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Words new to me: карачун

August 20, 2014

From chapter 5, section 3 of Chernyshevskii’s What Is to Be Done? (Что делать?, 1863):

It is known that many of the Big Wigs who practise have this custom: if death, according to the opinion of the Big Wig, is inevitably approaching the patient, and if, by unfortunate [chance], they cannot get rid of the patient by sending him to any mineral springs or to any place abroad, then it is necessary to place him in the hands of some other medical man; and in these circumstances the Big Wig is willing to offer money from his own pocket for his colleague to take the case. (Dole and Skidelsky’s translation, p. 401)

Tucker has “death” here too (p. 281), and Katz has “demise” (p. 390). If I only saw the English and had to guess, I would assume the Russian was смерть or кончина, but it’s карачун.

Since I just learned the word, I can’t claim to understand its stylistic nuances, but I take the use of it to be part of the narrator’s attempt to sound savvy and cynical, to talk about important things in an irreverent way, to invite the reader to join him in being unimpressed by “Big Wig” doctors. Is it anything like “if a patient is definitely going to croak” or “snuff it” or “kick the bucket”? I see Dal’ uses капут before смерть in his definition, Ozhegov marks it as substandard, and Ushakov considers it substandard and regional. There is a long and complicated, and if I’m reading it right inconclusive, etymology in Fasmer under корочун.

Карачун can also be a last name, a place name (among other things, it’s the name of a mountain in eastern Ukraine near recent fighting), or an old name for the Christmas fast.

“You a doctor? Don’t want one! I’m giving my soul up to the devil right now.”

August 19, 2014

Browsing through A. Gattsuk’s Gazette I found a story by Sof’ia Engel’gardt (apparently 1828-1894, though one source says 1808-1882), a.k.a. Ol’ga N. Last year a Languagehat post inspired me to read a longer story of hers from 1854. This one was “Martha: A True Story” (Марфа. Быль, 1876), and you can read it here and here.

We learn Martha’s story through a series of visits the blandly sympathetic, male, first-person narrator pays to a priest his mother knows, Father Vasily. The beginning of her biography combines the commonplace of the female peasant elevated above her station, who suddenly returns to it when her benefactress dies, with that of the peasant girl seduced and impregnated by a nobleman. (“Peasant” may not be exact. The narrator thinks she resembles neither a peasant nor a house servant, and the priest explains only that she was left on the hands of the noblewoman of a neighboring village.) These two misfortunes aren’t the end. The noblewoman leaves Martha 50 rubles, so unlike others she is not hurled into want and ignorance with nothing but her education.

The pregnancy starts to show us the personalities of Martha and Father Vasily. She keeps declaring she will kill the baby, and he tries to convince her not to, extracting a promise that she will breast-feed it three times first. This has the desired effect, but the child dies before turning four. Engel’gardt has the narrator’s first visit take place in the summer of 1864, and the child is already gone, so Martha must have been seduced before the 1861 emancipation.

Her reaction to the child’s death is the real story: repentance, voluntary suffering, life as a wandering preacher and then folk healer. (Her name is significant: there’s apparently a tradition in the Orthodox Church that Martha the sister of Lazarus was involved in “the proclaiming of the Gospel in various lands.”) She becomes revered as a healer and prophet. Then the fall: Father Vasily tells her she isn’t humble enough, she fails to cure a blind girl and is publicly humiliated, and she dies slapping away the cross in Father Vasily’s hand as she calls, before a crowd of horrified peasants, for Satan to take her soul.

Here the priest describes the failed cure:

I saw the people run after her myself, but she wasn’t explaining the Gospel to them, she was giving herself out to be God’s Chosen One, and the people believed her! Then, unfortunately for her, one woman brought a blind girl to her, threw herself at her feet, and started pleading with her: heal my daughter! Martha put the girl in front of her and started making different signs over her. She laid her hands on her head, raised her eyes toward heaven, and muttered words you couldn’t understand. And she was wearing nothing but a chemise, with bare feet, her hair down, she looked like a madwoman. The people are standing there, watching, waiting for the girl to gain her sight.

