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“…that surging social conscience which must in the end redeem Russia”

September 30, 2014

To introduce Vladimir Korolenko (1853-1921) to an American audience in 1907, someone at the magazine Current Opinions wrote:

Its author, Vladimir Korolenko, is the editor of the influential St. Petersburg magazine, the Russkaya [sic] Bogatstvo, and may claim the distinction of having “discovered” Gorky. He is characterized as an exponent of [“]social pity” and is said to “personify more than any one else that surging social conscience which must in the end redeem Russia.” He has been a member of the two Dumas which have been waging war for popular rights. (577)

This led into the story “The Shades” (Тени, 1889-90), translated by Thomas Seltzer (1875-1943). I haven’t been able to find anything about Korolenko being a member of the Duma anywhere else (though I did come across an article about Korolenko opposing the death penalty in The New York Times in 1910).

Restoration of a photograph of Vladimir Galaktionovich Korolenko taken in Nizhny Novgorod in the 1890s

Restoration of a photograph of Vladimir Galaktionovich Korolenko taken in Nizhny Novgorod in the 1890s

Maksim Gor’kii’s memoirs about Lev Tolstoi and Chekhov are famous, and he also wrote about Korolenko. In 1889 Gor’kii went to Nizhny Novgorod and met the already established Korolenko, who became a mentor to him — after he had tried to stop and see Tolstoi on the way, but found that Tolstoi was not at home (541). According to Barry P. Scherr, Gor’kii’s writings about Korolenko weren’t the same kind of memoirs as those about his more famous contemporaries, but something closer to a continuation of Gor’kii’s autobiography, partly because “Korolenko [...] has a difficult time making it into this work that is supposedly devoted to him” (541). Another reason is that Gor’kii saw himself as so unlike Tolstoi, Chekhov, and Leonid Andreev that his pieces about them are full of conflict and tension, while Gor’kii and Korolenko had more in common (533-38). Not everything, though:

Korolenko was hardly afraid to express ideas, but his literary works on the whole are less tendentious than many of Gorky’s. Professionally, Gorky was far more engaged with the literary and cultural movements of his day, virtually from the start seeming to seek fame and the role of a public figure. Korolenko, except for a relatively brief St. Petersburg interval that ended in 1900, largely remained outside the mainstream literary centers and avoided the limelight. Following a Far Eastern exile, he lived for eleven years in Nizhny Novgorod and went on to spend the final two decades of his life in Poltava. He typically kept his distance from circles of writers, coming to Petersburg primarily for special events or to attend to editorial matters. Gorky, in contrast, gravitated toward the center. (534)

Before the October Revolution, Gor’kii was part of a group of young radicals who “looked on Korolenko’s work with some suspicion,” finding the older Populist didn’t go far enough in his politics (540). After the revolution, Gor’kii came to value Korolenko’s “quiet voice of a wise man who knows perfectly well that all wisdom is relative and that there is no eternal truth” (540-41). The two had a “spirited correspondence” in 1920-21 about Korolenko’s criticism of, and Gor’kii’s doubts about, the revolution (538). In a way subtle enough to get past the censors, Gor’kii uses his reminiscences about Korolenko to “[underscore] his support for Korolenko’s critiques of the excesses carried out by the new regime” (549).

In Scherr’s telling, Korolenko comes across as an extremely sympathetic figure, who spent his time “defending groups that were persecuted for their beliefs and attacking officials who abused their authority” and was exiled by the tsarist authorities (535); wrote what must have been risky letters to Lunacharskii and other Bolshevik officials criticizing Bolshevik policies and trying to intercede to help victims of Bolshevik persecution (536-37); and at the same time was praised by Gor’kii for “describing life as it is, without the precepts of any ideology, in contrast to those who saw the world through the lens of long-held beliefs” (541).

See Scherr’s “Reshaping the Past: Gorky’s Reminiscences of Korolenko,” The Russian Review 73.4 (2014): 532-49 (gated link). Scherr also compared several translations of Oblomov a few years ago.

Literature and politics on Russian radio

September 25, 2014

In the 1990s I would have given everything I owned for a machine that let me listen to live radio broadcasts from foreign countries (not just a few shortwave broadcasts at night); now there are a bunch of appliances in my house that let me do this for free, which I forget for weeks at a time because there’s so much else on the internet. But lately I’ve been listening more.

