Vladimir Nabokov’s English prose often pauses to look back on his native Russian, a purified and idealized native tongue next to which his adopted language is invariably found to be a second-best blunt instrument. In Lolita the linguistic straddling plays out between the narrator’s natural French and his borrowed English. The novel is speckled with Humbert Humbert’s slips back into French, often alibied by the pretext that one can never adequately translate one’s original meaning. This untranslatability is one of the core myths of artistic modernism, which licenses many a technique of narrative distancing and ironic dissociation. This essays looks into the uses of untranslatability. When Humbert resorts to his native tongue, it is often to cover up the horror he perpetrates on his young victim. Linguistic distancing—one of modernism’s favorite tricks—is sometimes the refuge of crime.

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pp. 111-128
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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