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Nabokov’s “Natural Idiom”: From “First-rate” Russian to “Second-rate” English

Authors:
  • Nihon Univeristy

Abstract

Who is a superior writer― V.Sirin (his nom de plume as a Russian writer)or Vladimir Nabokov? It is an eternal problem among scholars of Nabokov. Indeed, his works in his later English period have left a strong impression on English readers and contributed to today’s widely accepted image of Nabokov. However, in “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” Nabokov lamented the loss of his“natural idiom”and thought that his Russian was superior to his English. In this paper, I venture to literally regard Nabokov’s “natural idiom”as a “set phrase or idiomatic expression” in a narrow sense of the word and explore its stylistic characteristics in such works as Defense,“Breaking the News” and “The Eye”by comparing them with his English self-translations. Scrutinizing his self-translations and proving how he translated them leads us to understand how he wrote them, because Nabokov’s excellence in writing never ended the sophisticated style as a simple stylistic level and reflected the whole story in minute details. Although these examples only represent a portion of his complete works, we can understand that Nabokov has already“magically [used his natural idiom]to transcend the heritage in his own way”at least in the 1930’s. In my opinion, the most unique feature of his Russian style is the fact that he deliberately utilizes the grammar,usage and idiom,which native speakers internalize unconsciously. Moreover, through this comparison,we can show that he remodeled them by self-reference and tricky word play to meet his self-image as an English writer,though he partly retained the mechanism of his Russian style.It seems to be the strategy of Nabokov as an English writer. Comparing his English and Russian works, we also gain a more profound view about his English style. We may proceed from the aforementioned argumentation to the provisional conclusion that one of the tendencies of the Russian versions is comparatively economical, polysemantic and untranslatable, and one of the tendencies of the English versions is comparatively splendid and translatable.
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