In this month's The Believer magazine, Adam Thirlwell expresses quite well something that I have yearned yet failed to express for some time, namely that Style can be translated across languages even if formal elements like meter and rhyme must be jettisoned in the transfer from one language to the next. The Believer doesn't provide the full text of Thirlwell's essay, so here's an excerpt (reproduced without permission) on Vladimir Nabokov's experience and troubles translating that famous novel-in-verse Pushkin's Eugene Onegin:
In Nabokov's forward to his translation he asked a simple question: "Can Pushkin's poem, or any other poem with a definite rhyme scheme, be really translated?" And then he rephrased it: "Can a rhymed poem like Eugene Onegin be truly translated with the retention of its rhymes?" The answer, of course, is no. To reproduce the rhymes and yet translate the poem entire is mathematically impossibe." And yet: "In losing its rhyme the poem loses its blooom, which neither marginal description nor the alchemy of a scholium can replace." The only solution, thought Nabokov, which was not really a solution, was to give up on the style and explicate the content. this, argued Nabokov, was a literal translation; and only this method was acceptable. It was hardly a translation at all: rather than fulfilling the traditional function of replacing the original, it was now only useful as a crib, a prompt to the orginal, instead.
Every theory of translation is a theory of style. Each implies the other. Translation has to deal, minutely, with the relationships between form and content. The reason, I think, that Nabokov was having such trouble with Eugene Onegin was that it pointed to a central problem. His idea of style was problematic. He believed in the novel--the novel in prose--as a poetic entity. He thought it should value the form (the phonetics, the technical tricks) of a sentence as much as or more than it should value that sentence's content. He believed the European avant-garde idea--most famously expressed in Flaubert's letter to Louise Colet--that a novel had a value only insofar as its sentences were organized with as much care as possible. But Nabokov's idea of how sentences might be organized placed too much emphasis on the sentences' internal structure. And so he refused to admit that Eugene Onegin could be translated. He did not allow that a novel--even the most poetic novel of all, one written in poetry--has a style that goes beyond the sentences' internal structures: It is there in the arrangement of paragraphs, of chapters, of voices and materials. It is there in the arrangements of the plot. Nabokov's model of style was too much based on the advertised constricted tricks of the lyric poem.
All theories of translation depend on a genre--on whether a text is poetry, or prose, or an instruction manual. Maybe I can make this even more limited. All theories of translation will only be entirely true for a particular work....