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Translation comparison: Evenings at a Farmhouse near Dikanka

March 27, 2013

Languagehat was just rereading Gogol (more here) and has some remarks on translating my favorite invented-layer-of-narration passage ever, from Gogol’s Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka (Вечера на хуторе близ Диканьки, 1831). Here’s the beginning in Russian:

“Это что за невидаль: “Вечера на хуторе близ Диканьки”? Что это за “Вечера”? И швырнул в свет какой-то пасечник! Слава богу! еще мало ободрали гусей на перья и извели тряпья на бумагу! Еще мало народу, всякого звания и сброду, вымарало пальцы в чернилах! Дернула же охота и пасичника дотащиться вслед за другими! Право, печатной бумаги развелось столько, что не придумаешь скоро, что бы такое завернуть в нее”.

LH remarks, “I don’t even know how to go about translating that; maybe Mark Twain could have done it. But I do know how not to translate it,” and gives this translation:

“What oddity is this: Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka? What sort of Evenings have we here? And thrust into the world by a beekeeper! God protect us! As though geese enough had not been plucked for pens and rags turned into paper! As though folks enough of all classes had not covered their fingers with inkstains! The whim must take a beekeeper to follow their example! Really there is such a lot of paper nowadays that it takes time to think what to wrap in it.”

Credit is given to Leonard J. Kent, but Kent is more modest, describing it as a This is Leonard J. Kent’s revision of Constance Garnett’s translation (it’s Garnett’s 1926 text, revised a lot by Kent in 1964 and a little in 1984). Here Kent’s contribution was mostly reinserting God and removing hyphens. Trying to reconstruct Garnett’s 1926 version from Google Books snippet view, I get:

‘What oddity is this: Evenings in a village near Dikanka? What sort of Evenings have we here? And thrust into the world by a bee-keeper. Mercy on us! As though geese enough had not been plucked for pens and rags turned into paper! As though folks enough of all classes had not covered their fingers with ink-stains! The whim must take a bee-keeper to follow their example! Really, there is such a lot of paper nowadays that it takes time to think what to wrap in it.’

The problem, for LH, is that Garnett/Kent gives sentences that mean what the Russian sentences mean, but doesn’t create a voice that sounds like Gogol’s; like a brilliant jazz musician’s, “nobody can capture Gogol’s [sound], but dammit, you’ve got to at least try.” I doubt LH would like Isabel F. Hapgood’s 1886 version:

“What unheard-of thing is this? ‘Evenings at a Farmhouse near Dikanka!’ What sort of evenings are these? And some bee-farmer has sprung forth into prominence! Glory to God! have not geese enough already had courage to take to quills, and bring forth scrappy nonsense on paper? have not plenty of people of every calling, and even the rabble, already smeared their fingers with ink? And now the bee-farmer has been seized with a freak to follow the others! Truth to tell, there’s so much printed paper about, that you can’t very readily find things to wrap up in it.”

And Jamie Olson, commenting on LH’s post, refers to a 1994 translation by Christopher English:

‘What sort of cock and bull is this? “Village Evenings near Dikanka”? What “Evenings” I ask you? And all this foisted on the public by some bee-keeper! Thank the Lord there are still geese left to be plucked for quills and rags to be turned into paper! It’s a good thing every country bumpkin doesn’t go dipping his fingers in the ink! Now some bee-keeper’s trying to get into the act! There’s so much printed paper about these days, it’s hard to find things to wrap in it.’

I think English comes a lot closer to what LH is looking for. But you can’t really expect Garnett to write “get into the act” in 1926 (much less 1831), and my instinct is that while the phrase “cock and bull” was common then, the sentence “what sort of cock and bull is this?” is more 1990s than 1920s. The point is that to create a voice with some punch you almost have to sound anachronistic, and if you’re lucky enough that your translation is read by later generations the effect may be lost. I like the force of Hapgood’s “seized with a freak to follow the others,” but it doesn’t sound like my time or Gogol’s time, it sounds like hers. (Hapgood seems to misread the syntax in a couple places, treating мало… гусей as the subject of ободрали and извели, when it’s the object of ободрали, and not supplying их or “Вечера” as the object of швырнул. Still, her translation isn’t all bad, and it would be horribly uncharitable for someone with internet access to quibble with what she did before any Russian-English dictionaries I’ve ever used were published.)

