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Elusive little plums

August 9, 2013

I just finished the late Robert A. Maguire’s “Translating Dead Souls” (2002). If you’re interested in translation and haven’t read it yet, do. It touches on big issues – two I want to return to are how to handle substandard speech and whether translations should ideally sound like they could be original works (he says no) – but it’s all wonderfully specific. He gives us Russian sentences and tells us in detail what problems he ran into. He shows us how six previous translators handled the same problem. Skip to page 28 to read about a word that has been rendered as “horse’s twat,” “you ———,” “thumbsucker,” “big booby,” “sap,” “foozle,” and (by Maguire himself) “girlie-man.” I’m thoroughly intimidated by Maguire’s knowledge and the depth of his thinking about translation and Gogol’s language.

That said, there are two places in the article where I thought “really?”

Constance Garnett, according to Maguire, “consistently renders” the Russian чай со сливками “as ‘tea with little plums,’ even though it means ‘tea with cream’” (16). I’m generally a defender of Garnett, and even entertain the suspicion that some translators like to take shots at her because the worse she did 100 years ago, the more their own skills are needed. This чай со сливками would be a striking mistake, though, even making allowances for the language resources she didn’t enjoy. But did she really write that? After some searching I find William E. Harkins telling the same story in 1977. Charles Leslie Wrenn in 1968 made the same accusation, but with strawberries and cream/little plums. No one seems to say where she made the error, except that Maguire makes it sound like it came up a lot. I looked and looked for tea with little plums, then little plums, then just any suspicious plums, and no luck so far. I thought I might have caught one when Garnett calls the cheek of a woman in a Turgenev story “smooth and fresh as a downy plum,” but I looked it up, and it’s indeed слива ‘plum’ in the Russian, not сливки ‘cream,’ which looks like, but isn’t, a plural diminutive of the word for plum. Does anyone know the source, or are people being unfair to Garnett?

The other one: Gogol uses the expression принять в уваженье. Maguire:

The proper expression is priniat’ v schet, or vo vnimanie. Some readers attribute this kind of thing to Gogol’s faulty knowledge of Russian, but that is highly unlikely, to put it mildly. Should we then presume to “correct” him in English?

He goes on to quote several translators’ versions which he finds too smooth, as if they translated the “proper expressions” instead of the odd в уваженье. The version he likes best is Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s “he did not pay her any respect,” which anticipates his own “he accorded this no respect.” He thinks others, like Bernard Guilbert Guerney’s “Chichikov did not take this into consideration,” sound too “ironed-out” (30).

I think I understand and partially sympathize with the belief, shared by Maguire and P&V, that translations should not be made to sound too smooth, and should preserve unusual features of the language of the original even at the cost of stylistic awkwardness. But is принять в уваженье so improper and un-Russian? Griboedov used it in 1819, so did Odoevskii in 1834, and it’s in Ushakov’s dictionary, marked as obsolete and bureaucratic. It seems to me that what’s wanted is an old and dry English expression, not an odd, quasi-incorrect, or confusing one.

Besides those mentioned, Maguire talks about these translators: David Magarshack, Jesse Zeldin, Christopher English, Charles Johnston, Babette Deutsch, James Falen, Walter Arndt, Aylmer Maude, Helen Michailoff, and George Reavey.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 9, 2013 6:49 pm

    Thanks for the recommendation; I’ve downloaded the pdf and am in the process of adding it to my Kindle. I love translators discussing the nitty-gritty of translating.

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