It was possible for Leskov to create a shield against censorship through the special genre of “skaz” that he cultivated. This genre is marked by the failure of the views and opinions of the narrator and those of the author behind him to coincide. The narrator’s position is clear in these cases, but the author’s is not always clear; frequently it must be guessed at, and this cannot always be accomplished by readers, or even critics and literary scholars. Behind a right-thinking narrator may be hidden the far from innocent thoughts of the author. (239)
Skaz, however, wasn’t just a way to get around the censors. Bukhshtab’s summary is that Leskov first used skaz for aesthetic purposes, starting with “The Battle-Axe” (Воительница, 1866). He had little trouble with censorship until the mid-1880s and 1890s. Then he began to use skaz as a form of Aesopian language, a way to say something publishable that could possibly be interpreted in an unpublishable way by at least some readers, as with “Night Owls” (Полунощники, 1891). In that story there’s a conflict between John of Kronstadt and a young woman who’s fallen into the Tolstoyan “heresy”; by having the narrator thoroughly on John’s side, the author shows that he is (and the reader should be) on the other side (241).
On the other hand, skaz wasn’t the only weapon Leskov had to deploy against the censors. “A Winter’s Day” (Зимний день, 1894) used a lot of dialogue and a minimally intrusive narrator, which was unusual for Leskov — unlike, say, Dostoevskii, who did use a lot of dialogue and direct speech (242). Since people leave a lot implicit when they talk to each other, vague and ambiguous insinuations seem realistic in dialogue, and they’re especially hard to pin down when the clues about what unexplained references might mean are a few dozen pages apart. Such references are seen as comprehensible to the characters talking, and “become clear to the reader to the extent the author wishes them to.” Taking advantage of this, “Leskov clarifies some themes, allows us to guess about others, for yet others he merely points the reader’s thoughts in a general direction, with others still he creates the possibility of dual interpretation, while he makes still others completely obscure, evidently to take away the unwanted reader’s willingness to decipher a jumbled-up piece of fiction” (242-43).
Bukhshtab traces in some detail the insinuations that — along with the many more obvious kinds of corruption and immorality described in the story — two of the characters are paid police informers. This is evidently subtle enough that many readers miss it, but it’s still in the first category or two of themes Leskov makes clear or at least lets us guess. But Bukhshtab also gives even trickier examples. There’s a running “Persian” theme, where one of the informer characters is repeatedly driven to hysterics by other characters’ allusions to the Shah of Persia or a fragrance called lilas de perse. One of these scenes was cut from the journal publication. Bukhshtab isn’t sure what the significance of Persia is, but he thinks the journal cut that one scene because contemporaries would indeed have understood the reference — but he’s not even sure about that, and allows the possibility that the editors took out that scene because they thought it would be annoyingly mysterious to readers (247-49).
In one case Bukhshtab quotes himself getting one of these veiled references wrong. Earlier he had taken a line saying something like “we have to bring in another miracle-worker” (in a conversation about a will) as meaning “we need to find an expert forger and have a false will made in our favor.” In this reading it would have alluded to the real-life Sollogub trial. But now Bukhshtab, looking at all the evidence, including an oblique reference to John of Kronstadt and another popular religious figure, thinks that the line should be read literally, with “wonder-worker” meaning a religious leader adored by the crowd like John of Kronstadt (249-51). This shift from a plausible reading to a straightforward one reminds me of one of my favorite pieces of literary criticism, when Kuzmin scholars found a clever explanation for why a certain character, Mikhail Aleksandrovich Dem’ianov, had that name, which convinced everyone until in 2005 Nikolai Bogomolov argued that the character was named that because Kuzmin knew a Mikhail Aleksandrovich Dem’ianov.
See Boris Bukhshtab, “Тайнопись позднего Лескова (Рассказ ‘Зимний день’)” [“The Codes of Late Kuzmin (The Story ‘A Winter's Day’)”] in Фет и другие: Избранние работы (St. Petersburg, 2000), 239-252. The article doesn’t seem to be available online, though there’s a snippet view of its original 1977 publication here or the 2000 one here.
