After reading 1 1/2 long novels by Pisemskii, it seems like there’s a lot of:
- Women named Kleopatra. Kleopatra Petrovna in Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863), an old woman who may have slept with the Emperor Paul. Another Kleopatra Petrovna in Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов, 1869) – she was born much later, so it doesn’t seem to be the same character in two books – has an unhappy marriage and two affairs. And then there’s a Kleopatra Sergeevna in Vaal (Ваал, 1873). I assume the diminutive “Kleopasha” sounds as funny and strange to native speakers as it does to me, because if you search for it you get Pisemskii and an obsolete public listing for a “Masha Kleopasha” on Facebook. So far I haven’t run across any overt mention of the famous Cleopatra or any acknowledgement inside the make-believe world that these women have an unusual name.
Scenes where authors read aloud from their works. In Troubled Seas this is the narrator who is suddenly and temporarily identified as “Monsieur Pisemskii.” It’s Pavel Vikhrov in Men of the Forties, which I assume is one reason this novel is considered “semi-autobiographical.” Vikhrov reads first to his impressed fellow students: “Only in the friendly family of young male students can one find so sincere and so complete a recognition of talent” (part 3, chapter 5). Then he insists on reading it to Kleopatra Petrovna and another woman: “They say nothing is more useful for authors than to read their works to an unsympathetic audience. Then the weak spots in their effort appear before them in horrifying magnitude” (3.8). In the first reading we wonder if Vikhrov is reading a novel about his friends to those friends; in the second he tells Kleopatra it is about her (though she finds the female character unrecognizable).
- Passages about how different people interact with art and literature. Several times we see how young men in or just out of university feel a need to appreciate art and show off their ability to appreciate it. They don’t get everything right. See especially part 6, chapter 1 of Troubled Seas, where Baklanov and Sophie go abroad and visit museums:
“That’s Rembrandt, that’s Giulio Romano, that’s Claude Lorrain; I can look ahead and tell without approaching.”
Sophie took a look at the label.*
“No, this was signed by Titian!” she said.
“Yes, well, they’re similar in manner,” said Baklanov, and they went in to see the Madonna.
The Sistine Madonna has an effect on both Baklanov and Sophie. The difference in their formal education controls how they talk about it, but not its power over them, which is significant, but not enough to overwhelm their other-than-aesthetic cares.
* This is надпись in Russian; it’s not clear to me if Sophie is reading the signature on the painting and nothing else, or if this gallery had the explanatory labels next to the paintings that you’d find in a modern museum.
Interlitq (or The International Literary Quarterly) has published some nineteenth-century Russian poems translated by Peter France. “New Year’s Day” (1-е января, 1840) is a Lermontov poem many Russians know by heart, and “To Dashkov” (К Дашкову, 1813) is probably among Batiushkov’s better-known poems. (See this post on N. V. Fridman on “To Dashkov” and Batiushkov’s war poetry in general, and these on related work by Fridman and Monika Greenleaf.)
The two Baratynskii poems are more surprising choices (at least to me): “Ultimate Death” (Последняя смерть, 1827) and “Steamship” (Пироскаф, 1844).
At first reading the translations seem excellent, although in “Steamship,” for “my tumultuous heart has carried me/ over the free realms of the watery god” I really want “pulled me toward” instead. They have the timeless quality many translations have: “To Dashkov,” for instance, is in thoroughly contemporary (if high-style) English. The Russian is full of words and constructions that were marked at the time, and in some cases sounded grand in 1813 but could only be used ironically even later in the nineteenth century. Besides everyday poeticisms like placing the genitive first (Врагов неистовых дела) or vocabulary with an Old Church Slavic feel (златоглавая Москва), there is the special poetic lexicon that insists on перси ‘breasts’ instead of грудь, as well as short-form adjectives used attributively (я видел… гибельны пожары instead of гибельные пожары). If the Russian had none of these features, I’m not sure how the English would have to change. I take this as a sign of humility on France’s (and most other translators’) part. None of us are native speakers of 1813 English, and we’ll run into trouble if we try to make our translation sound authentically old. We’ll run into more trouble if we try to make it so specifically 1810s that it’s different from 1750s and 1840s and 1870s English. But I also think it’s a real problem, and if it were feasible to translate Batiushkov into 1813 English, it would be worth doing. On the other hand, the transparency of the language to modern readers makes it easy to follow the poet’s thought through a long Baratynskii poem!
