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The Little Tragedies in translation

July 31, 2012

Alexander Anichkin of the blog ТЕТРАДКИ posts here and here about Alan Shaw’s translation of Pushkin’s Little Tragedies (Маленькие трагедии, 1830). You can buy a pdf at Shaw’s own blog or a Kindle version. Shaw has also translated Griboedov’s Горе от ума (1825-33) as The Woes of Wit and written plays of his own; his specialty as a translator seems to be translating for the stage, making sure that the translated lines read aloud have the same force as the original ones, instead of sounding flat or incomprehensible (if “literal”) when you hear them without seeing them on the page. Based on the monologue of Salieri’s that Anichkin discusses, I have to agree that Shaw doesn’t obviously sacrifice “textological precision” to get a read-aloud-able text. True, I wasn’t sure why he chose “Here’s poison; it’s Isora’s final gift” instead of “…my Isora’s final gift,” unless it was to avoid a string of I/me/mines; usually the possessive pronouns would vanish going from English to Russian. And “While I was feasting with my hated guest” makes me think Salieri is dining with the same guest again and again, while that passage in Russian suggests to me a succession of different hated guests, each one of whom Salieri refrains from poisoning in case a more hated one comes along. [UPDATE: Careless reading on my part. The earlier “some careless enemy” makes it quite clear it is a succession of guests, not just one guest. Thanks to Alan Shaw for his comment below!] Shaw’s English sounds less archaic than Pushkin’s Russian, but better a neutral/modern approach than a failed attempt to simulate 1830 usage, if we don’t have an excellent translation from that era.

I fall into my bad habit of nitpicking and quibbling since that’s easier than quoting the best lines, which never look as good when pulled out of context and praised to the skies, but I like Shaw’s translation of the soliloquy very much and recommend that everyone click over to read it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 31, 2012 10:24 am

    Thanks for the notice, and for your astute comments. Mozart and Salieri was done long before the others, and I can’t always reconstruct why I chose to translate some things the way I did. “My Isora” would make it clear, as in the original, that this was his wife or beloved. Usually I try to be literal unless there’s some good reason not to be. I guess “my” must have sounded a little too stiff to me here. As for “my hated guest,” I think this has to refer back to the earlier mention of “some careless enemy,” and if that is kept in mind, a succession of guests will be understood.

  2. July 31, 2012 10:46 am

    You’re absolutely right about “my hated guest,” of course, and I apologize for the error. Going back and forth between Russian and English evidently made me lose the thread of the full speech. By the way, I’m looking forward to the second edition of The Woes of Wit!

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