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Katz and Pasternak Slater on translating Crime and Punishment

June 15, 2018

A while back the folks at The Bloggers Karamazov ran interviews with two translators of Crime and Punishment, Michael Katz and Nicholas Pasternak Slater. It’s interesting to see where their impressions overlap — both mention Dostoevskii’s humor and pick Svidrigailov as the most misunderstood character — and where they don’t. They also touch on two of the problems I keep coming back to when I think about translation.

First, here’s Pasternak Slater on characters’ voices, especially those with a culture-specific marking for class or social group:

The most difficult part of the novel to translate, but at the same time one of the most rewarding, is the dialogue. Almost all the characters in Crime and Punishment have an individual ‘voice’ which carries over from one episode to the next. I have tried to copy their distinctive voices as faithfully as I could, while making each character’s speech seem natural in English. At the same time, the colloquial speech, while sounding normal to the modern ear, must not be too colloquial – it would never do to have palpably twenty-first-century expressions intruding into this nineteenth-century novel. Yet nor does one want old-fashioned Victorian English. What the translator has to look for is a kind of neutral speech that sounds natural when spoken, without being too specifically redolent of England (or any other English-speaking nation, but I write as a British translator); one has to remember that the story is about Russia. – When Dostoevsky uses outspokenly lower-class or peasant expressions, it becomes even more difficult. Some translators have had recourse to Cockney (London) slang to render demotic Russian, and this sometimes works, though it can be treacherous. Regional provincial English is even more of a minefield, and best avoided I think.

What is to be done? On the one hand, speech should sound neutral and natural and not have specific associations with a time after the nineteenth century or a place other than Russia. On the other hand, it should sound like the speech of an individual person from a particular group, and different from the other characters’ voices that are also rendered in neutral, non-anachronistic, non-place-specific English. Existing varieties of non-standard English are either “best avoided,” or in the best case, ”treacherous.” This sounds like an admission that there’s no good solution, but perhaps when I read his translation I’ll see how he threaded the needle.

On repetition, Katz succinctly says “the Russian ear tolerates repetition – of long names including patronymics and certain words and phrases,” and this for me gets at the heart of the problem. Preserve every repeated word or name or root, and you’re violating the rules of English style more than the Russian ones, which may not feel any pressure to substitute synonyms at all. But if you don’t, you’re erasing connections that existed in the original between the phrases and sentences with repetition.

Here are the first, second, and third parts of the interviews. See if you can guess which scene they choose as their favorite. Or compare the recent translators’ remarks to these comparisons of older translations of Crime and Punishment: Richard Lourie on McDuff, Pevear and Volokhonsky, and Garnett, or Boris Dralyuk on those three translations plus Ready’s.

Women writers and Russian schools

March 12, 2018

The “Required Minimum Content of a Secondary (Complete) General Education” established by the Department of Education of the Russian Federation includes 64 writers and poets. Among them are exactly three women: Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, Akhmadulina. That only 4.5% are women is very sad. It’s just as sad that no prose writers are included. And hardly less sad that all three are from the twentieth century.

In a typical Russian literary curriculum for grades 5-11, I counted 185 male authors, from Homer and Vladimir Monomakh to Nietzsche and Timur Kibirov. Twelve women were allowed into this boys’ club, or 5.8% of the total. Only one of them lived before the twentieth century: Charlotte Bronte, an Englishwoman.

That’s Konstantin Zarubin lamenting the underrepresentation of women in the Russian literary canon. He singles out Elena Gan and her story “The Ideal” (Идеал, 1837) as a gem that Russian high school students miss, especially its provincial ball scene.

I sometimes wonder if choosing to limit this blog to nineteenth-century Russia has made me miss out on Remizov or Proust or a million other writers. But that decision, combined with reading Sarah J. Young and Languagehat, did at least prompt me to read Gan and Iuliia Zhadovskaia and Ol’ga N. and Pavlova-Novinskaia. There’s obviously much more to discover. In a companion post Zarubin, who says he hadn’t read many of these authors until a few years ago either, gives his impressions of Ekaterina Dashkova, Nadezhda Durova, Karolina Pavlova, Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaia, Sof’ia Kovalevskaia, Mariia Bashkirtseva, and Elizaveta D’iakonova.

My thanks to Sarah Kapp for letting me know about Zarubin’s column!

Relatives or girls my age?

