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Ukrainian speech in Russian literature

September 3, 2013

I’ve been thinking about what happens to a third language in a translation, like the French in War and Peace. Bear with me if I try to reason from first principles about what translators know already.

For Tolstoi’s French, it’s easy. Leave the French as French in an English translation, and it will be roughly as familiar to the Anglophone audience as it was to the Russian one.  With variation, of course — our grandparents didn’t all think in elegant French — but then and now, many readers will have been exposed to some French, and both Russian and English have a significant number of borrowings from French. It can work with or without footnotes giving the English/Russian.

What about when the third language is Ukrainian?

Leaving it unchanged in a Russian-to-English translation seems like a non-starter. It would be opaque to almost all Anglophone readers, while Russian readers would usually find it easier than French. You could try to find a language that is to English what Ukrainian is to Russian, but what would this be? Dutch with extra Gallicisms, or perhaps Spanish in the US, French in the UK and Canada? It would be hard to capture the degree of linguistic distance right, and even if you did you’d be activating all sorts of specific associations beyond “near neighbor who speaks a language I sometimes hear spoken.” Likewise if you chose a particular form of English (Scottish, Irish, Southern US, Wild West, colonial subject of the British Empire…?). And I think there are problems with trying for a timelessly and generically substandard English in all circumstances, on top of the fact that this wouldn’t be analogous to Ukrainian in a Russian text. You might try having the Ukrainian character speak the English of an immigrant from Eastern Europe, but this would seem more “foreign” than it should.

In the next couple posts I want to look at how the language issue plays out for two Ukrainian characters: Nikolai Silych Drozdenko in Pisemskii’s Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов, 1869) and Evgraf Fedorovich Nechai in Leskov’s No Way Out (Некуда, 1864). You won’t be surprised that Leskov does more with the Ukrainian/Russian contrast, but I’ll save that for next time. To use the terminology used in the works, I should call these characters Little Russians (the official imperial term for Ukrainians) or khokhly. Pisemskii’s narrator, at least, uses khokhol ‘topknot,’ a marked and controversial term Russians use for Ukrainians that Ushakov’s dictionary marks as prerevolutionary, colloquial, jocular, and pejorative and Ozhegov’s passes over in silence. It’s still (or again?) in widespread use, as in this article, “Khokhly As Engine of Progress.”

5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 3, 2013 7:44 pm

    “Khokhol” is about as controversial as “kike” or “nigger”.

  2. September 3, 2013 9:59 pm

    By “controversial” I did mean “widely perceived as offensive,” but cross-linguistic comparisons of pejorative terms are tricky. It would be hard to find “kike” or “nigger” used in a column on, I don’t know, Huffington Post the way that “khokhol” is used at the gazeta.ru link.

    But I don’t mean to be too bloodlessly descriptive. Thanks for pointing out the ugliness of the word.

    • September 4, 2013 2:48 pm

      It would. Not because it isn’t offensive, but because Russian press is more tolerant towards offence. However, I fail to understand why, realizing how widely this word is perceived as offensive, you would consider using it.

      • September 4, 2013 2:59 pm

        I apologize. In the post I meant to draw attention to Pisemskii’s use of the word, not to use it in my own name, nor to advocate its use.

      • September 4, 2013 4:35 pm

        I’m sorry. I ought to have assumed so, but was too flabbergasted. Please forgive my misunderstanding.

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