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Teaching aspect

July 12, 2018

This isn’t about literature, but it may be of interest. Background: Russian verbs have two aspects, imperfective and perfective, and they’re hard for English-speaking learners of Russian to get right. A perfective verb in Russian will usually correspond to a non-continuous form in English (did, will do), while a continuous form in English (was doing, is doing, will be doing) is almost always translated with an imperfective verb in Russian. But you can’t go the other way, and learning when to use which is, in my opinion, harder than the case system for nouns and adjectives and almost as hard as learning where to put the stress on a word.

Oscar E. Swan thinks that students would have a better chance of getting it if teachers taught aspect differently. Here are the two ways he doesn’t like. First, the nonpast-vs.-past framework used by Roman Jakobson:

This elegantly captures the similarity between the imperfective present and the perfective future by classifying them as “nonpast.” To my English mentality, the Russian perfective future can have a bit of a modal flavor, and I like the way “nonpast” links it to more than the future. But as Swan says, this diagram leaves out буду, будешь, будет, будем… + imperfective infinitive altogether.

Next is the default way today’s textbooks present things, which does include the будем + infinitive compound future:

If you’ve taken Russian in the last several decades, you’ll recognize the diagram above. Here is what Swan proposes replacing it with:

Why? Swan’s central insight, backed by frequency data (836-39), is that the perfective is used more often in both the past and the future tenses, so we shouldn’t train students to believe the imperfective is the default. If you start in the middle of the row, the present tense (always imperfective) is the most common finite form. Moving one column left or right, you get the “compact past” and “compact future,” the next most common forms for many verbs, which correspond to the perfective past and perfective future in traditional terminology. At the left and right extremes, the “diffuse,” a.k.a. imperfective, past and future are least common — at least, compound future forms like мы будем делать tend to be less common than simple future forms like мы сделаем, though the situation is murkier in the past tense.

Swan’s table also doesn’t leave any empty cells. If traditionally teachers say that a perfective form like сделали has no present-tense equivalent, in Swan’s system we can just say that the present tense of мы сделали is мы делаем (835).

I thought this was persuasive enough to be worth thinking about and posting here, but I wonder how it would affect intermediate and advanced language learners trying to get a handle on the other imperfective/perfective distinctions. The past and future forms are hard enough, but for me at least the choice of which infinitive (делать or сделать?) or imperative (делай or сделай?) form to use was even more difficult to figure out, and no doubt I still make mistakes. I’d be curious how Swan would approach those forms pedagogically.

Also, I’m not ready to let go of the idea that the imperfective aspect is unmarked, and the perfective marked. I feel like there are uses of the imperfective “in the wild” that I’d be at a loss to explain without markedness to fall back on. At the same time, it’s easy to make a sentence frame where a perfective verb would be unambiguously wrong, but harder to think of contexts where an imperfective form is impossible (even if the perfective is preferred). But it’s hard to argue with Swan’s point that learners can easily take this way of thinking too far:

In pedagogy [the terms “marked” and “unmarked”] are misleading because they encourage students to think that, because it is supposedly unmarked, the imperfective aspect is overall safest to use, when it is not. It is true that the perfective aspect expresses a narrower meaning than the imperfective, but if, despite that, perfective forms are the ones to be expected in past- and future-tense use, and they are, then in this sense they are not marked, but unmarked, and accordingly the perfective is the “safest” aspect to use in most instances. (835)

See “Sketching the Russian Tense-Aspect System for Verbs That Form Simple Aspect Pairs” by Oscar E. Swan, Slavic and East European Journal 61.4 (2017): 825-43 (no link). The tables above are slightly simplified versions Swan’s tables on pp. 833-35.

Translation comparison: Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories

June 19, 2018

If you don’t mind a detour to the twentieth century, here‘s another translation comparison well worth your time. Languagehat looks at translations of Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories, a.k.a. Kolyma Tales (Колымские рассказы, written 1954-73, published in Russian 1966-78), by John Glad (1980) and Donald Rayfield (2018). The discussion of the end of “Through the Snow” (По снегу, 1956?) is particularly interesting. Here are four versions of the last sentence:


А на тракторах и лошадях ездят не писатели, а читатели.


Later will come tractors and horses driven by readers, instead of authors and poets.


As for riding tractors or horses, that is the privilege of the bosses, not the underlings.

Languagehat’s commenter D.O., as amended by LH:

Tractors and horses are for readers, not writers.

To my mind this last version is head and shoulders above the two published translations. I’d love to hear Rayfield’s thinking here. This isn’t a case of a translator going for the apparent surface meaning and missing a specialized or idiomatic use of a word, but of going right past the obvious choice.

After reading LH’s post, I thought there must be context missing: maybe there was an earlier sentence about the people walking through the snow as “writers” of a winter camp map, which their jailers would read? But as far as I can see, the whole story is just two paragraphs long, with nothing about bosses anywhere, and nothing about writers or readers of anything until the last sentence, which reads like a twist ending held back for effect. You thought I was talking about literal snow, and probably winter routines at a labor camp, but surprise! It’s a metaliterary allegory. The first writer forges a new path in difficult conditions, other writers widen the path by following the first writer, but not too exactly, and then readers can casually ride through on a tractor.

I just wonder if Rayfield is two moves ahead of me, since it’s hard to believe he’s unaware of the obvious metaliterary interpretation, unless it’s a case of seeing everything through the lens of Gulag suffering.

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.