February 19, 2018

Many thanks to those who bore with me through the long interruptions in “It Didn’t Come Off” while I was teaching. I’m slowly going through it to prepare a dual-language e-book, and in addition to some obvious minor errors I made, I’ve found two things I want to ask all of you about:

First, near the beginning of the story, I translated моих родственниц ‘my female relatives’ as if it were моих ровесниц ‘girls my age.’ I’m almost convinced that it should have been ровесниц in the original publication, since родственниц appears to fit the context less well, but maybe I’m just digging in to defend a mistake. What do you think?

Then, near the end, there’s a speech of Gornov’s where my own English doesn’t sound very convincing to me. I think the meaning is more or less right, but it’s not in words anyone would say. And it’s always possible I’m not even right about the meaning. Here’s what leads up to the part I don’t like:

“Oh!” he said suddenly. “Yelena Nikolayevna did write to you, twice. She is beside herself that her letters were not given to you.”

“Strange! I asked her maid several times if there were any letters and always received an answer in the negative.”

Gornov blushed slightly.

“The maid lied,” he said. “That’s clear.”

“So much the better.”

This phrase displeased him. He started to pull on a glove, took it off, threw it on the table, and said, looking fixedly at me,

“I should be unhappy not only if I could doubt her sincerity myself, but even if someone else were to doubt it. I’ve tried to love a woman I did not respect, and it didn’t work; I couldn’t force myself to do it. God forbid I should come to think she had ever lied! You don’t know how taxing the struggle between passion and one’s moral feeling can be! I tried it once, and I don’t think I could take it again.”

He stopped for a moment and eventually repeated,

And here’s what he eventually repeats, and what comes after it, in Russian:

— Не вынесу! Не дай Бог обманывать сердце и вооображение ложно приложенными словами: снисхождение, прощение. Утомишься, измельчаешь, пропадешь в собственных глазах среди этих переходов от любви к ненависти и от ненависти к любви.

If you know both Russian and English, how would you translate these lines? If your main language is English, you can find my attempt in the first bit of direct speech here, and I’d be grateful for any suggestions you have based on the English style — how does it sound to you now, and how do you think Gornov should sound?

Words new to me: акриды

February 18, 2018

I’m reading Pisemskii’s In the Whirlpool (В водовороте, 1871) and found this, in a conversation between the adulterous Prince Grigorov and the cynical, inflexible writer Miklakov:

“No, I’m not joking, I assure you,” Miklakov went on. “What else [other than having you chained up – EM] can be done with you when you say yourself that you’re losing your reason…? Well, in that case, get out of the house, drink two or three glasses of cold water, go for a long walk!”

“Just so…! But that’s not the essence of the matter!” exclaimed the prince in a sad, contemplative voice. “Rather it’s that we’re divided in two: we miss the old road and desperately want to walk down the new one, and this phenomenon is purely a product of our time and our upbringing.”

Miklakov shook his head at this.

“Always, in all times and with every method of upbringing, it was like that!” he began. “As far back as the Bible it is said that there are two Adams in every man, an old one and a new one; only in a peasant, for example, the new Adam draws him into the wilderness to prayer and akridy, and the old one calls him to the tavern; while in us the new Adam says that we must lay down our lives that the worker might be in the place of the financier, that all capital and all external authority might go to the devil, and the old Adam still wants to crush his brother, to ride in a carriage and bow down before the strong of this world.”

— Нет, не шучу, уверяю вас, — продолжал Миклаков, — что же другое делать с вами, когда вы сами говорите, что теряете всякую рассудительность?.. Ну, в таком случае, уходите, по крайней мере, куда-нибудь поскорей из дому, выпивайте два-три стакана холодной воды, сделайте большую прогулку!

— Все это так-с!.. Но суть-то тут не в том! — воскликнул князь каким-то грустно-размышляющим голосом. — А в том, что мы двойственны: нам и старой дороги жаль и по новой смертельно идти хочется, и это явление чисто продукт нашего времени и нашего воспитания.

Миклаков на это отрицательно покачал головой.

— Всегда, во все времена и при всяком воспитании, это было! — заговорил он. — Еще в священном писании сказано, что в каждом человеке два Адама: ветхий и новый; только, например, в мужике новый Адам тянет его в пустыню на молитву, на акриды, а ветхий зовет в кабак; в нас же новый Адам говорит, что надобно голову свою положить за то, чтобы на место торгаша стал работник, долой к черту всякий капитал и всякий внешний авторитет, а ветхому Адаму все-таки хочется душить своего брата, ездить в карете и поклоняться сильным мира сего. (part 1, chapter 12)

It turns out that it’s “locusts” in the phrase “locusts and wild honey,” what John the Baptist ate (Mark 1:6, Matthew 3:4). In other contexts, including the plague in Exodus 10, “locust” is саранча. If I’d known that locusts belong to the family Acrididae, maybe I would have figured it out.

