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He could speak Ukrainian “when the need arose or for a joke”

September 9, 2013

Reading Leskov’s “Western” stories I sometimes feel like there are no clear boundaries between Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, and perhaps Belarusian or other languages. I’m not trying to describe the real linguistic world, but the impression produced by the way Leskov mingles them — though these aesthetic effects probably come out of real-world diglossia in the western portions of the Russian Empire. Actually, the term from linguistics class that most comes to mind is “creole continuum”:

Nechai had a trait common to many Little Russians. Despite his long residence in Moscow, he liked to mix his Russian speech with Little Russian, and whenever he had a chance to with someone, he spoke entirely in Little Russian. As for the doctor, he understood this dialect with no trouble and could make himself understood in it when the need arose or for a joke. (book 2, chapter 1)

(At this time “Little Russian dialect” is the standard term for Ukrainian in the Russian press, with both “Ukrainian” and “language” politically charged.)

Here’s a schematic representation of the languages Nechai and Doctor Rozanov use in a conversation in that chapter, where “N” means Nechai, “D” means Doctor Rozanov, “R” means Russian, “U” means Ukrainian, and “M” means mixed.

NR – DR – [Nechai recognizes his old friend] – NR – NM – DR – NR – DR – NU – [narrator intervenes with passage above] – DU – NM – DU – NM – DR – NM – DR – NR – DR – NM – DR – NM – DR

Both start in Russian, both switch to Ukrainian, Doctor Rozanov switches back to Russian, and Nechai mixes the two. The mixture varies: often Nechai’s sentences are made up of Ukrainian words except for common, short Russian words like что, еще, or это (which I think would be що, ще, це in Ukrainian), but his last line here is one Ukrainian word (коллежка, and his use of it sounds very Polish to me, but I’m no expert on contemporary Ukrainian usage) and one vowel (хлиба instead of хлеба) from being completely in Russian.

What makes it hard for a translator is — well, two things, really. It makes it harder to grasp the nuances of the original text. The perfect translator, like no one alive today, would have hung out on the western edge of the empire in the 1860s and become fluent in every local language and internalized the social rules that governed when various kinds of people used each language.

I’m very far from ideal. I think I understand most of the Ukrainian in Leskov’s novel, but only by treating whatever doesn’t make sense as Russian as if it were Polish. According to the Valuev Circular (see the last post), this should be enough, but in fact, if Leskov is using, say, Russified forms of Ukrainian words, or words that exist in Polish but not in Ukrainian, I won’t catch it. Any false friends lurking out there with Russian or Polish will probably trip me up too.

But let’s say I could snap my fingers and make myself as fluent in every Slavic language as I am in English. It’s still hard to know how to reproduce in English the effect of the multiple languages in the original. Nechai has a linguistic intimacy with Rozanov that he can’t have even with his Moscow-born, monolingual Russian wife (caveat: I haven’t finished the book). I’d want a translation to convey that fact as well as all the shifts in their conversations.

[Update 3/11/2015: Another Ukrainian in Leskov’s early fiction is Il’ia Makarovich Zhuravka in The Bypassed (Обойденные, 1865). See the passage in part 2, chapter 1 that begins “Il’ia Makarovich was a pure khokhol beyond all possible possibility.”]

I’m not sure if I’ll return to this, but for now, here’s the original text of Nechai and Rozanov’s conversation:

Дверь приотворилась, и на пороге в залу показался еще довольно молодой человек с южнорусским лицом. Он был в одном жилете и, выглянув, тотчас спрятался назад и проговорил:

– Извините.

– Ничего, ничего, Евграф, выходи, пожалуйста, поскорее, – произнес Розанов, направляясь к двери.

Пристав выглянул, посмотрел несколько мгновений на доктора и, крикнув:

– Розанов! дружище! ты ли это? – бросился ему на шею.

Следственный пристав, Евграф Федорович Нечай, был университетский товарищ Розанова. Хотя они шли по разным факультетам, но жили вместе и были большие приятели.

– Откуда ты взявся? – спрашивал Нечай, вводя Розанова в свой незатейливый кабинет.

– Места приехал искать, – отвечал Розанов, чувствуя самую неприятную боль в сердце.

— Ох, эти места, места! — проговорил Нечай, почесывая в затылке.

— И не говори.

— А протэкцыи маешь?

Нечай имел общую многим малороссам черту. Несмотря на долгое пребывание в Москве, он любил мешать свою русскую речь с малороссийскою, а если с кем мог, то и совсем говорил по-малороссийски. Доктор же свободно понимал это наречие и кое-как мог на нем объясняться по нужде или шутки ради.

— Ни, братику, жаднои не маю, — отвечал доктор.

— Это кепсько.

— Ну, як зауважишь.

— А со всей фамилией придрапав?

— Нет, семья дома осталась.

— Ну, это еще байдуже; а вот як бы у купи, то вай, вай, вай.. лягай, та и помри, то шкоды только ж.

— Нет, я один здесь, — невесело проронил доктор.

— И давно?

— Вот уж другая неделя.

— Что ж ты дося ховався?

— Да так. То в университет ходил, то адреса твоего не знал. Да и вообще как-то…

— Ты, коллежка, не спеши нос-то вешать: живы будем и хлиба добудем. А ты с моей бабой ведь незнаком?

— Нет; когда ж я тебя видел? Я даже не знал, что ты и женился.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 19, 2013 3:41 am

    Nechay sounds especially warm and kind-hearted when he switches codes, and the Latinate words in his Ukrainian remind me of Petrine and early post-Petrine Russian with its виктория, принципии, пропозиция and so on.

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