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Words new to me: понятой

June 7, 2013

Once again from Pisemskii’s Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов, 1869):

For the exhumation of the grave, Vikhrov ordered the same poniatye who had signed for the search during the first inquiry to be called. Twelve or so peasant men of different sorts assembled: red-, blonde-, and dark-haired, some thin and some rather plump, and all their faces unhappy and uneasy. Vikhrov ordered them to take spades and shovels and went with them to the hamlet where the murdered woman had been buried. It was only a verst from the village. The doctor also expressed a desire to make the trip with them.

Вихров для раскапывания могилы велел позвать именно тех понятых, которые подписывались к обыску при первом деле. Сошлось человек двенадцать разных мужиков: рыжих, белокурых, черных, худых и плотноватых, и лица у всех были невеселые и непокойные. Вихров велел им взять заступы и лопаты и пошел с ними в село, где похоронена была убитая. Оно отстояло от деревни всего с версту. Доктор тоже изъявил желание сходить с ними. (part 4, chapter 6)

Понятые ‘local residents summoned by the police to act as witnesses or to give aid’ in Dal’s 1863-1866 dictionary. Dal’ gives two proverbs and, although it’s part of the понимать entry, derives понятой from поимать/поять or понять rather than понимать/понять. In Ozhegov’s twentieth-century dictionary, понятой is defined as a person brought in to witness an official search, inventory of property, or similar action.

Legal terms are sort of like the table of ranks, units of measure, administrative divisions of land, and so on: culturally specific constructs with no exact equivalent in English. Translators can solve that problem by borrowing (verst) or creating fixed equivalents (collegiate assessor, or “district” for уезд). With понятой it looks like translators settle for the more general “witness,” though Constance Garnett translates в присутствии понятых as “in the presence of the peasant witnesses” in The Brothers Karamazov, perhaps offering “peasant witnesses” as a “collegiate assessor”-type fixed English phrase for a Russian concept. The same passage is “in the presence of the witnesses” in Ignat Avsey’s 1994 translation, and “in the presence of witnesses” in Pevear and Volokhonsky 2002 (1st ed., 1990).

In much of the declension the word makes a minimal pair with the equivalent form of понятый ‘understood.’

Here again Pisemskii is showing us what imperial bureaucrats actually do in their work.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 8, 2013 11:23 am

    I like Garnett’s solution, and in general I think she deserves more respect than she tends to get these days.

  2. June 8, 2013 12:20 pm

    I agree, but I think there’s no perfect solution to the precision-vs.-fluency conflict: either the distinction between понятой and свидетель is lost, or the words sound less like what an otherwise similar native speaker of English would say if confronted with the same situation.

  3. June 8, 2013 7:14 pm

    This is a fun post, thank you… the whole concept of the понятой has always intrigued me, and whenever I run across it in a book I always wonder how I would translate it in that context. I, too, like Garnett’s solution, though agree with your reservations, xixvek.

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