I often hear that Russians use more literary references (and folk sayings) in their speech than Americans, and sometimes I feel skeptical. But would a commentator on the BBC quote Phineas Finn (1867) the way Dmitry Bykov refers to Turgenev’s Smoke (Дым, 1867)?

Turgenev has one of his characters, Potugin, say “if we ceased to exist, the world wouldn’t notice, because we haven’t given it so much as an English pin [the Russian name for a safety pin].” Of course that’s an exaggeration; it’s said by a negative character. But except for the Sochi Olympics, Russia hasn’t made any powerful contributions to international culture recently. Even the film The Return is just recycled Tarkovsky. So there isn’t anything that would make you say, that’s the Russian style, that’s Russian life.

And what is the fundamental thing? The “Russian style” is Ukraine. That’s where we really did show the whole world what “Russian style” is. (September 17th, 2014)

The actual Turgenev quote is slightly different, and the pin appears as hyperbole about how little difference Russia’s disappearance would make, but the idea is the same. Here’s Constance Garnett’s translation; mouseover for the original: “our dear mother, Holy Russia, could go and hide herself in the lower regions, without disarranging a single nail in the place: everything might remain undisturbed where it is; for even the samovar, the woven bast shoes, the yoke-bridle, and the knout—these are our famous products—were not invented by us.” That yoke-bridle is the дуга, also known as the shaft bow. And the “place” is the Crystal Palace (follow the link for more context).

On a different day, Konstantin Remchukov argues that you can replace the words “rootless cosmopolitan” from the late Stalin–era anti-Jewish campaign with “fifth column” and get today’s Russian government propaganda. His illustration:

It goes like this: “In his published articles and oral presentations, Professor Kirpotin has preached bowing down before foreign powers and bourgeois liberalism.” Almost all the words are familiar. Notice the title Professor Kirpotin gave his work to try to keep his detractors from even getting within firing range, though it didn’t help: “Thus, in his article ‘The Heritage of Pushkin and Communism,’ Kirpotin claims that Pushkin ‘is a child of the European Enlightenment who grew up on Russian soil.’ In his article about Lermontov, V. Kirpotin presents this great Russian poet as a student of Byron’s.” (September 22nd, 2014)

Linking Pushkin with a foreign import like the Enlightenment was enough to try to get Kirpotin fired. This sounds like such a normal story to tell in Russian, but it’s hard for me to imagine an NPR guest talking about attempts to silence literary critics 65 years ago. Maybe somewhere there’s footage of Joe McCarthy going after an American equivalent of Professor Kirpotin.


Translation comparison: My Sister Life

September 22, 2014

There’s a famous question in Boris Pasternak’s “About These Lines” (Про эти стихи, 1917): Какое, милые, у нас Тысячелетье на дворе? It’s one word (and one agreeing ending) away from being a banal question about the weather, but instead of “what’s the weather like out there?” it’s “what millennium is it out there?”

Boris Dralyuk compares how translators Mark Rudman and James E. Falen handle it. Rudman’s first effort, in 1983, was “Hey,/ what time is it in the playground?” — the startling word for millennium drops out. In 1992 he revised it so that the stanza came out like this:

Bundled in a muffler, I’ll screen
the sun’s glare with my palm
and yell to the kids: “Hey,
what millennium is in our yard?”

Restoring “millennium” is an improvement, but as Dralyuk says, Pasternak’s “shocking question emerges in the context of polished, springy iambic tetrameter, transparent syntax, and unaffected colloquial phrasing; he earns his frisson. Rudman’s unmetrical, unrhymed version rumbles like a tank over craggy enjambments. And it is difficult to conclude that Rudman sacrificed formal constraints for some semblance of ‘natural’ or ‘poetic’ English; the surprise of ‘millennium’ notwithstanding, the final question—‘Hey, what millennium is in our yard?’—is awkwardly constructed, and it is especially hard to imagine the speaker posing it to kids” (681).

In this particular case, Falen’s 2012 translation works better; at any rate, it’s hard not to agree that it does a better job on the “can you imagine anyone saying this out loud to children?” test:

In scarf, with hand before my eyes,
I’ll shout outdoors and ask the kids:
Oh tell me, dear ones, if you please,
Just what millennium this is?

Dralyuk also talks about the Zhivago poems as translated by Falen, by Jon Stallworthy and Peter France, and by Robert Chandler. Throughout the necessarily short review he touches on huge issues like whether the “same” meter in English and Russian is actually perceived the same way by readers of the two languages, but stays close to particular lines as he does it. Read all of it! The JSTOR moving wall isn’t there yet, but until then you can find it in print: Slavic and East European Journal 57.4 (2013): 680-82.