I like this, from the Lermontov poem:
And as I feel on my cold hands the touch
of brazen hands of city beauties who
have learnt the art of never blushing,
while seeming to admire their busy gleam,
I dwell in secret on an ancient dream,
its sacred sounds now half-forgotten.
France changes enough that the words seem like they could have been written in English first. “Have learnt the art of never blushing” captures the idea of Давно бестрепетные руки ‘long untrembling hands’ better than keeping the hands central to the image would have. You can see in this excerpt how France stays close to the meter (iambic, with two lines of hexameter alternating with a shorter tetrameter line in the original) and the aaBccB rhyme scheme while allowing himself to deviate from both as necessary, and I think he makes this approach work very well.
Thanks to Olga Livshin for pointing these translations out on SEELANGS!
In ‘A Little Fairytale’, a wonderfully clever and touching story, the figure of Baba Yaga becomes a poignant symbol of émigré dislocation and home-sickness. ‘The government even requisitioned my copper mortar,’ she laments. ‘If it weren’t for my broomstick I’d never have got away at all.’
Benjamin Yarde-Buller is happy to see this story by Nadezhda Teffi, whom he calls “a writer of genius,” included in Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov, translated by Robert Chandler. But he doesn’t have much to say about the translation as such.
I’m used to thinking of Chandler as brilliant based on the complicated questions he raises on the SEELANGS listserv, but I realized that I haven’t read any of his translations. What do reviewers think?
Heather Daly at first seems to reproach him for letting “his poetic license lead him away” from the text, but quickly adds that his free choices help him recreate the author’s (here, Pushkin’s) tone and are a good strategy for “creating an appealing work for the general reader.” The altogether positive responses to translation are often the least specific; Elizabeth M. Sheynzon limits her comments to “The high quality of the translations does justice to the authors’ styles while allowing their voices to sound natural in English.” Sometimes reviewers single out what’s hard about a given text and compliment the translator for rising to the challenge: Diane Nemec Ignashev says “Robert Chandler has performed truly a hero’s labor,” translating “a daunting list of nicknames” with “elegant wit.”
My favorite kind of review analyzes lots of examples, though perhaps unfortunately these tend to be the most critical. I suppose a review celebrating choice after choice would leave the reviewer open to criticism for the translator’s decisions, and might sound sycophantic. Read all of Laura Cassedy Friend and Dan Newton’s 2004 review of Chandler translating Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Here’s a sample on the recurrent issue of preserving repetitions:
One of the similarities between Leskov’s narrator and the traditional folk storyteller is their shared penchant for repetition, a deliberate device whose impact is softened by Chandler’s reluctance to preserve it. Note the seven almost incantatory repetitions which starkly highlight Katerina’s unbearable boredom in this passage:
[О]на одна слоняет слоны из комнаты в комнату. Везде чисто, везде тихо [...], а нигде по дому ни звука живого, ни голоса человеческого. Походит, походит Катерина Львовна по пустым комнатам, начнет зевать со скуки и полезет по лесенке в свою супружескую опочивальню [...] (97)
Chandler maintains the effect in only two places: Katerina would “wander from room to room,” and the not quite English “[e]verywhere was clean, everywhere was quiet” (5). He often introduces synonyms to thwart Leskov’s original repetition. Hence “миловала, миловала” becomes “caressed and fondled,” and the enchanting threesome “Стал ездить лекарь, стал прописывать лекарства, стал их давать мальчику по часам” becomes: “The doctor paid frequent visits and prescribed medicines, to be given to the boy at regular intervals” (107/17, 124/39). Redundancies, too, are sometimes edited out, as when “печально и грустно” is whittled down to “sadly,” and “с страстным увлечением” to “passionately” (111/23, 110/20). “Тихо-тихонько,” like numerous other colorful, colloquial words and particles, is simply omitted (104/13). [backtransliterated to Cyrillic for this blog]
Chandler’s reviews of other people’s translations are generous: here, instead of analyzing and classifying, he quotes relatively long phrases and sentences and says why he likes them in a general way.