It Didn’t Come Off (46)

January 12, 2018


As a child I loved to listen to my kind nanny’s stories. Under their influence, my imagination would draw fantastic images, but none of the stories impressed itself as firmly on my memory as the following one:

“An old man’s walking down a path, a black-robed monk’s walking down a path in the wilderness. He’s tired, exhausted, tormented by hunger and thirst. There’s no one there to give the old man anything to drink or anything to eat, no one to let the black-robed monk rest. And he came to a valley, and in that valley he sees a great and wondrous city. In that city there are many gold-domed churches of God, in that city there are many stone houses, tall mansions, beautiful towers, there are long streets, wide, paved, streets, and no end of lanes and alleyways. The old man looked around in all four directions and he sees that this city is a city he knows and loves. When the old man was young, he lived in this very city, he had many people here he knew and loved; his life in that city was full of joy, and he loved it with all his heart. The old man crossed himself, he prayed to God in all four directions, he bowed to the ground to his beloved city. And he went into that city. Now the black-robed monk thinks, here I’ll find my brothers, and those I know and love, my old, true, faithful friends. My friends will give me something to drink and something to eat, they’ll let a worn-out old man rest… The old man walks up and down the streets, he doesn’t see a single person; the black-robed monk wanders up and down the alleys, and he doesn’t meet a living soul. He knocks on one window, then another, and there’s not a word in answer. He goes into a broad courtyard he knows — not a word in answer. He goes into a mansion he knows — not a word in answer. He wanders through the empty mansion — not a word in answer. And the old man asks himself, what has become of my brothers, of those I love, of my old true friends, where are all the people of this city? Have they gone to God’s house, to Christ’s church, to pray to the Lord, to bow down before the saints, to light a candle, to hear a prayer, to purify their souls of sin? The old man goes into the temple of the Lord, the black-robed monk goes into God’s church, and it’s empty, there’s not a single living soul in it. And the old man walks around the empty city for three days and three nights; he walked, he walked, and he went out of the city. He sat at the gates and started to cry. And the fire-bird flew down to the old man and spake to him in a human voice: ‘hail, old man, black-robed monk, do not cry, do not grieve, do not despair, do not mourn; sit on my golden feathers, and I, the fire-bird, will carry you beyond the deep blue sea to Blessed Island, to a great city, to a rich city, to a crystal palace, to a mansion made of gemstones. In that mansion lives a queen fair of face — she has a bright sun on her forehead, and a bright moon on the back of her head, and her fair curls are thick with stars.’ The old man said to the fire-bird in answer, he said in answer, crying all the while, ‘do not carry me, fire-bird, beyond the deep blue sea, do not tempt an old man with a crystal palace, do not tell me of a queen fair of face. I have nothing to do with the cities of other lands, I came to the city of my birth, and there I heard not a word in answer.’”

After Gornov went away, my nanny’s fairy tale came to mind. It now seemed to me it was a kind of symbol. The empty city is a soul that has ceased to love. No matter what corner of it you knock at, everything is empty, love receives not a word in answer. Friendship? But that queen is beyond the deep blue sea.

I took off my blue dress, put Schubert aside, looked at the furniture and flowers in the now empty dining room and… started to cry, like the black-robed monk at the gates of the empty city.


previous installment
(this is the end of the story)
“It Didn’t Come Off” is a translation of “Не сошлись” (1867) by Ol’ga N. (Sophie Engelhardt).


В детстве любила я слушать рассказы доброй моей няни. Под их влиянием воображение рисовало передо мной фантастические образы, но ни один из рассказов не запечатлелся так сильно в моей памяти, как следующий:

«Идет старец по дорожке, черноризец по пустынной. Приустал он, притомился, голод и жажда его томят. Некому старца напоить, накормить, некому черноризца упокоить. И пришел он на долину, и во той во долине видит град великий, чудный. Много в том граде церквей Божьих златоглавых, много в том граде каменных палат, высоких хором, узорчатых теремов, улицы длинные, большие мостовые, переулкам да закоулкам и счету нет. Огляделся старец на все четыре страны и видит, что тот град ему родной, знакомый. Кaк бывал старец молод, обитал он в сем самом граде, много у него тут было родных и знакомых; радостно жилось ему в том граде, и любил он его всем своим сердцем. Перeкрестился старец, Богу на все четыре страны помолился, граду родному до земли пoклонился. И вошел он во град оный. Вот помышляет черноризец: найду я здесь и братьев, и родных, и знакомых, старых верных друзей неизменных. Напоят други меня, накормят, притомленного старца упoкоят… Идет старец по улицам, жива человека не видит; бредет черноризец по переулочкам, и живой души не встречает. Стучится в окно, в другое, нет ему ни привета, ни ответа. Входит он на знакомый ширoкий двор — нет ему ни привета, ни ответа. Входит старец в знакомые хоромы — нет ему ни привета, ни ответа. Бродит старец по пустым хоромам — нет ему ни привета, ни ответа. И вопрошает сам себя старец: куда ж делись мoи братья, мои родные, где мои старые приятели-други, где все люди сего града? Не пошли ли они в дом Божий, во Христову церковь — Господу молиться, угодникам пoклониться, свечку поставить, молебен послушать, душеньки свои от грехов очистить? Входит старец во храм Господень, входит черноризец в Божию церковь, и там все пусто, и там ни едина жива человека. И ходил старец по пустому граду три дня и три ночи; походил, походил и вышел. Сел у градских ворот и заплакал. И прилетала к старцу жар-птица, человеческим голосом ему возговорила: «Ох ты гой еси, старец-черноризец, не плачь ты, не кручинься, не тоскуй, не печалься; садись на мои золотые перья, пoнесу я тебя, жар-птица, за синее море на Блаженный остров, во град великий, во град богатый, во дворец хрустальный, в хоромы из камней самоцветных. В тех хоромах живет белолицая царевна — во лбу у ней ясно солнце, на затылке ясен месяц, во русых кудрях часты звезды.» Отвещал же старец жар-птице, отвещал, а сам горько плакал: «Не носи ты меня, жар-птица, за синее море, не прельщай ты старца дворцом хрустальным, не сули мне царевну белолицу. До чужих городов нет мне дела, приходил я во град родимый, не нашел я в нем ни привета, ни ответа.»

По отъезде Горнова вспала мне на ум нянина сказка. Кaким-то символом она мне пoказалась. Пустой город — это душа, переставшая любить. В какой уголок ее ни постучи — везде пусто, для любви нигде нет ни привета, ни ответа. Дружба? Но эта царевна за синим морем.

Я сняла голубое платье, положила в сторону Шуберта, взглянула на мебель и цветы в опустелой гостиной и — заплакала, как черноризец у городских ворот пустого города.


It Didn’t Come Off (45)

January 10, 2018

He stopped for a moment and eventually repeated,

“I couldn’t take it! God forbid I should deceive my own heart and my own imagination with the misapplied words ‘mercy’ and ‘forgiveness.’ Amid those transitions from love to hate and hate to love, you get worn out, small and petty, you lose all self-respect.”

“Did your first love last long?” I asked.

“Until I knew for sure I was mistaken. That woman deceived me, assuring me she had loved no one before me. And to what end? I did not demand that she account for her past, I should have forgiven her anything. An obliging friend brought me a letter she had written to one of her previous… admirers; I showed her the letter; do you know what she did? She claimed her handwriting was not her own! If she had but blushed! If her voice had at least altered!”

He stopped and added, as if objecting against himself,

“No! She… Yelena Nikolayevna is incapable of deceit. On the contrary! Her great misfortune is that she always, and in all company, wears her heart on her sleeve. Of course, she has faults, but a strong moral feeling ennobles and renews the soul… Listen,” he went on, “if you doubt her in the slightest, don’t tell me so, spare me… Otherwise all is lost for me. You don’t know me; I’m prepared to deceive myself, to close my eyes voluntarily, to avoid arriving at the realization that she is unworthy of my affection.”

I was about to object, but he interrupted me:

“As for you, Nastya, please consider me a constant friend. You can count on my friendship, put it to the test. I shall be happy if I have occasion to prove it to you not only in word but in deed.”

I offered him my hand. We both stood up; as we walked past the piano, I stopped involuntarily…

The melody by Schubert lay open.

“Do you remember this melody?” I asked, indicating the music book.

“How could I not!” he replied, squinting to look at the music. “You play it masterfully.”

And he left.

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“It Didn’t Come Off” is a translation of “Не сошлись” (1867) by Ol’ga N. (Sophie Engelhardt).

Он остановился на минуту и наконец повторил:

— Не вынесу! Не дай Бог обманывать сердце и вооображение ложно приложенными словами: снисхождение, прощение. Утомишься, измельчаешь, пропадешь в собственных глазах среди этих переходов от любви к ненависти и от ненависти к любви.

— А ваша первая любовь долго продолжалась? спросила я.