For a long time I thought Russian-to-English translation started when Constance Garnett (1861-1946) introduced Dostoevskii to the English-speaking world; after that came David Magarshack (1899-1977); and after him all the translators working today. Of course it’s more complicated and began much earlier. For example, there was William David Lewis (1792-1881). In 1849 he published a volume of Russian poems, supposedly “the first collection of translations from the Russian ever made by an American,” which was favorably reviewed by Nikolai Grech, who evidently had known Lewis in Russia, in The Northern Bee (Северная пчела) on July 18, 1851.
Here is Lewis’s translation of the end of the scene in Pushkin’s The Bakhchesarian Fountain (Бахчисарайский фонтан, 1821-23) where the jealous Georgian woman Zarema (the Grusinian Zarem in his version) confronts the Polish Catholic Maria in Khan Giray’s harem (original at the end of this post):
Throughout the harem none but thou
Could rival beauties such as mine
Nor make him violate his vow;
Yet, Princess! in thy bosom cold
The heart to mine left thus forlorn,
The love I feel cannot be told,
For passion, Princess, was I born.
Yield me Giray then; with these tresses
Oft have his wandering fingers played,
My lips still glow with his caresses,
Snatched as he sighed, and swore, and prayed,
Oaths broken now so often plighted!
Hearts mingled once now disunited!
His treason I cannot survive;
Thou seest I weep, I bend my knee,
Ah! if to pity thou’rt alive,
My former love restore to me.
Reply not! thee I do not blame,
Thy beauties have bewitched Giray,
Blinded his heart to love and fame,
Then yield him up to me, I pray,
Or by contempt, repulse, or grief,
Turn from thy love th’ungenerous chief!
Swear by thy faith, for what though mine
Conform now to the Koran’s laws,
Acknowledged here within the harem,
Princess, my mother’s faith was thine,
By that faith swear to give to Zarem
Giray unaltered, as he was!
But listen! the sad prey to scorn
If I must live, Princess, have care,
A dagger still doth Zarem wear,–
I near the Caucasus was born!”
I think this sort of old-fashioned elegance is hard for any modern translator to achieve, and not only because the conventional wisdom has shifted about how to render meter and rhyme. The last line, “I near the Caucasus was born!” is a bit unfortunate, since it sounds more like moose-and-squirrel word order than poetic inversion, but overall I think Lewis succeeds in making his text give a similar overall impression in English as Pushkin’s does in Russian. Many things change. There are 33 lines in this passage in English to 31 in Russian, but there aren’t as many out-and-out additions as you’d think. Instead, Lewis is fond of rearranging and repeating material. His line 3, “Nor make him violate his vow,” looks ahead to клятвы in line 10 of the Russian and измена in line 13 (and perhaps back to another измена 7 lines before the passage starts). Where Pushkin has вера матери моей in line 26 and the pronoun ею referring back to it in line 27, Lewis has “my mother’s faith” in line 27, “by that faith” in line 28, and an anticipatory/clarifying “by thy faith” back in line 24.
Once I argued that the narrator and Zarem(a) position themselves between East and West in this poem, while the static and silent Khan and Maria represent the pure East and the pure West. So I couldn’t help noticing that this aspect of the poet’s perspective is partly lost in translation. In the original, the poet says of the eunuch, “Воля хана/ Ему единственный закон;/ Святую заповедь Корана/ Не строже наблюдает он.” Святая ‘sacred’ is not qualified or restricted (it’s not ‘sacred to them’). Pushkin fought with the religious censors to keep it this way, but Lewis has merely “His only law his chieftain’s pleasure,/ Which as the Koran he maintained.” As far as I can tell, святая ‘sacred’ drops out altogether.