How tall? A vershok is an inch-like unit (1 3/4″, it turns out), so I took that at first to be hyperbole with an oddly chosen number, but it didn’t fit the context. Luckily Elena Penskaya anticipated my question and provided a note (see page 47 of this pdf), explaining that people’s heights were measured in arshins and vershoks, but it was assumed every adult was between 2 and 3 arshins, so only the vershoks were mentioned. Which is convenient! People can be 4, 5, or 6 feet and change, and equally fall on both sides of the 2-meter line, but “2 arshins and change” encompasses everyone between 4’8″ and 7’0″ tall (about 142 cm to 213 cm). That also conveniently allows 1 sazhen, which is 3 arshins or 7 feet, to be thrown around as the approximate height of a really tall person.
As for the skewed sazhen (косая сажень), that apparently means “distance between tip of a raised arm and a tip of an opposite leg slightly put away” and is slightly longer than a regular sazhen. That’s according to the English Wikipedia article on obsolete Russian units of measurement; for some reason it’s missing from the predictably excellent Russian article (which, however, mentions косая сажень в плечах as a set expression for broad shoulders).
Wikipedia also cleared up something that had long confused me: why there were commonly used Russian words for English feet and inches (фут and дюйм), which come out to exact but strange divisions of a sazhen. Alongside the system of
1 sazhen = 3 arshins = 12 piads = 48 vershoks = 100 sotkas
where everything is based on 3s, 4s, and 10s, there’s also
1 sazhen = 7 feet = 84 inches = 840 liniias = 8400 tochkas
where it’s initially hard to see why you’d want to multiply by 7, and further why you need these intermediate measures in addition to the arshins, piads, and vershoks. The answer? Peter I borrowed English units of measure to make it easier to order ships built abroad, and when he did he adjusted the official length of the sazhen and its derivative units to make the math come out neat.
The man who was 14 vershoks tall was Fedor Lukich Moroshkin, one of several Moscow University professors brought in as private tutors (!) for the young Elizaveta Vasil’evna Sukhovo-Kobylina, better known by her pseudonym Evgeniia Tur (and her married name E. V. Salias-de-Turnemir), and her brother, the playwright Aleksandr Vasil’evich Sukhovo-Kobylin. The family also owned quite a few estates. See Penskaya’s recent publications of and commentary on parts of Tur’s memoirs: “Evgeniia Tur’s ‘Paradise Lost’ (Elizaveta Vasil’evna Salias-de-Turnemir and Her ‘Memoirs’)” (pdf) and “Teachers and Students in the Sukhovo-Kobylin Family (On the Problem of the Biographical Roots of the Historiosophy of the Author of the Dramatic Trilogy Scenes from the Past)” (pdf). Three cheers to Toronto Slavic Quarterly for continuing to let people read what they publish! I’ve been reading about Tur to atone for leaving her out when I was counting pseudonyms until Languagehat reminded me about her.
This one is from part 2, chapter 15 of Pisemskii’s Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов, 1869):
“But at any rate it’s money earned over a lifetime.”
“Well, but you’ll pay me back someday, you won’t zazhilit’ it.”
“And if you die before I have a chance to pay you back?”
“Well, you can pay my old lady.”
“And if your wife dies too?”
“Good heavens, you have us all dying; well, give it to the church then.”
- Но деньги все же целым веком нажитые.
- Да ведь вы мне отдадите их когда-нибудь, не зажилите.
- А если ты умрешь, и я не успею отдать?
- Ну, жене-старухе отдадите.
- А если и жена умрет?
- Ай, батюшки, все так и перемрем; ну, в церковь положите.
Зажилить (зажилю, зажилишь…) with the imperfective жилить or зажиливать is marked as prostorechie or substandard, and though a simple concept requires multiple words in English: ‘fail to return (something borrowed).’
The etymology is apparently unclear. The word isn’t just a nineteenth-century word: one usage example involves not giving back a cassette, and a slang dictionary makes a point of saying it was used in the nineteenth century, “by A. Pisemskii and others.” One of the others was Dostoevskii.