Suddenly Martha asks her, “Can you see?” and the girl answers, “I can’t!”

Then a young lad made a joke at Martha’s expense, and a lot of them laughed. Martha heard this, turned toward them, and shouted, “For your lack of faith God will not send a miracle. You are scoundrels, fools!” But the lad didn’t back down: it’s not as clear as all that [надвое бабушка сказала], he says, who the fool is here.

Martha got mad and picked up a stone and hurled it at him. Then the people threw themselves at her, and she barely got away with her life. [near the end]

The reference to John 8:7 seems heavy-handed if we take it as showing Martha’s pride: she actually believes she is without sin. But maybe there’s a reversal, where the woman caught in adultery gets to pick up a rock and throw it at a man condemning her? The reference to that story also reminds us that peasant society did not condemn Martha when she had a baby out of wedlock, which Father Vasily finds remarkable.

I think the story is as interesting as the Father Vasily character. Initially I thought Vasily and the narrator were both, from the author’s point of view, always to be trusted. And I still think that reading may be the most plausible; Martha’s story is then the straightforward parable about pride that Father Vasily makes it out to be.

On the other hand, throughout the story Father Vasily gives Martha explicit commands, which she first obeys, then stops obeying. When she starts to become a famous faith healer, he sings her praises; when he thinks she has risen too high, he takes her down a peg. Should we see him as jealous, threatened, controlling? Are we supposed to imagine that Martha’s side of the case would be worth hearing, if only we could? Probably not — reading the story this way means brushing aside the descriptions of Vasily’s generosity and love of gardening — but it would be more complex.

New journal links

August 18, 2014

On the right there are a few new links to nineteenth-century journals. Katia Bowers let me know about a couple sites that have, or soon will have, Del’vig’s Literary Gazette (Литературная газета) from 1830-1831. And one of them led me to sister sites that have some html issues of The Herald of EuropeThe Northern BeeThe ContemporaryA. Gattsuk’s GazetteSon of the Fatherland, and National Annals. Except for A. Gattsuk’s Gazette (I’m excited about that one because Leskov and Pisemskii published there), these are mostly issues from 1800-1840, which is nice since in general the early nineteenth-century journals are much harder to find online than the mid-to-late-century ones.

A slavery question

August 14, 2014

I’ve been thinking about Russian and American slavery again lately, thanks to John MacKay’s book about Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Russia and an exchange between Sarah J. Young and Languagehat in the comments here. Regular readers know that I agree with LH on this one. Of course Russian serfdom/slavery and U.S. slavery weren’t exactly alike, but I think using two words (“serfdom” and “slavery”) and treating them as unrelated phenomena is more misleading than using the word slavery for both. After all, being a slave in Virginia in 1750 was different than being one in Connecticut in 1840 or Mississippi in 1860, but we have no trouble using the same word to describe these varying conditions of bondage.

Meanwhile there’s an offhand remark of MacKay’s that I’m wondering about:

In spite of the fact that he fathered a daughter with one of his bondswomen—not uncommon in Russia, though less prevalent than in the US South—of Turgenev’s fundamental hostility to the institution of serfdom there can be no question, and reading the Sketches and other works written between 1847 and 1855 as in part “tendentious” is certainly not wrong. (location 849 of 3875 in True Songs of Freedom, my emphasis)

Here’s my question: how can we know? MacKay has a footnote here, but it’s to a source about Turgenev’s “Hannibal’s oath” against serfdom. He’s treating the greater prevalence of masters fathering children by their slaves in the U.S. as an established fact.

One of the important differences between American and Russian slavery is at the heart of the question: race. On a Southern plantation, the appearance of a slave’s baby could reveal the father was a white man. There must have been a nonzero number of babies born on Russian estates who were successfully passed off as the children of an enslaved woman and her husband, when they were biologically the master’s. Who can say how many?

We can’t ask literature to be a mirror of reality, but what I read makes the practice of Russian landowners having sex and children with their slaves seem more “ubiquitous” than “not uncommon.” See these posts on Panaeva’s memoirs, Leskov’s “The Toupee Artist” and “Ancient Psychopaths,” or Pisemskii’s Troubled Seas and Men of the Forties. Or look at noble authors’ oblique confessions about their youth, like the line Где иногда бывал помещиком и я from Nekrasov’s angry, embittered, and confessional “Homeland” (Родина, 1846). If you weren’t sure what he meant by “where at times I was a landowner myself,” read on for the reference to неребяческие желания ‘unchildlike desires.’