If Garnett and Magarshack were about the same age as Chekhov and Nabokov, respectively, Lewis was older than Pushkin, though he died the same year as Dostoevskii and Pisemskii. He was born in Delaware and lived in Philadelphia for part of his life. In 1814 he went to Europe as Henry Clay’s private secretary, as part of the U.S. peace commission after the War of 1812. But he soon quit and went to Russia for 10 years, apparently 1814-1824, working for at least part of that time (one source says 1818-1824) for his brother John Delaware Lewis, a merchant based in St. Petersburg who did a great deal of trade with merchants in Philadelphia. While in St. Petersburg, William Lewis was “sued for slander by the [consul] at St. Petersburg, Leavitt Harris, and the seven year litigation [involved] eminent officials in the United States and in Russia, including John Quincy Adams and James Monroe.” In 1825 he returned to Philadelphia and started his own import business there, and he seems to have been active in business and Whig politics until he “retired to his estate near Florence, NJ” after 1853. During the Civil War he unsurprisingly supported the Union.
Lewis’s collection, available as a free e-book from Project Gutenberg, is so old that it uses the spelling Pooshkeen instead of Pushkin. Around half of it is The Bakhchesarian Fountain. The rest: “Amatory and Other Poems, by Various Russian Authors,” namely, in Lewis’s spelling, Pelsky (1765-1803), Dmeetrieff (1760-1837), Nelaidinsky (1752-1829), Shatroff (1765-1841), Merzliakoff (1778-1830), Derjavin (1743-1816).
Sources: the book A Critical Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors, Living and Deceased, from the Earliest Accounts to the Latter Half of the Nineteenth Century, vol. 2 (1870) and the website Social Networks and Archival Context, which draws on sources including the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and William D. Lewis’s papers at the New York Public Library.
The original Russian of the passage quoted above:
Итак, послушай: я прекрасна;
Во всем гареме ты одна
Могла б еще мне быть опасна;
Но я для страсти рождена,
Но ты любить, как я, не можешь;
Зачем же хладной красотой
Ты сердце слабое тревожишь?
Оставь Гирея мне: он мой;
На мне горят его лобзанья,
Он клятвы страшные мне дал,
Давно все думы, все желанья
Гирей с моими сочетал;
Меня убьет его измена…
Я плачу; видишь, я колена
Теперь склоняю пред тобой,
Молю, винить тебя не смея,
Отдай мне радость и покой,
Отдай мне прежнего Гирея…
Не возражай мне ничего;
Он мой; он ослеплен тобою.
Презреньем, просьбою, тоскою,
Чем хочешь, отврати его;
Клянись… (хоть я для Алкорана,
Между невольницами хана,
Забыла веру прежних дней;
Но вера матери моей
Была твоя) клянись мне ею
Зарему возвратить Гирею…
Но слушай: если я должна
Тебе… кинжалом я владею,
Я близ Кавказа рождена».
- Shalamov thought it was impossibly hard to describe the loss of language people undergo in a labor camp without using the language he’d since regained. Sarah J. Young compares this to Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Call of Cthulhu.
- I’m not sure which I enjoy more, when Languagehat writes about something I’ve read or someone I’ve never heard of. As he gets to mid-century in his march through Russian prose, I expect there’ll be more of the former, like this excellent post on Dostoevskii’s Poor Folk (Бедные люди, 1846), with many good serious and unserious comments. There’s quite a bit on the opening lines of Notes from Underground (Записки из подполья, 1864) and Michael Katz’s article on how to translate them. I haven’t checked how different translators handle the repeated стало быть in Poor Folk, but I wonder if “must have” could be repeated more naturally than “therefore.”
- Translation comparison: Bulgakov’s The White Guard (Белая гвардия, 1924) and his letters and diaries. The comparing is done by Russian Dinosaur, and the translating by Roger Cockrell, Michael Glenny, Marian Schwartz, and Julie Curtis.
- Lizok has The White Guard on her “up next” list, but for now see her review of Aleksei Motorov’s Male Nurse Parovozov’s Young Years (Юные годы медбрата Паровозова): “the heaviest lifting here was picking up the book itself, which weighs in at over 500 pages, though I’m certainly not complaining: Parovozov‘s first-person narrator is engagingly genial and his stories generally held my attention.”