— Пoка я не убедился на деле, что ошибаюсь. Та женщина меня обманывала, уверила, что до меня она не любила никого. И зачем она меня обманывала? Я от нее не требовал отчета в прошлом, я бы ей простил все на свете. Услужливый приятель принес мне письмо, которое она написала одному из своих прежних… поклонников; я ей пoказал это письмо; знаете, чтó она сделала? Отказалась от своего почерка. Хоть бы она пoкраснела! Хоть бы голос у ней изменился!

Он остановился и прибавил, как будто возражая самому себе:

— Нет! Она… Елена Николаевна не умеет обманывать. Напротив! Ее беда состоит в том, что у ней вечно и для всех сердце на ладони. Конечно, у ней есть недостатки; но сильное, нравственное чувство облагораживает, возобновляет душу… Послушайте, продолжал он, если вы в ней хоть на сколько-нибудь сомневаетесь, не говорите мне этого, пoщадите меня… Не то я пропaдший человек. Вы меня не знаете; я готов обманываться, ослепляться добровольно, чтобы не дойти до сознания, что она не стóит моей привязанности.

Я было хотела возразить, он меня перебил:

— Что до вас касается, Настя, прошу вас смотреть на меня, как на неизменного друга. Рассчитывайте на мою дружбу, испытайте ее. Я буду счастлив, если мне придется доказать вам ее на деле.

Я ему протянула руку. Мы оба встали; проходя мимо рояля, я невольно остановилась…

Мелодия Шуберта лежала на пюпитре.

— Помните вы эту мелодию? спросила я, указывая на тетрадь.

— Как не помнить! отвечал он, прищуриваясь, чтобы взглянуть на ноты. — Вы ее мастерски играете.

И он уехал.

Words new to me: фифа

January 9, 2018

This word is new enough that it’s not in Ushakov or Dal’, though it is in Ozhegov’s dictionary, marked as substandard and pejorative: “a woman or girl who attracts attention through her appearance, dress, conduct.” Ten years ago native speakers on the internet were asking what the word meant to people and declaring Ozhegov’s definition was obsolete. The Russian National Corpus shows few results before 1950 (nineteenth-century uses by Druzhinin and Chekhov and one from a 1913 newspaper are actually people and dogs named “Fif” or “Fifa”) and a sharp increase after 2000; examples from 1954 and 1966 use quotation marks, while ones from the 1970s don’tFifa is a minimal pair with FIFA, the soccer organization, which in Russian is stressed on the second syllable.

Someone writing on как-понять.рф discusses the modern meaning in depth:

We all love women and think up various nicknames for them that differ considerably from our attitude toward them, from “maramoika” to “fifa.” [….] Have you often in life met haughty girls whose clothes follow the latest fashion and who see those around them as trash? If you have, that means you understand what a Fifa girl is. If you have nerves of iron and an “ocean” of free time, you can try to melt the ice around the heart of so distinctive a person. However, I wouldn’t fool yourself on that score; she needs everyone around her only to show what a princess she is and to look like “eye candy” with them as a background. That’s why you should keep as far away as you can from fifochki, guys. Why? First, so you don’t “strike out,” second, because you’ll spend a lot of money, and third, she’ll really get on your nerves. Ask yourself if you really need all that? Find yourself a simple sweet niasha and take her to bed. Fifochki aren’t for you, they’re not for anyone, they’re just for themselves.

I knew няша / niasha from this video, but I’m only now learning марамойкаmaramoika ( “1. a pejorative name for a woman, sometimes applied also to men, 2. (rarely used) a woman who drinks, who leads an indecent sort of life, 3. Narrowly: a common whore, a female drunk who sells herself”).

The word came up in a police procedural, The Police Station (Полицейский участок, first season 2015). Here a policewoman from St. Petersburg with the rank of майор has been sent to take over a police station in the smaller city of Rechensk. Two of her new subordinates call her a fifa at the 21:11 and 24:01 marks:

Dar’ia Moroz as Aleksandra Moskvina in Prestuplenie (2016)

Is the word being used in a different meaning here? The reply to the first fifa is “да, попали мы” — ‘yeah, we’re in for it.’ From this context I’d think fifa was being used to mean something like ‘hardass’: with such a strict, by-the-books boss, things are going to be unpleasant around here. But is “attractive woman who dresses fashionably and thinks she’s superior” the actual meaning here? Or is it both things at once? Both things would go with the big city/small town dynamic.

If this character played by Anna Snatkina in The Police Station is initially seen as a fifa by the men she works with, could anyone call the policewoman played by Dar’ia Moroz in Crime (2016) a fifa? She seems to take a similarly no-nonsense attitude with her new colleague (subordinate?), but wears different clothes.

As usual, even though there’s no shortage of demeaning words for women in either English or Russian, it’s hard to come up with an equivalent.