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Roddy Raskolnikov and living language

August 20, 2013

Teffi in 1926 (h/t seminarist)

A great deal has been written about how the Russian language must be preserved, how one must treat it with care, not ruin it, not distort it, not introduce innovations.

[examples follow of émigré linguistic pet peeves]

Did anyone think, living in Russia, about whether he spoke correctly? Did it occur to anyone to doubt the admissibility of his pronunciation or turn of phrase?

Russia in its enormity contained hundreds of dialects, thousands of accents. Every province, every district had its own way of not reducing Os or saying TS instead of CH or using voiced velar fricatives. The dry academic language that is now recommended to us existed only in literature, when an author spoke for himself, because as soon as he started to write in a living language that people spoke, there immediately appeared before the reader an individual from whom the words came. Beneath impersonal, smooth literary language an author hides, renounces himself, speaks “objectively.” (“On Russian,” or “О русском языке”)

Definitely read the rest, where Teffi takes a famous quotation from “objective” literary language and paraphrases it in several sociolinguistically different living voices. But for now compare the above to Robert Maguire in 2002:

This tussle over weights and measures raises the larger problem of how “Russian” the text should seem to the reader. […] [A blurb on a Pevear and Volokhonsky translation] does prompt me to wonder whether a translator should strive to create the impression that the reader is encountering an unfamiliar culture in a language he does not know but is somehow able intuitively to understand? Or should the text be so decentered that it could be either a work of the reader’s own native literature, or a specimen of universal literature in the sense of not belonging to any nationality at all? […] when, in Crime and Punishment, “Rodya”—Raskol’nikov’s pet name—becomes “Roddy” in the hands of David Magarshack, matters have gone too far: I immediately summon up the image of a lithe English figure in athletic whites inviting his well-heeled house-guests to a game of tennis.  (“Translating Dead Souls,” p. 20)

Teffi and Maguire run into the same problem in different contexts.

If a narrator speaks in living language, it sounds like a particular person’s, or type of person’s, language. That’s distracting if you want to sound objective, so you might tell a story with dry, academic language. (The fact that this impersonal language sounds like no person at all, rather than a professor or diplomat or old man, is interesting in itself.)

If a translator puts dialogue into living speech, it sounds like a particular type of person’s speech, but a type that exists in the target language and culture. There isn’t a way for a Russian merchant or peasant or provincial gentlewoman to sound in English, or at least there wasn’t before Russian-to-English translations became numerous.

It’s almost the same thing, but it’s also the opposite. Teffi wants a contrast between an objective-sounding narrator and alive-sounding characters. Maguire wants the language of both narrator and characters not to make English readers think of English (American, Australian, Canadian, Indian, Irish…) types – which means he’s afraid they will sound alive in Teffi’s terms. But he doesn’t want them to sound indistinguishably dry and dead either.

The issue comes up again for Maguire:

Substandard speech posed a problem for me, as it always does. For Selifan, in particular, I struggled to hit the right verbal register. If one wants to find English equivalents, one must beware, once again, of decentering the text: such a character can begin to sound like a slave in the ante-bellum South, or a hillbilly from Appalachia, and any illusion of Russianness is shattered. (31)

I completely see Maguire’s point, but I think this is tricky. If you have a rule that a Russian serf can’t sound like an American slave, you’re doing more than preserving an illusion of Russianness – you’re also passively asserting that serfdom is unlike slavery (just as using “serfdom” instead of “slavery” to describe the system does). This is especially true if the translated Russian slaves speak in the voice of free but poor northern whites or Englishmen. Maguire counts on “simple markers of substandard speech” that are universally and generally substandard, without calling up any place-and-time-and-class-and-race associations at all, “like ‘ain’t,’ double negatives, ‘-in’’ instead of ‘-ing,’ and a paratactic sentence structure” (31). To me it seems like you either have associations with a particular non-Russian set of people, or you have bland universality.

I’m sure this ground has been covered by others, but I’m having trouble finding a practical or theoretical resolution that makes me happy. (Anything I should read?) Here’s a schematic summary of how I’m thinking about this:

Problem: how do you take a distinct voice from one language to another?


1 – make it generic, so it doesn’t raise inappropriate associations

2 – make it like something that already exists, so it’s vivid

3 – make a new thing that is neither generic nor an existing but different vivid thing

Maguire wants solution #3, I think: let generations of Russian-to-English translators create a vivid but authentic way for Russian social types to speak English. I think he has concerns about both #1 and #2, but is especially dismissive of #2 (as with Roddy Raskolnikov). It’s not just Maguire: #1 leaves you open to the “‘what oddity is this’ forsooth” kind of criticism, and #2 to the “sixteen quid for an overcoat” kind. Arguably the “go to the hairy devil” critique comes out of #3.

I wonder if translators could use #2 a bit more than most of them do. Is there a way to harvest the vividness and emotional punch of a voice that already exists in the target language, without making the reader consciously aware of where the punch comes from? Can you make an American reader respond to the speech of 1850s Russian serfs the way she would respond to the speech of 1850s American slaves, without her feeling something’s out of place?

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