- I enjoyed seeing Merezhkovskii on Obooki’s confessional list of authors never read, “to represent all foreign literature which is neglected by English-speakers due to habitual incuriosity, ignorance or occlusion beneath the shadow of Kafka.”
You may remember that Tom at Wuthering Expectations is having a readalong of Chernyshevskii’s What Is to Be Done? (Что делать?, 1863). I think the typical blog post about the novel is going to be one explaining why, when the novel is so badly written in so many ways, it’s nevertheless worthwhile. For one thing, as Tom says, “people read it and then write masterpieces.”
Novelist and blogger Scott G. F. Bailey has a lot more answers. What Is to Be Done? is “preachy and digressive and the prose is not great, but the prose is not as bad as I’d heard it was. I’m actually having a pretty good time with it.” He makes it sound fun even when he’s making fun of it:
Vera wishes to escape from the corrupt home of her parents. Her options are all pretty bleak. She can marry the landlord (a cad who falsely claimed to his pals that he’d already made Vera his mistress) although she’s refused his offers many times already. She can become a governess, but certainly not in one of the better families if she’s running away from an engagement. She can throw herself out the window and end it all. Or, she can marry romantic hero Dmitri Lopukhov, a medical student who tutors Vera’s young brother Fedya once a week. Dmitri is in love with Vera, just as Vera is in love with Dmitri, this love springing suddenly forth when they talk briefly about egalitarian utopianism at a dance. Yes, you feel the heat pulsing on the page in that scene, Reader. Later there is a Socratic dialogue about materialism that made my palms quite damp.
A couple generations of Russian women read Chernyshevskii’s novel as a how-to guide for bringing radical egalitarianism to this world, not the next. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but Zinaida Gippius, one of the great early twentieth-century Russian poets, and her husband, Nobel Prize–
winning -nominated writer Dmitrii Sergeevich Merezhkovskii, modeled their marriage on Vera Pavlovna and Dmitrii Sergeevich Lopukhov from What Is to Be Done? However, Bailey finds a scene that he reads convincingly as showing that “Chernyshevsky intends an egalitarian, feminist propaganda with this book, but he can’t help seeing women as sort of cute and frivolous.” That’s all still from this post at Six Words for a Hat. And then there’s another whole post where Bailey tries to put his finger on what he likes but keeps describing weaknesses. There’s no sense of the 1850s St. Petersburg setting; there’s only one metaphor, and it’s overdone; and when it comes to characterization,
Chernyshevsky does a lot of what’s called telling in the novelist’s trade. “What kind of woman was Marya? I will tell you…” and then he does, you know. At some length. At some clumsy repetitive length. A length of time will be spent clumsily expositing upon Marya’s character. You will learn about Marya, who is similar, in many ways, to the landlady’s mother. Et cetera. Very little of this has any life to it, any kick [...]
I could keep quoting these posts all day, but instead you should click through and read them, and also Bailey’s first “base camp” post, and Tom’s announcement of the readalong from January. I’m rereading the novel too, though I keep getting distracted by other things. But these blog posts are spurring me on to read more, and so are the comments, like this, again from Bailey:
It’s like this book was written by an alien. “Sewing collective,” Chernyshevsky says. “That sounds good. I wonder what ‘sewing’ is? Well, it can’t be important, can it? The collective is what matters.” Dickens would give us all the dresses, the needle-pricked fingertips and the names of the clients and seamstresses, and we’d even know what the inside of the shop looked like.
In part 5, chapter 19 of Leskov’s Cathedral Folk (Соборяне, 1867-72) the deacon Akhilla mentions a dog of his being run over by the wheel of a мальпост (stem-stressed), so it was clear from context that the word meant some kind of wheeled vehicle. The etymology makes it even clearer: it’s a borrowing of the French malle-poste ‘mail coach,’ a carriage that transported both passengers and mail. It seems like a good excuse to post some carriage illustrations (for a third one on old Russian carriages, click here, or click on the images below to see them in a larger size).
It’s only available for the next three days, but the BBC’s radio drama of Dead Souls with Michael Palin is very good. After that you’ll have to wait until the next time they decide to replay it.
