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Too few translations to compare: Pisemskii

April 30, 2013

In a perfect world I’d like to look at several English editions of Pisemskii’s Troubled Seas while it’s fresh in my mind. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, it’s never been translated into English.

What has been done? One Thousand Souls  (Тысяча душ, 1858) was translated into English (long after German and French) in 1959 by Ivy Litvinov. Two reviewers liked the translation, but the translator still can’t win: Tomira W. Buxell complained that “one could perhaps distrust the use of contemporary slang as incompatible with the nineteenth-century Russian,” and R. E. Steussy that “it is generally much less colloquial than the original Russian.” Flipping through Litvinov’s translation I don’t immediately see any contemporary slang, but more than fifty years has passed, so maybe I just can’t hear it. Substantively what seems to be going on is that Buxell thinks Pisemskii should sound dated to English readers in the 1960s as he would to Russian readers in the 1960s, and Steussy thinks Pisemskii should sound colloquial to English readers in the 1960s whenever he would have to Russian readers in the 1860s. Here’s a sample of Litvinov’s approach:

All the inhabitants of the little town truckled to her, the more that she behaved with extreme arrogance, making the acquaintance of all the officials in the town, but becoming intimate with hardly any of them, openly declaring that she only knew spiritual repose when she saw Count Ivan and his charming family (Count Ivan, a distant relative of hers, was a wealthy landed proprietor with an estate in the environs of the town). (25)

В маленьком городишке все пало ниц перед ее величием, тем более что генеральша оказалась в обращении очень горда, и хотя познакомилась со всеми городскими чиновниками, но ни с кем почти не сошлась и открыто говорила, что она только и отдыхает душой, когда видится с князем Иваном и его милым семейством (князь Иван был подгородный богатый помещик и дальний ее родственник). (part 1, chapter 2)

“Truckle” in the OED, meaning 2b: “to submit from an unworthy motive; to yield meanly or obsequiously; to act with servility.” I’d heard that translators sometimes demoted a князь from prince to count, and here’s an example. The tone sounds perfect to me. I like оказалась в обращении очень горда = “behaved with extreme arrogance” and ни с кем почти не сошлась = “becoming intimate with hardly any of them.” I read the Russian first and wondered how she would handle “отдыхает душой,” and “knew spiritual repose” sounds surprisingly good while staying very close to each word’s meaning.

Some more of Pisemskii’s fiction is out there in English, but none of the other large-scale novels. “The Old Proprietress” (Старая барыня, 1857) appeared, abridged, in a 1903 anthology. I can’t find the translator’s name, unless the editor, Leo Wiener, translated this piece himself; translators are credited in some but not all other cases. The Simpleton (Тюфяк, 1850) was also translated by Litvinov, possibly in 1959 or 1965. “Nina” (Нина, 1848), “The Comic Actor” (Комик, 1851), and “An Old Man’s Sin” (Старческий грех, 1861) were translated by Maya Jenkins and published together in 1987.

Among Pisemskii’s plays, A Bitter Fate (Горькая судьбина, 1859) appeared in Masterpieces of the Russian Drama (1933), translated by Alice Kagan and George Rapall NoyesBaal (Ваал, 1873) was translated by Andrew Donskov in Russian Literature Triquarterly (1974), and his translation later appeared in an anthology called The Unknown Russian Theater (1990).

Unlike Dostoevskii, Tolstoi, Turgenev, Chekhov, and even Leskov, with Pisemskii we don’t have much from the earliest Russian-to-English translators. Isabel F. Hapgood (1851-1928) didn’t translate Pisemskii and gives him just one paragraph in A Survey of Russian Literature, with Selections (1902), between 9 pages on Ostrovskii and 1 1/2 pages on A. K. Tolstoi. Constance Garnett didn’t get to Pisemskii either.

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