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Translation comparison: The Little Tragedies and (again) Eugene Onegin

December 16, 2014

Physical pages do beat the internet sometimes: I grabbed a copy of SEEJ to use as a hard surface to write on, opened it at random, and found a five-year-old piece by Robert Chandler that I’ve added to the translation comparison page. It’s on Pushkin, and he compares a few translations of Eugene Onegin (Nabokov, Johnston, Falen, Mitchell, Hofstadter) and three of the Little Tragedies (Falen, Wood, Mulrine; I think Alan Shaw’s translation hadn’t yet come out). He also reviews Antony Wood’s translations of some works that are not translated so frequently that they demand comparison, like Count Nulin (Граф Нулин, 1825):

Wood’s outstanding achievement, however, is his Count Nulin. In his introduction he quotes Andrei Sinyavsky: “Lightness is the first thing we get out of [Pushkin’s] works […]. Before Pushkin there was almost no light verse [in Russia…]. And suddenly, out of the blue, there appeared curtsies and turns comparable to nothing and no one, speed, onslaught, bounciness, the ability to prance, to gallop, to take hurdles, to do splits.” In his Count Nulin, Wood reproduces this lightness. There is nothing in English poetry quite like this; in comparison, even Byron’s Don Juan seems heavy-footed:

Tarquin, in hope of sweet reward,
Once more sets forth to seek Lucretia,
Resolved to go through fire to reach her.

Thus you may see a cunning tom,
The mincing darling of the house,
Slip from the stove to stalk a mouse,
Creep stealthily and lowly on
Towards his victim, grow slit-eyed
And wave his tail from side to side,
Coil to a ball, extend his claws
And snap! The wretch is in his paws. (648)

I also liked this: “The more humor and realistic detail in a poem of Pushkin’s, the easier that poem is to translate. ‘Autumn,’ for example, evokes Pushkin’s everyday life in Boldino in considerable detail — and the poem holds its interest even in the plainest of prose translations. ‘Ia vas liubil,’ in contrast, is both more serious and more abstract, and it sounds banal in all the hundred or so translations I have seen — including twenty or thirty attempts of my own” (648).

See Robert Chandler, “Some Recent Translations of Pushkin,” Slavic and East European Journal 53.4 (2009): 645-50. It’s easy to tell that Chandler likes some of his fellow translators’ efforts better than others, and why. But as usual with him, he manages to spend most of his time on the positive aspects of the things he likes, without being vague.

“Yet the thrilling range of Leskov’s body of work keeps slipping away”

December 15, 2014

Muireann Maguire pointed me to Chris Power’s post on Leskov for The Guardian‘s short story blog, which I recommend. It’s filled with quotes from Leskov’s famous admirers: Walter Benjamin, Boris Eikhenbaum, D. S. Mirsky. It’s hard not to agree with Power-quoting-Richard Pevear-quoting Eikhenbaum that “Leskov equalled Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Tolstoy ‘not by resembling them, but by being totally unlike them.’” But Leskov also isn’t like Leskov:

[…] skaz was just one technique among many, and one of the great pleasures of Leskov’s work is its diversity: A Little Mistake could be from the pages of Grimm; the short, terse chapters of The Man on Watch generate a thriller’s momentum; A Robbery is a superb comedy of provincial life. Just as you settle into a certain style, he surprises you again.

His most famous story, for example, The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, is like nothing else he wrote. It is told with a dispassion that makes its realist account of a sequence of coldblooded murders all the more shocking. It is the type of story, Irving Howe remarked, “a writer may, if he is lucky and has some genius, bring off once or twice in his career, a piece that radiates enormous narrative authority by sacrificing almost everything else”.

I think I like the way Power works through the tension between Leskov, the “very un-Russian Russian great” and the Leskov who “said he came to know the Russian people by living among them, not through ‘conversations with Petersburg cabbies.’” If I understand him correctly, he’s saying that Leskov doesn’t write like the famous authors who collectively shape our idea of Russian literature — they care about characters, and he cares about telling stories. But he is more Russian than they are in the sense of holding a (funhouse) mirror up to more kinds of people who lived in the Russian Empire at the time, not just the landed gentry and their servants.