A while ago I did a mini–translation comparison on Nekrasov’s Who Can Be Happy in Russia? (Кому на Руси жить хорошо, about 1863-1877), between Juliet M. Soskice’s 1917 translation of the whole text and a few excerpts that J. Alexander Ogden translated in passing in an article on Nekrasov’s “ventriloquism.” For completeness I’ll add a translation of the prologue from The Harvard Monthly in 1898, a time when “vodka” got the same explanatory footnote treatment as “versts.” It’s credited as “Translated by Leo Weiner. Revised by A. C. Coolidge,” and Weiner reprinted it in his 1903 anthology of Russian literature. But I’m glad I looked it up in The Harvard Monthly — it’s fun seeing it in the company of “Should the Athletic Committee Be Elected by the Undergraduates?” and an editorial on “The Freshman Question.” With it in the poetry section is “Richard Cory,” the one that would trickle down to me almost a century later as a song.
Ogden’s excerpts don’t overlap with the part Weiner translated (the prologue is about 10 pages out of 230 in my Russian edition, so less than 5%), but we can compare Weiner and Soskice. Here is the part when the peasants ask a bird for its wings so they can fly over the country, but then change their request:
Weiner, with Coolidge (1898):
—“We do not want your tiny wings!
If only we could have some bread,
Say, twenty pounds a day;
Our mother Russia we should see,
And walking see her thoroughly!”
Spoke out the gloomy Prov.
“And if a pail of vodka we
Could have each day!” said hastily
The vodka fiends, the Goobins twain,
Iván and Mitrodór.
—“And every morning cucumbers,
Well pickled ones, say, ten to each!”
The peasants said in jest.
—“And every noon a cosy jug
Of cool, refreshing kvas!”
—“And every eve a teapot full
Of hot and boiling tea!”
You’ll be happy to learn, if you don’t already know, that they will get a magic tablecloth that gives them all these things so they can walk around Russia looking for someone happy, though the tablecloth does put a limit on the vodka. Weiner simulates Nekrasov’s meter in English — in Russian it’s iambic trimeter with dactylic endings (8 syllables, last stress on the third-to-last one) alternating with occasional, and unpredictable, lines of iambic trimeter with masculine endings (6 syllables, stressed on the last one). Soskice also translates into a rigid meter, but a different one: amphibrachic dimeter.
“No wings would be needful
If we could be certain
Of bread every day;
For then we could travel
On foot at our leisure,”
Said Prov, of a sudden
Grown weary and sad.
“But not without vodka,
A bucket each morning,”
Cried both brothers Goóbin,
Mitródor and Ívan,
Who dearly loved vodka.
“Salt cucumbers, also,
Each morning a dozen!”
The peasants cry, jesting.
“Sour qwass, too, a jug
To refresh us at mid-day!”
“A can of hot tea
Every night!” they say, laughing.
Having read the poem in Russian, I can’t help hearing Nekrasov’s meter through Weiner’s and I can’t help liking that. I don’t know if I should like it, though. The same meter is never the same in different languages (e.g. the eighth syllable ends up stressed more often in Weiner than in Nekrasov), and even if it were, it might not have the same psychological effect. In 1917 Nadine Jarintzov complained that Soskice “does not convey the national stateliness of the dacytlled lilt at all,” but this dactylled lilt might sound less stately and more comic in English. This is an idea I first learned from the ultimate comparativist of meter, Mikhail Gasparov, but it’s much older. Abraham Yarmolinsky thought it was impossible to take Jarintzov’s theory of poetic translation seriously, and that Soskice, changing the meter, had “made every lover of good literature her debtor.” And here is W. J. Sedgefield in 1918:
In [Jarintzov's] insistence on preserving in every case the original metre she fails to realise that the English ear and the Russian ear in the matter of verse-rhythm have received a very different education. Thus the dactylic rhythm, which abounds in Russian poetry, is comparatively rare in English, consequently its effect when used in any given poem is not at all the same in the two languages.
