a fitting conclusion to the narrative, will naturally come last as “Z” is the last letter of the alphabet.

In non-Latin scripts, this is more problematic, most prominently in Nabokov’s native tongue, Russian, where “З” or “Z” is ninth of 33 characters. Véra Nabokov’s translation of Pale Fire for Ardis Press works round this by rephrasing the entry:
ЯЧЕЙКА яшмы, Зембля, далекая северная страна.
[Orbicle of jasp, Zembla, a far northern country]
Я [ya] is the last letter of the Russian alphabet. This raises a further question of what “orbicle of jasp” – a quotation from line 558, “Terra the Fair, an orbicle of jasp” (PF, 54) – is doing in front of Zembla to retain its position? I don’t have any immediate answers, but a deeper analysis of the differences between the English and Russian index will surely help. Ultimately, the flow of the narrative is more important than the index’s order, indicating the importance in the Nabokovs’s collective mind of having the Zembla entry of the index close the text.

Thanks to Marina Savina for helping translating the Russian and finding the reference to “orbicle of jasp” in the poem.

V. Nabokov. 1962. Pale Fire. New York: GP Putnam’s & Son.
V. Nabokov. 1983. Бледныĭ огонь [Pale Fire]. trans. by Véra Nabokov. Ann Arbor: Ardis Press.

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