Without rhyme or treason

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Maroseika

Moderator
Russian
Hi,

This is from Nabokov's "Look at the harlequins" (about translations of Russian poems into English):

"None of those descriptive and, let us be frank, banal pieces, were good enough (particularly when nakedly Englished without rhyme or treason) to be shown to Iris...".

It is clear that "rhyme or treason" refers to "rhyme or reason", which would make pretty good sense here. But I cannot see what "treason" is doing here, what additional sense or characteristic of English versions of the hero's poems it implies, and how any of the meanings of "treason" might be used here.

Maybe Nabokov is playing with some other idiom, really containing the word "treason"?

Thanks for your help.
 
  • PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    It is a play on words. As you know, "without rhyme or reason" = random/without logical explanation. Nabokov is cleverly adapting the idiom on several levels.

    He uses the elements separately:
    1. "... rhyme" in a way that is understood as "that which rhymes" and
    2. "treason" as an implied approximation of "betraying1 the meaning."
    3. Because the reader will recognise "without rhyme or reason" Nabokov has tacitly added that phrase's meaning to his description also.

    So he is saying that the translation of the Russian poems (a) doesn't rhyme (b) does not give the meaning that the poet(s) intended (c) is illogical/random

    1 in its sense of OED "7. To reveal, disclose or show incidentally; to exhibit, show signs of, to show (a thing which there is no attempt to keep secret)."
     

    Elwintee

    Senior Member
    England English
    I may be being stupid, but the phrase is 'without rhyme or treason', so there is no treason. Therefore the explanation (that the translation does not give the meaning that the poet(s) intended) doesn't seem to work.
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    Yes, there is no betrayal of the meaning - the meaning is not given away/exposed/demonstrated - there is no "treason".
     

    Maroseika

    Moderator
    Russian
    Actually I also cannot understand why "without treason". Pieces are banal even in Russian, and in English they are even worse - at least for having lost the rhyme.

    If we rephrase it and shorten like "These banal pieces were nakedly Englished without treason", what will be the sense of the phrase?
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    "These banal pieces were nakedly Englished without treason", what will be the sense of the phrase? = "These banal pieces were nakedly Englished without giving any hint as to the meaning or intent of the poetry."
     

    Maroseika

    Moderator
    Russian
    Excuse me for my slowness, PaulQ, but how "without treason" may mean "without giving hint as to the meaning of poetry"? Treason means betrayal, "without betrayal" means "no betrayal", i.e. sense was not betrayed, it was preserved. But we know it wasn't. Where I am wrong here?


    Just a wild and weird guess: can treason mean treasure here? I.e. without treason - without treasure, without anything valuable in the translation?
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    I explained it here:
    1 in its sense of OED "7. To reveal, disclose or show incidentally; to exhibit, show signs of, to show (a thing which there is no attempt to keep secret)."
    To betray has several linked meanings:

    "I will tell you what the film was about without betraying the plot." -> "I will tell you what the film was about but I will not reveal the plot."

    "With eyes that betrayed no emotion, the leader said, "Kill them all!""

    So "to betray" = to reveal; show; to inform of; to reveal information about [something.]

    Betray (v.) in the OED
    6. To reveal or disclose against one's will or intention the existence, identity, real character of (a person or thing desired to be kept secret).
    1822 ‘B. Cornwall’ Voice, She tries to hide The love her eyes betray.

    7. To reveal, disclose or show incidentally; to exhibit, show signs of, to show (a thing which there is no attempt to keep secret).
    1774 J. Bryant New Syst. II. 174 A temple of this sort, which betrayed great antiquity.
    Does that help?
     

    Hildy1

    Senior Member
    English - US and Canada
    The poems were "nakedly Englished", that is, the translations "without rhyme or treason" would be competent but uninspired, with nothing special about the form.
     

    velisarius

    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    I think Nabokov was playing on the well-known Italian phrase "translators-betrayers" (well, it sounds better in Italian, where the two words are very similar).

    The poems in question have been translated, says Nabokov, into a very unadorned English and with none of the creativity that may make a new work of art out of the original. Sometimes you have to "betray" the original in order to produce poetry, rather than a paraphrase, in the target language. They say that poetry is that which is lost in the translation.
     

    Maroseika

    Moderator
    Russian
    I explained it here:To betray has several linked meanings:
    So "to betray" = to reveal; show; to inform of; to reveal information about [something.]
    Yes, now this is quite clear, thank you for chewing it over for me.


    So for now we have two versions:

    1. Treason - reveal of sense, i.e. without reveal the sense means translation failed to reproduce the sense of the original.
    2. Allusion to the Italian traduttore/traditore.

    Well, combination of both makes necessary sense and is very Nabokovian.

    Thank you very much for the help.
     
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