The nitpicker in me wants to complain that “The Musk-Ox” (Овцебык, 1863) wasn’t Leskov’s first published story, but his seventh, give or take. “The Robber” (Разбойник, 1862) has even been translated into English. But otherwise I was nodding along with Power, and I only hope he’s wrong about this “serially rediscovered writer” being destined to keep being rescued from oblivion. Maybe the current revival will take.

The Polar Herald

November 21, 2014

Here’s another open access and (as of 2014) peer-reviewed journal: Полярный вестник (The Polar Herald), out of Norway. The 2014 volume has an article about Baratynskii by Elena Pedigo Clark, one about Gertsen by Kathleen Parthé (whose book on village prose I liked very much), and articles about language by Maria Nordrum and Olga Steriopolo. You can download pdfs of anything in their archive going back to 1998 for free without registering. Thanks to Tore Nesset for posting the link to SEELANGS!

Words new to me: густ

November 19, 2014

This word is rare in Russian, and perhaps not even a Russian word, but it means exactly what it seems like it should in book 1, chapter 7 of Leskov’s The Bypassed (Обойденные, 1865):

Here в этом в самом густе appears to be equivalent to в этом в самом роде ‘of just that sort.’ Or maybe in this context “that’s about the size of it.” The Polish word gust, which is cognate with Latin gustus, English gusto, French goût, and similar words, can mean “taste,” but it can also mean “type, kind, sort” so that coś w tym guście means “something of the sort.” I’ve been wrong before when I thought a word used in Russian was a Polonism, but I can’t immediately find evidence of густ being used this way in Ukrainian. (I did see “Вы по любому не в его густе” used to mean “you’re definitely not his type” in a rather ugly online quarrel from 2013 that was in Russian and another language, possibly Kazakh.)

I think this is another example of Leskov’s being fond of characters who are culturally between Russia, Ukraine, and Poland, just as he likes to create characters in some middle ground between peasants/house servants and nobles, who aren’t typical mid-century raznochintsy either. The tipsy character speaking, Il’ia Makarovich Zhuravka, earlier uses a bit of Old Church Slavic, яко же хощеши ‘as you wish’ (1.3, from Matthew 15:28). I think his surname ambiguously suggests Ukrainian origins: the toponym Zhuravka has been used in and around Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. We know that Il’ia Zhuravka is from Kiev, like the possibly semi-autobiographical main character Dolinskii, whose grandfather was a “half-Pole and half–Little Russian” and a member of the old Kiev aristocracy (1.3). (Somewhere Leskov wrote that his contemporaries saw him as a writer from Oryol Province, where he was born and grew up, but he associated himself with Kiev, where he lived and worked in early adulthood and was unhappily married.)

Mrs Skewton and Kleopatra Petrovna

November 14, 2014

Last year I was wondering why Pisemskii had female characters named Cleopatra in two novels (1863, 1869) and a play (1873). I haven’t read the play yet, but in the two novels, no one acknowledges that this name is unusual.

I have a new theory: Pisemskii’s first Cleopatra, Kleopatra Petrovna in Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863), owed something to the Cleopatra in Dombey and Son (1846-48) by Charles Dickens:

In this manner the Major and Mr Dombey were walking arm-in-arm, much to their own satisfaction, when they beheld advancing towards them, a wheeled chair, in which a lady was seated, indolently steering her carriage by a kind of rudder in front, while it was propelled by some unseen power in the rear. Although the lady was not young, she was very blooming in the face—quite rosy—and her dress and attitude were perfectly juvenile. Walking by the side of the chair, and carrying her gossamer parasol with a proud and weary air, as if so great an effort must be soon abandoned and the parasol dropped, sauntered a much younger lady, very handsome, very haughty, very wilful, who tossed her head and drooped her eyelids, as though, if there were anything in all the world worth looking into, save a mirror, it certainly was not the earth or sky.