One more nice thing about English’s “What sort of cock and bull is this?”: to me it sounds ambiguous in a good way. It captures the straightforward way Hapgood, Garnett, Kent, and LH read “Это что за невидаль” and the ironic meaning attributed to it by LH’s commenter Sashura, who remarks, “I’ve always taken the opening phrase ‘Это что за невидаль’ as ironic and having the opposite meaning: The Evenings? So what? What’s the big deal about them? I think what Gogol puts in this phrase is that ‘Вечера на хуторе близ Диканьки’ sounds so common that it’s not worth writing about.”

I wish I could finish with LH’s dream translators Mark Twain and Rabelais. Or even P. G. Wodehouse. But I’ll close with Kent explaining why he went with Garnett’s translation. He was looking for “verve” himself:

The decision made twenty years ago [that is, in 1964] to use the Constance Garnett translation as the basic text for a collected edition seems now even more obvious and correct than it did then. Despite an infrequent misreading or Victorianism, her work remains remarkable; indeed, in the context of almost all subsequent efforts, her grace, eloquence, and verve now seem even closer to the tone and letter, the very spirit of Gogol. Then, too, did she not have the marvelous good sense and rare taste to preserve the interrelated thematic cycles without which others “make mincemeat of the author’s intentions”?

The thousands of revisions made earlier have been augmented by a far more modest number of new ones. The effort to keep faith with the soul of the original continues. To this end, among other things, Cossacks have still not learned to say “Hi!” All the Agafyas and Matveys have refused to become Agathas and Matthews. The medium of exchange remains kopeks and rubles. (Indeed, could one ever again sleep the sleep of the truly innocent if Akaky Akayevich—in a Penguin edition, almost certainly—was but once to shriek, “Sixteen quid for an overcoat!”?)

He sees more of the “spirit of Gogol” in Garnett’s effort than LH does, or I do (I like Garnett, but I agree the speaker’s voice is lost in this case), but he cares about some of the same issues. He may set incompatible goals, though: it’s hard to make the text sing in English and still seem Russian and old in the ways he cares about.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 27, 2013 3:02 pm

    Ah, so it’s Garnett’s translation — that’s important to know, and I’ll amend my post accordingly. I agree that it’s almost an insurmountable problem (short of reviving Sam Clemens and teaching him Russian), which is an excellent argument for learning the language.

  2. March 28, 2013 11:17 am

    Yes, there’s no substitute for learning the language, and even that never lets us overcome the distance altogether. I don’t know about you, but I feel the difference between a translation and the original a lot more with Gogol and Dostoevskii than most of their prose-writing contemporaries.

    • March 29, 2013 9:28 am

      Yes, I agree completely. Tolstoy is a breeze to translate by comparison. You will miss some details, but you won’t lose nearly as much of importance.

  3. March 29, 2013 1:35 pm

    What a fascinating post! I don’t quite know how you pieced all this together using Google snippets, but I appreciate it. As for the translations, to my 21st-century American ear English’s English hews as closely to Gogol’s diction as anyone could be expected to do, even if some of his turns of phrase may sound rather modern. But doesn’t “cock and bull” go back at least as far as Laurence Sterne?

    • March 29, 2013 7:15 pm

      Thanks for pointing me to English’s translation in the first place! What I meant to say is that “cock and bull” may go back a long way, but “what kind of cock and bull is this?” sounds to me like a recent construction. Or even a novel one. Searching for the strings “cock and bull is” and “kind of cock and bull” I don’t find many uses without “story.” That doesn’t make it a bad way to translate Gogol, of course! I like it better if no one says it now either than if it were newish and widespread. I still think it’s hard to sound like 1831 and sound full of life at the same time, unless you’re a really talented translator and it’s 1831.

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