It goes beyond the already significant issue of how readers’ ears have been trained. In Russian, writing in this particular meter goes very well with simulating peasant speech by using even more diminutives than in ordinary literary Russian: 8 of the 11 long lines in this passage end with a diminutive. But there’s nothing about Weiner’s “thoroughly,” “vodka we,” “hastily,” “cucumbers,” or “ten to each” that’s particularly folksy. (“Goobins twain,” “cosy jug,” and “teapot full” are folksier, but I get the impression they don’t fall out of the meter as naturally as all the -ушка and -очка endings do in Russian.) The goals of recreating rhythm and register are not necessarily easy to accomplish at the same time.
Either Soskice felt freer to change things across the board, or changing the meter forced other changes on her. Weiner deals with “half a pood” by changing it to “twenty pounds”; Soskice just leaves it out. With the expression Русь-матушка, it’s tricky to convey to English readers that the word used for Russia is not the standard modern Россия but the one used for Kievan Rus. This distinction is lost in Weiner’s “Our mother Russia,” or arguably conveyed in the “our,” but in Soskice the word vanishes altogether. Both translations mark stress on Russian names — Hapgood used to do this too, so it was perhaps expected in those days — but Weiner puts the stress on Iván and Mitrodór where it falls in Russian, while Soskice tells people to pronounce the names in a way that an English speaker would be more likely to anyway, Mitródor and Ívan, reversing the order of the names, too. (This has always struck me as one of the most Gospel-like things in literature: the Goobin brothers, who like the sons of Zebedee are not characterized enough to be distinguishable from each other or the larger group they’re part of, but who keep being mentioned as brothers to break up an otherwise monotonous list and give it a feeling of reality.) Soskice doesn’t always subtract. The “they say, laughing” at the end of the passage is the kind of addition for meter’s sake that drove Nabokov crazy.
You can see that Weiner has tried to preserve the folksy parallelism of the last three speeches (they all start with a conjunction and time expression — да утром, а в полдень, а вечером — and end with the preposition по plus a diminutive), though even there it’s muted. Soskice always starts with the noun requested and puts the time expression in the last line, but the pattern is much less obvious than in the original. Folksiness is an impossible problem in this poem. I have no idea how a translator could account even for the diction (кабы, охочий, all the diminutives). It’s hard to sound like a Russian peasant in English, and this is a case where generic substandard language really wouldn’t be enough. Weiner and Soskice sound more like writers, and less like peasants, than they would in a perfect world.
Weiner’s comparatively precise approach has its problems. I very much understand his desire to keep the distinction between long and short lines and put the emphatic short lines where Nekrasov had them; the placement of short lines is expressive in Russian and hard to convey by other means. But it leads to some clunkers of lines, like “the fuss is — to divide.”
It’s impossible to know, but I wonder how much the different paths on meter affected the translators’ persistence. Soskice finished a very long poem, and as far as I know Weiner/Coolidge didn’t even come close. That may have had to do with longevity, leisure time, other projects, waning interest… or maybe it just wasn’t easy to sustain the simulated Russian meter for that long.
Looking at passages of translations in detail usually makes me despair, since you see how much is lost or has to change, and you don’t get the compensating effect of the entire work seeming more similar to the entire original work than a few lines do to their original counterparts. But there are always things to like, too. I love Soskice’s spelling “qwass” and Weiner’s line “The vodka fiends, the Goobins twain.” I would have incorrectly guessed that “vodka fiends” belonged to the slang of a time much later than 1898, and would never have imagined the two halves of that line being written by the same person. And I think “fiends,” “twain,” and their combination are not a bad simulation of Nekrasov’s non-ordinary but never obscure language here.
«Не надо бы и крылышек.
Кабы нам только хлебушка
По полупуду в день. —
И так бы мы Русь-матушку
Ногами перемеряли!» —
Сказал угрюмый Пров.
«Да по ведру бы водочки», —
До водки братья Губины,
Иван и Митродор.
«Да утром бы огурчиков
Соленых по десяточку», —
«А в полдень бы по жбанчику
«А вечером по чайничку