On Thursday, Boston College welcomed Tatiana Ponomareva, literary scholar and director of the Vladimir Nabokov Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia to discuss the language in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and the disparate receptions the text elicits from readers in the United States and Russia.
Lolita chronicles the taboo relationship between 12-year-old Dolores Haze, nicknamed Lolita, and 37-year-old Humbert Humbert, the narrator and antagonist. The memoir is Humbert’s elaborate justification of his seduction, nay rape, of Lolita.
Lolita is most memorable for its language. It instills in the reader an ability to separate the author from the narrator and view them as individual entities. Lolita is a revolutionary text, a mélange of literary styles that plays with language and invents words. Nabokov resists the temptation to categorize his masterpiece into a single genre.
Ponomareva argues that the powerful effect of Nabokov’s language is lost on a Russian audience due to translation, instead rendering a sense of aversion. It is not the controversial subject matter that is so unpleasant to Russian readers, rather, it is the language that creates the discrepancy in appreciation between Russians and Americans.
Nabokov wrote Lolita in English and set the narrative in the United States. The novel is rife with allusions to life in the United States from 1947 to 1952, allusions most Americans would understand. A majority of the story takes place in Humbert’s car, his moveable home. Automobiles dotted the American landscape during the 1940s and 1950s whereas cars were virtually nonexistent in Russia. Nabokov thus had the insurmountable challenge of finding Russian equivalents for English technical terms such as “glove compartment.” Because the automobile was not yet a staple of Russian life, such vocabulary did not exist.
Nabokov was also a refugee. The author fled Russia in the 1930s, never anticipating having to write in another language. When he sat down to translate Loltia from English to Russian, he was writing in pre-revolutionary, refugee Russian, a language markedly different from the Russian spoken in the former Soviet Union at the time. The divergence in his native tongue made translating even more onerous. Russian readers felt as though Lolita was artificial, strange, and foreign. Nabokov was writing about 1940s America in pre-revolutionary Russian, which is why the translated text reads as though it’s written in a “dead language,” Ponomareva said.
Despite its enduring unpopularity in Russia, Lolita has the potential for a second wave of appreciation. Nabokov thought it was his best work and recognized that in translating his beloved text, he would be creating a new language. Ponomareva asserted that Lolita was translated for a “reader of the future,” a “Russian reader not yet born.” Nabokov would be pleased.
Featured Image by Taylor Perison / Heights Staff