Peter Kolchin agrees with MacKay and has a three-part explanation:

  1. Russian landowners had more slaves each than their American counterparts, so a given female slave was less likely to be the particular one that the master decided to coerce in Russia.
  2. Russian landowners had less day-to-day contact with the slaves who worked the fields (though they could and did have sex with house servants).
  3. American planters saw black women as naturally promiscuous, while Russian slaveholders were comparatively likely to worry about the effects of their advances on the slave herself or her family.

Kolchin also points out that anti-slavery writers had every reason to present the sexual exploitation of slaves as frequent (see pp. 111-14 of his Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom). The math of #1 has me convinced that the average Russian slave was less likely to be raped than her American counterpart, but I’m not sure I’m persuaded that a typical Russian slaveholder (who, by the same math, had on average more young, female slaves to choose from) was less likely to force himself on the women under his control. It seems likely that such events were common in both countries; that we can’t know for sure how frequent they were in either; and that Russian landowners probably had an easier time keeping these matters secret, or at least plausibly deniable. Does that seem right?

On Garnett meeting Tolstoi, and the economics of translations

August 11, 2014

Via @literaturarussa on Twitter, Rosamund Bartlett has an interesting essay on Tolstoi in English, from Eugene Schuyler’s translation of The Cossacks in 1878, through the period when Tolstoi’s fame as a pacifist and religious thinker surpassed his reputation as a novelist, through the rival translations by Constance Garnett (Anna Karenina, 1901; War and Peace, 1904) and Aylmer and Louise Maude (Anna Karenina, 1918; War and Peace, 1922). Bartlett has herself translated Anna Karenina (2014), and sorted out some beekeeping jargon that had stumped everyone before her. But here she’s mainly writing about her predecessors:

The translation they read was by Constance Garnett, a remarkable woman who would play a key role in popularising Tolstoy as a novelist. Born Constance Black in Brighton in 1861, the momentous year in which serfdom was abolished in Russia, she graduated in classics from Cambridge and began her career as a librarian in the East End of London. Marriage to the editor and critic Edward Garnett brought her more directly into the world of letters. His work led to friendships with writers such as Joseph Conrad and DH Lawrence, and also to contact with Russian émigrés. Through her interest in socialism, Constance Garnett had already met George Bernard Shaw, a leading light in the Fabian Society, which was a common thread uniting the community of radicals, writers and exiles from Tsarist Russia among whom she and her husband ended up living on the Kent-­Surrey border. She took up translation in the early 1890s, having learnt Russian from the revolutionary journalist Felix Volkhovsky. He provided assistance in her first translating project: Ivan Goncharov’s A Common Story.

Garnett learnt more Russian with another revolutionary with whom she fell in love. Sergei Stepnyak (who had assassinated the Russian head of the secret police in St Petersburg in 1878) encouraged her to tackle Turgenev. But then, as now, the market for literary translation was small, and publishers needed to sell books. What was selling in 1894 was Tolstoy, so it was to The Kingdom of God is Within You that Garnett turned next. Earlier that winter she made her first visit to Russia, and had an inspiring meeting with Tolstoy in a snowbound Moscow. His piercing eyes, she reported, “seemed to look right through one and to make anything but perfect candour out of the question”, while at the same time “there was an extraordinary warmth and affection in them”.

There’s so much I didn’t know here — it would have taken me a long time to guess the first thing Garnett translated. (By the way, her son David Garnett also led an interesting life; see also his wife’s obituary.)