I’ve added it to a new page of twentieth-century translation comparisons. There isn’t much there yet, but I intend to add to it (while continuing to focus on the nineteenth century). It deserves a post of its own, but I’ll also call your attention to Dralyuk’s comparison of translations of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (Герой нашего времени, 1840), which you can find on the main translation comparison page.


September 16, 2014

“…the cumulative weight of poisoned nights and dirty-pale days”

September 2, 2014

Here’s a poem from just outside the nineteenth century (1906):


О, как я чувствую накопленное бремя
Отравленных ночей и грязно-бледных дней!
Вы, карты, есть ли что в одно и то же время
Приманчивее вас, пошлее и страшней!

Вы страшны нежностью похмелья, и науке,
Любви, поэзии — всему вас предпочтут.
Какие подлые не пожимал я руки,
Не соглашался с чем?.. Скорей! Колоды ждут…

Зеленое сукно — цвет малахитов тины,
Весь в пепле туз червей на сломанном мелке…
Подумай: жертву накануне гильотины
Дурманят картами и в каменном мешке.

I’m posting it because of line 11, which is strange for the same reason lines 3, 5, and 8 in Fedor Sologub’s “Men of the Eighties” (Восьмидесятники, 1892) are.* One more for my collection. Is this kind of rule-breaking everywhere, if I keep looking? Or just in early modernist poetry? Or in poems that call attention to formal elements (“Iambs” for a title) or have rebellion against classical education (and by extension neo-classical metrical rules) as a theme?

This poem is by Innokentii Annenskii (1855-1909), who I knew was much older than Viacheslav Ivanov, Kuzmin, or Blok, but I had forgotten was older than Chekhov. Here’s a quick prose translation:


O, how I feel the cumulative weight of poisoned nights and dirty-pale days! You, cards — is anything at once more alluring, more vulgar, and more terrible than you!

You are terrible in your tender hangover, and people prefer you to science, love, poetry — everything. What villainous hands have I not shaken, what have I not agreed to…? Quick! The decks are waiting…

The green cloth is the color of malachite pond-scum, the ash-covered ace of hearts is on top of a broken piece of chalk… Think: the night before the guillotine, the condemned man finds cards intoxicating in the very dungeon.

* I think накануне ‘on the eve’ was sometimes written as two words (на канунѣ) in pre-revolutionary orthography (though more often not), but it looks like that was almost gone by 1906. (Also, it seems that Google Ngrams will miss some old words if you leave out a word-final hard sign, but you can search for “е” and get results that cover both “е” and “ѣ.”) Still, I suppose Annenskii could have treated the break between на and кануне as sufficient for the caesura, and then my list would be back down to just Sologub.

Words not as new to me as I thought: шаккендс

September 1, 2014

From Ol’ga N.’s/Sof’ia Engel’gardt’s “The Old Man” (Старик, 1857):

He kissed her hand with that feeling of respect and love for a woman which, unfortunately, people of our era know only from legend. He did a shakkends with me, saying a few words of welcome, and clapped Rostislav on the shoulder. (29)

It took me longer to figure this one out than I should probably admit. It seems to be a foreign word and a kind of greeting an old-fashioned man could use with a younger woman in the mid-nineteenth century. Could it mean a ritual kiss on each cheek? I wanted шакк to be French chaque, but ендс looked like English “ends,” or possibly the suffix “-ence,” or maybe the double к was a sign that the whole word was from a different Germanic language. But I had trouble finding шаккендс anywhere online, with or without a hard sign or double к, or with з instead of с.

Then it dawned on me: he did a “shake hands.”

Also, I suspect chivalry has been dead almost as long as young people haven’t known how to speak properly.

A Tiutchev e-book

August 31, 2014

A comment on Lizok’s self-publishing post led me to John Dewey’s site about Tiutchev. I’ve hardly ever posted about Tiutchev here, but he’s an amazing poet, even if Brodsky did say (with some justice) that he wrote the most loyal-subject-y poetry in all of Russian literature. I was excited to learn of Dewey’s biography of Tiutchev, Mirror of the Soul, and I think it’s good news that it’s available as a relatively affordable e-book. You can also find a book of Dewey’s translations of Tiutchev into English on his site.


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