One of the writers everyone read at the time but no one reads anymore is Osip Senkovskii, who isn’t quite as despised as his acquaintances Bulgarin and Grech, but often ends up on the wrong side of a story where Pushkin and Gogol are the geniuses, and lesser writers had to influence or at least appreciate them to be remembered with affection. I’m part of the “no one,” never having read Senkovskii, but Languagehat is not, and his first and second posts on The Fantastic Journeys of Baron Brambeus (Фантастические путешествия барона Брамбеуса, 1833) are the most detailed and inspiring of the favorable descriptions of Senkovskii-Brambeus that I’ve read.
I was especially taken with LH quoting Senkovskii’s narrator railing against the bookish demonstratives сей ‘this’ and оный ‘that,’ which he felt obliged to write whenever it was natural to say этот, ‘this/that.’ (If you like, you can reserve ‘that’ for the word тот, but I find that этот is broad enough to swallow up all of ‘this’ as well as a good part of ‘that,’ and Senkovskii’s willingness to use either archaic demonstrative in place of этот suggests that was already true in 1833.) First it made me think how easy Russians in the 1830s had it compared to Chinese or Arabic writers. Then I started thinking about why, for me at least, 1850s or 1860s Russian is so much easier to translate than 1830s Russian.
1) In the 1830s, written Russian (as Senkovskii complained) was farther from the spoken language than it would be a few decades later. Therefore writers felt writing was unnatural, and somehow this makes it harder to understand them even now.
2) Difficulty increases steadily as you move backward in time, and there’s nothing surprising if the 1830s are harder than the 1850s.
3) The 1830s language isn’t any harder for modern readers in general, but I personally have trouble because I’ve spent more time with writers from slightly later. Turgenev and Pisemskii take more effort to translate than Pushkin and Gogol, if you’re a Pushkin or Gogol scholar.
4) Gogol is linguistically more difficult than Dostoevskii and Tolstoi (and for that matter Pushkin), not because of the period but for idiosyncratic reasons. He distorts my idea of the 1830s. Or, conversely, a higher percentage of the 1850s Russian I’ve read is non-literary prose, and that makes the 1850s seem easier than they really are.
5) Apart from chronology, everything written is more transparent when the reigning ideas are ultrarational and relatively cosmopolitan, and/or the aesthetics are “realist.”
6) Major nonlinguistic changes in and around the 1840s (in technology, social attitudes, the economics of publishing, etc.) caused fairly sudden changes in the language and in the range of subjects writers considered fair game.
Or can several of these be true at once? I’m convincing myself of one thing after another, but after it all I find it surprising how much the subjective difficulty falls off between the time before Dead Souls and the time after Poor Folk.
Dmitrii Pisarev’s “Pisemskii, Turgenev, and Goncharov” (1861) reminded me that, despite their reputation for anti-aesthetic predictability, the radical critics of the 1850s and 1860s could be quite readable. Pisarev especially. The unexpected thesis: Goncharov is a brilliant technician who refuses to take a stand on anything, while Turgenev and Pisemskii are also talented and have taken a stand. The positive tone for Turgenev (before Fathers and Sons and Smoke) and Pisemskii (before Troubled Seas) is striking.
Before he gets to prose, though, Pisarev has an aside on poetry. Summaries of the radical critics as a group have them championing civic poetry (especially Nekrasov) and condemning poetry as pure art (Fet, Polonskii, Maikov). But that’s not exactly how it works here:
Unfortunately, the realm of poetry is in some respects far less broad than that of painting. You can, for example, paint a picture without expressing any idea or emotion at all; this coveted privilege is entirely denied you when you take the word as your tool; then one must absolutely say something; reading the most vivid description of some wicker fence or orchard, a reader will never be satisfied, but will keep asking, “and then what?” If you give him nothing more, he will think you were playing a joke on him and perhaps might even find your joke fell rather flat. On this basis every poet, no matter how much he treasures his artistic freedom and however hostile he might be to the element of thought, tries purely for form’s sake to put himself forward in his works as a thinking and feeling person.
At this point, think which poets these unsuccessful jokers might be, and which poets might be less hostile to thought, in Pisarev’s opinion.