The discrepancy between Mrs Skewton’s fresh enthusiasm of words, and forlornly faded manner, was hardly less observable than that between her age, which was about seventy, and her dress, which would have been youthful for twenty-seven. Her attitude in the wheeled chair (which she never varied) was one in which she had been taken in a barouche, some fifty years before, by a then fashionable artist who had appended to his published sketch the name of Cleopatra: in consequence of a discovery made by the critics of the time, that it bore an exact resemblance to that Princess as she reclined on board her galley. Mrs Skewton was a beauty then, and bucks threw wine-glasses over their heads by dozens in her honour. The beauty and the barouche had both passed away, but she still preserved the attitude, and for this reason expressly, maintained the wheeled chair and the butting page: there being nothing whatever, except the attitude, to prevent her from walking. (chapter 21)

(In Dickens the narrator immediately explains the Cleopatra nickname, which clearly meant something to the people in the fictional world.)

In chapters 9 and 10 of part 2 of Troubled Seas, we hear that Kleopatra Petrovna is old, but had been a beauty and possibly even a lover of Emperor Paul back in 1797. She had countless suitors, one of whom supposedly threatened to shoot himself if she wouldn’t have him. Where Mrs. Skewton has one man pushing her in a wheelchair and one young female dependent, Kleopatra Petrovna has two servants helping her walk home and two young female dependents in tow. Despite her age, Kleopatra Petrovna is still elaborately dressed. It seems like a plausible intertextual connection to me, especially since Dombey and Son was well-known to Pisemskii and his audience; you can judge for yourself:

“My friend, let’s go to Dubny for the holiday tomorrow,” said Iona Mokeich. “We can say our prayers in God’s church first, and then we’ll head over to her excellency Kleopatra Petrovna’s house and have a big dinner.”

“Is she still alive, then?”

“Sure is, and full of piss and vinegar. But hang on, my lad,” said Iona, poking a finger into his forehead, “how many years ago was it… in ’97, she supposedly, you know,” and at these words he made a strange gesture with his hands.

“Oh, that’s nonsense!” Aleksandr interrupted him. “He had a girl… everyone knew…”

“It’s true, don’t you argue…! And then, when it happened,” — and once again Iona made a hand gesture — “his sons and and his widow say to her, ‘go back to the country’… I remember that myself — she had about fifteen hundred souls registered to her village… and my God, the suitors that rained down on her after that…! One of them came to see her with a pistol and got down on his knees, ‘either make me a happy man,’ he says, ‘or I’ll shoot myself!’ She just points at the porty-air and says, ‘look who I was loved by!’”

Petrusha too was listening to this conversation with visible attention.

“An intelligent woman, you can tell she’s spent time in the capital,” concluded Iona with a serious expression. (2.9)


Along the wooden planks that went all the way from the church to the house, two servants in enormous three-cornered hats worn sideways were indeed leading the old fraulein herself by the hand. She was completely hunched over, but still wore her hair in curls and had on an extremely sumptuous dress. Behind her, their arms modestly folded over their chest, walked her two hangers-on, one named Alina, the other Polina. (2.10)

By the way, I love thinking about Pisemskii and the censors in passages like this. As I read it, he’s pretty plainly having Iona the Cynic make crude hand gestures to show the emperor having sex and to show the same emperor being killed after a palace coup in 1801. In Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов, 1869) he manages to communicate pretty clearly that a woman stops having sex with her husband after she takes a lover. It’s as if he goes through the motions of not saying a thing directly, but doesn’t take much trouble beyond that, and the usually prudish censor lets him get away with it. (That’s also a reminder that the censor really was more lenient in much of Alexander II’s reign than in Nicholas I’s; talk of glasnost in the 1860s wasn’t all talk.)

Words new to me: Готов Максим и шапка с ним

November 13, 2014

This rhyming saying exists in several forms, including Со всем Максим, и котомка с ним. Dal’ also has и Аксинья с ним. Here are other variations, some involving swear words. It’s alive and well and variations show up in comments on internet news articles, so it probably isn’t new to many of those who are reading this. The word-by-word meaning is “Maksim is ready (Maksim has everything) and he (even) has his hat (has his bag/has Aksin’ia) with him.” The full idiom seems to be used to mark the successful completion of a task, or perhaps the completion of some preparatory task so that the real business can begin.