The point about the market for literary translation makes me think. Taken at face value, it makes the eleventh translation of Crime and Punishment or Dead Souls or War and Peace seem like a pharmaceutical company’s me-too drug: a way to leverage the power of marketing to defeat the expiration of a patent or copyright (or get around a rival’s). If we can’t stop one thing from entering the public domain, we can just make people believe they need what’s newer. But do publishers still need to sell books, or rather do we readers need publishers to sell books? Grant-supported or crowdfunded translations could easily be released as free e-books, like Marian Schwartz’s recent translation of Mamleyev’s The Sublimes. For that matter Benjamin Sher gave away his 1997 translation of Vaginov’s The Tower (Козлиная песнь, 1927; literally Goat Song, from a purported etymology of “tragedy”) years ago. And I just now learned from a 2008 Languagehat post that Chris Lovett translated the same novel and also offers it to all online. This post of Lizok’s suggests that almost free e-books are also possible, even for current authors, like Andrea Gregovich’s translation of Vladimir Kozlov’s Number Ten.

Maybe in the past there were economic reasons to keep redoing the greatest hits (distinct from artistic reasons — I recognize that translators may legitimately believe a book has never been done well enough, or may prefer to spend a few years of their life with Dostoevskii or Tolstoi instead of Avdeev or Mel’nikov-Pecherskii). But now surely it will be possible to translate more hitherto unavailable titles? I’m biased, as someone who’s co-translating a Leskov novel available in Russian and French but not English, but I think a new model of translating works previously undone and distributing them for free is possible and would be fantastic for readers.

St. Clare the Russian Louisianian

August 7, 2014

When I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), I thought one of the characters seemed like a perfect Russian superfluous man of the same era. St. Clare is a good-hearted and capable man born to privilege, an anti-slavery slaveholder for whom society makes it easy to live comfortably but hard to live morally, and who never quite rouses himself to find an outlet for his goodness. So I was gratified to read that Russian readers of the time not only saw slavery as shown in Uncle Tom’s Cabin as analogous to Russian serfdom, but saw St. Clare in particular as a perfect Russian landowner.

From John MacKay’s True Songs of Freedom: Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Russian Culture and Society:

Indeed, in the same letter to Herzen [of December 8th, 1852], [Vladimir] Engel’son offers a whole series of correspondences: Tom is reminiscent of a Russian Old Believer, Miss Ophelia of a German (and therefore Lutheran) from the Baltic region, and St. Clare is quite simply “an educated Russian landowner of [their] own time.” (location 380 of 3875)

MacKay then quotes Engel’son directly:

Everything about [St. Clare] is Russian: his simple nobility, self-centeredness, elegance, indecisiveness (or laziness), and most of all a lack of all lust for power or money… He’s too proud to covet wealth or position, and has too much of a sense of his own worth… to be pushy or a scoundrel… [ellipses in MacKay] (location 383)

Then he quotes the Slavophile Aleksei Khomiakov, in a letter of March 14th, 1855, to Baroness A. D. Bludova:

[St. Clare] is like all of us in his elegant refinement, his artistic nature, the softness and gentleness of his disposition, his slothful philanthropy, his sybaritic egoism, the weakness of his ethical convictions and un-Christian indifference to the general good, which he skillfully justifies with deft sophism. In his soul he casts judgment on evil, after all; and what more should he do? He is right before God and before himself. (location 465)

I was completely drawn into MacKay’s book from the opening dueling epigraphs, where we learn that Marina Tsvetaeva had a high opinion of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, while Konstantin Paustovskii’s grandmother had a “porcelain statuette of a weeping pug” that he and some other children gave the name “someone reading Stowe.”

Translation comparisons in one place

August 6, 2014

I’ve done enough “translation comparison” posts — sometimes comparing passages myself, but more often highlighting the work other people have done — that I thought I’d make a page to organize them. It’s here, or there’s a link in the upper right corner.

I tried to link to all the Russian works available on the Compare Translations website as of early August 2014, even though I haven’t posted about most of them here.

I’d be grateful for any additions you might suggest. What I’m most interested in is substantive articles or reviews, ideally by bilingual readers who have read the original and at least two English translations, which they compare by showing concrete illustrations of the translators’ general difference in approach. Things like Robert A. Maguire on Dead Souls, Barry P. Scherr on Oblomov, Michael R. Katz on What Is to Be Done?, Boris Dralyuk on The Gambler, or Richard Lourie on Crime and Punishment.


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