No one, of course, will reproach Messrs. Fet, Mei, and Polonskii for being deep thinkers, and nevertheless in their lyric poems there are the likenesses of thoughts and emotions; it happens, it is true, that you read a short poem of three or four couplets and immediately forget it, as you forget a cigar once you finish smoking it; but on the other hand the poem has acted on your nervous system almost the same way as a cigar; the first two lines won you over with their harmonious sound, the first four rhymes lulled you with their even cadence, and you read to the end in a state of pleasant half-dozing, having lost all ability, and for that matter any wish, to react critically to the work you have read. Such reading is actually good from the hygienic point of view after dinner, and moreover such poems are very useful from the typographical point of view, for filling up white space, i.e. the pages between serious articles and artistic works in journals. But do you know what often happens? A gentleman [джентльмен], after using a hundred and fifty or so smooth trifles to fill white space, is taken into the ranks of Russian poets, becomes an authority, publishes his collected poems and begins to think about the gratitude of posterity, a monument aere perennius. I am perfectly willing to admit their right to a monument, but I will permit myself merely to give one piece of advice to the reader of such poets: try, sir, to paraphrase in prose two or three good poems by Fet, Polonskii, Shcherbina, or Benediktov and read them thus. Then two precious characteristics of these poems will, like olive oil, float to the top: firstly, the inimitable pettiness of the basic idea, and secondly, the colossal pomposity of form; you will think you accidentally opened a volume of Marlinskii’s works, you will think of the Manilov family [from Dead Souls] or even the inscriptions on candy wrappers, you will close the book and probably agree with my opinion.
So Fet, Polonskii, and a shifting company of others are “hostile to thought.” But compared to whom?
Our lyric poets, with the exception of Messrs. Maikov and Nekrasov, have no internal content; they are not advanced enough to stand on a level with the ideas of the age; they are not intelligent enough to snatch these ideas out of the air of the period with their own powers of common sense; they are not sensitive enough, when looking at the phenomena of everyday life surrounding them, to reflect in their works the visage of this life with its poverty and sadness. Only the small disturbances in their own narrow little psychological world are accessible to them; how their heart shuddered as they looked at some woman, how they became sad at some separation, how there was a stirring in their breast at the memory of some moment — all this is described faithfully, perhaps, all this comes out quite charming sometimes, only awfully petty; whose business is it, and who is interested in taking up patience and a microscope to follow, over the course of dozens of poems, in what manner Mr. Fet loves his beloved, or Mr. Mei, or Mr. Polonskii? Learn some more, Messrs. lyric poets, read a bit and think a bit! After all, if one calls oneself a Russian poet, one cannot fail to know that our time is occupied with interests, ideas, questions that are much broader, deeper, and more important than your amorous adventures and tender feelings. However, I say once again that you are free to do as you like, but I too, as a reader and a critic, am free to discuss what you do as I like. And I am probably not the only one to whom what you do looks awfully hollow and colorless.
It is not difficult, of course, to understand why I have excluded Maikov and Nekrasov from our lyric poets. I respect Nekrasov as a poet for his burning sympathy for ordinary people’s suffering, for the honest word he is always willing to speak on behalf of the pauper and the downtrodden man. [...] I respect Maikov as an intelligent man and one advanced in the modern way, as a proponent of taking harmonious pleasure in life who has a definite, sober world view, as the creator of “Three Deaths,” “Savonarola,” “The Sentence,” etc. Anyone will agree that these two lyric poets, Maikov and Nekrasov, in intelligence, talent, in their advanced thinking and their attitude toward modern life, are immeasurably higher than the versifiers I spoke of on the previous page.
Maikov! To me Maikov exists mostly as a target of attacks on pure art, though he’s also the author of the Crimean War poema The Council of Clermont (1853) and a friend of Dostoevskii’s who loyally keeps the secret of just how revolutionary his past was, according to Joseph Frank. Here he’s not only not attacked, he’s up there with Nekrasov among the poets who are almost as relevant as the big novelists.
Iu. S. Sorokin’s 1955 footnote explains: “In his years of study at St. Petersburg University, Pisarev was close to the Maikovs’ literary circle. This positive evaluation of A. N. Maikov’s poetry is typical of Pisarev’s initial period at The Russian Word. The first polemical attack on Maikov as a manifestation of ‘pure art’ was carried out by Pisarev in the article ‘Flowers of Innocent Humor’ (1864).”