I found it in a mother-daughter conversation in book 1, chapter 3 of Leskov’s The Bypassed (Обойденные, 1865):

— Ну, что ж? — спросила она, тяжело рассаживаясь на щупленьком креслице.
— Пожалуйста, не рвите чехла; его уж и так более чинить нельзя, — отвечала, мало обращая внимания на ее слова, Юлия.
— Не о чехлах, сударыня, дело, а о вас самих, — возвысила голос матроска, и крысиный хвостик закачался на ее макушке.
— Пожалуйста, беспокойтесь обо мне поменьше; это будет гораздо умнее.
— Да-с, но когда ж этот болван, наконец, решится? Юлинька помолчала и, спокойно свертывая косу под ночной чепец, тихо сказала:
— Дней через десять можете потребовать, чтобы свадьба была немедленно.
Матроска, прищурив глаза, язвительно посмотрела на свою дочь и произнесла:
— Значит, уж спроворила, милая?
— Делайте, что вам говорят, — ответила Юлинька и, бросив на мать совершенно холодный и равнодушный взгляд, села писать Усте ласковое письмо о ее непростительной легковерности.
— Готов Максим и шапка с ним, — ядовито проговорила, вставая и отходя в свою комнату, матроска.

It was used earlier by the writer/lexicographer/collector of proverbs V. I. Dal’ in “The Tale of Georgii the Brave and the Wolf” (Сказка о Георгии храбром и о волке, 1836):

Тараска кривой отмотал иглу на лацкане, побежал да принес собачью шкуру и зашил в нее бедного волка. Вот каким похождением на волке проявилась шкура собачья; каков же он до этого случая был собою – не знаем, а сказывают, что был страшный.

«Вот тебе и вся недолга, – сказал Тараска, закрепив и откусивши нитку, – вот тебе совсем Максим и шапка с ним! Теперь ты не чучело и не пугало, а молодец хоть куда; теперь никто тебя не станет бояться, малый и великий будут с тобой запанибрата жить, а выйдешь в лес да разинешь пасть свою пошире, так не токма глухарь – баран целиком и живьем полезет!»

Later it would appear in Gor’kii’s “Konovalov” (Коновалов, 1896):

И все они сразу загалдели, доказывая Коновалову его право все пропить и даже возводя это право на степень непременной обязанности — именно с ними пропить.
А, Максим… и котомка с ним! — скаламбурил Коновалов, увидав меня. — Ну-ка, книжник и фарисей, — тяпни! Я, брат, окончательно спрыгнул с рельс. Шабаш! Пропиться хочу до волос… Когда одни волосы на теле останутся — кончу. Вали и ты, а?

And “The Life of Matvei Kozhemiakin” (Жизнь Матвея Кожемякина, 1910), also by Gor’kii:

— Чего вертишься? — строго спросил отец.
— Он ушел, г-гы-ы! — радостно объявил Савка. — Скажи, говорит, хозяину, что я ушел совсем. Я за водой на речку еду, а он идут, с котомкой, гы!
Пошел Максим, и котомка с ним! — заговорил Пушкарь. — Опять в бега, значит.

Dal’ and Leskov put the proverb in a character’s mouth and have them use it to mark the completion of some task (trapping a marriageable man, sewing a wolf into a dogskin). After this point, the daughter in Leskov will be ready to get married, and the wolf in Dal’ will be able to wander the world without scaring people so much, just as the proverbial Maksim is ready to go out on the road once he has his hat or his bag. Gor’kii also uses it in dialogue, but both times a character is playing on the presence of an actual Maksim or an actual kotomka ‘bag, knapsack.’


November 10, 2014
  • Languagehat highlights a passage by Mark Altshuller that presents Zhukovskii and Batiushkov as (very distant) forerunners of Symbolism and Acmeism, respectively. I like the analogy and LH’s way of taking it: “one could pick holes in the comparison if one were so inclined, but I find this sort of thing very useful in getting me to see familiar names from new angles and think about them in different ways.” See the comments for multiple Mandel’shtam translations, too.
  • Here are some false cognates between Russian and other Slavic languages. In all five Ukrainian-Russian examples, the Ukrainian word seems to mean the same as its Polish cognate, rather than its Russian cognate. I’d love to see a list of Ukrainian false friends where the meaning is different from both Russian and Polish.
  • For those interested in contemporary Russian literature, here are lots of links from Lizok to book reviews and awards. The linked review makes the Kuznetsov book sound like torture porn in the very worst traditions of Hollywood, but the reviewer seemed to like it.

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