Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Pretty and Nice

Constance Garnett and her son David, 1890s

I appear to be the only person in philosophy writing on the pretty these days. My earlier take on it can be seen in Volume 10 on Contemporary Aesthetics, 2012, "Defending Everyday Aesthetics and the Concept of the Pretty" here and also in "Pretty" in The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, 2nd Ed., ed. Michael Kelly (Oxford U. Press, 2014). From time to time however I see a comment or passage that sheds new light on the concept.  

Janet Malcolm in "Socks," The New York Review of Books, June 23, 2016, 43:11 4-6, writes fascinatingly about problems in translating Russian literature.  Part of this involves comparing translations of passages from Tolstoy.  The passage I am interested in is from Anna Karenina chapter 8 of book 3.  It refers to how a character, Dolly, had changed her approach to dressing up over the years.  The Garnett translation says that "in the old days she had dressed for her own sake to look pretty and be admired," and that later she found this unpleasant because she was losing her looks, but now "she did not dress for her own sake, not for the sake of her own beauty, but simply so that as the mother of those exquisite creatures she might not spoil the general effect" and thus she could be satisfied with herself in the mirror:  "she looked nice.  Not nice as she would have wished to look nice in the old days at a ball, but nice for the object she now had in view."  I find this a useful for discussing the different uses of such English words as "nice" and "pretty."  I assume that the distinction represents a similar conceptual distinction in Russian.   In both languages, and generally, one can be pretty or look nice in one sense and not in another.  The word "beauty" plays a role here too, but somewhat subordinated to the other two.  Malcolm also gives us the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, which she finds inferior.  It uses "pretty" in the last sentences where Garnett used "nice."  Malcolm then observes that the Russian words are krasiyaya which means beautiful or pretty and khorosha which means good or fine. (I could not find either one of these words on any online Russian to English dictionaries...so I will take her word for it for now.)  She thinks that Garnett's "she looked nice" "conveys the sense of the passage as no other translator of Anna Karenina into English, and better than "she was pretty."  She even goes so far as to say that it is an inspired translation.  By that I take it she means that "nice" captures the meaning of khorosha here better than the standard English translations of good or fine.

Sometimes one dresses to enhance one's own beauty, but sometimes just to look nice in order to, as Garnett's translation puts it, not to spoil "the general effect."  Sometimes one can look nice in the sense that one looks right for the occasion or "looks good" for this context.   There is also a form of "pretty" that is relative in this way.  This relates to the English distinction not between the beautiful and the pretty but between the beautiful and that which looks nice or good.  

Appropriately a photograph of Garnett with her son David from the mid-1990s accompanies the article, and she looks good in precisely that sense!  

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