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Translation comparison: Who Lives Happily in Russia?, again

April 7, 2014

A while ago I did a mini–translation comparison on Nekrasov’s Who Can Be Happy in Russia? (Кому на Руси жить хорошо, about 1863-1877), between Juliet M. Soskice’s 1917 translation of the whole text and a few excerpts that J. Alexander Ogden translated in passing in an article on Nekrasov’s “ventriloquism.” For completeness I’ll add a translation of the prologue from The Harvard Monthly in 1898, a time when “vodka” got the same explanatory footnote treatment as “versts.” It’s credited as “Translated by Leo Wiener. Revised by A. C. Coolidge,” and Wiener reprinted it in his 1903 anthology of Russian literature. But I’m glad I looked it up in The Harvard Monthly — it’s fun seeing it in the company of “Should the Athletic Committee Be Elected by the Undergraduates?” and an editorial on “The Freshman Question.” With it in the poetry section is “Richard Cory,” the one that would trickle down to me almost a century later as a song.

Ogden’s excerpts don’t overlap with the part Wiener translated (the prologue is about 10 pages out of 230 in my Russian edition, so less than 5%), but we can compare Wiener and Soskice. Here is the part when the peasants ask a bird for its wings so they can fly over the country, but then change their request:

Wiener, with Coolidge (1898):

—“We do not want your tiny wings!
If only we could have some bread,
Say, twenty pounds a day;
Our mother Russia we should see,
And walking see her thoroughly!”
Spoke out the gloomy Prov.

“And if a pail of vodka we
Could have each day!” said hastily
The vodka fiends, the Goobins twain,
Iván and Mitrodór.

—“And every morning cucumbers,
Well pickled ones, say, ten to each!”
The peasants said in jest.

—“And every noon a cosy jug
Of cool, refreshing kvas!”

—“And every eve a teapot full
Of hot and boiling tea!”

You’ll be happy to learn, if you don’t already know, that they will get a magic tablecloth that gives them all these things so they can walk around Russia looking for someone happy, though the tablecloth does put a limit on the vodka. Wiener simulates Nekrasov’s meter in English — in Russian it’s iambic trimeter with dactylic endings (8 syllables, last stress on the third-to-last one) alternating with occasional, and unpredictable, lines of iambic trimeter with masculine endings (6 syllables, stressed on the last one). Soskice also translates into a rigid meter, but a different one: amphibrachic dimeter.

Soskice (1917):

“No wings would be needful
If we could be certain
Of bread every day;
For then we could travel
On foot at our leisure,”
Said Prov, of a sudden
Grown weary and sad.

“But not without vodka,
A bucket each morning,”
Cried both brothers Goóbin,
Mitródor and Ívan,
Who dearly loved vodka.

“Salt cucumbers, also,
Each morning a dozen!”
The peasants cry, jesting.

“Sour qwass, too, a jug
To refresh us at mid-day!”

“A can of hot tea
Every night!” they say, laughing.

Having read the poem in Russian, I can’t help hearing Nekrasov’s meter through Wiener’s and I can’t help liking that. I don’t know if I should like it, though. The same meter is never the same in different languages (e.g. the eighth syllable ends up stressed more often in Wiener than in Nekrasov), and even if it were, it might not have the same psychological effect. In 1917 Nadine Jarintzov complained that Soskice “does not convey the national stateliness of the dacytlled lilt at all,” but this dactylled lilt might sound less stately and more comic in English. This is an idea I first learned from the ultimate comparativist of meter, Mikhail Gasparov, but it’s much older. Abraham Yarmolinsky thought it was impossible to take Jarintzov’s theory of poetic translation seriously, and that Soskice, changing the meter, had “made every lover of good literature her debtor.” And here is W. J. Sedgefield in 1918:

In [Jarintzov’s] insistence on preserving in every case the original metre she fails to realise that the English ear and the Russian ear in the matter of verse-rhythm have received a very different education. Thus the dactylic rhythm, which abounds in Russian poetry, is comparatively rare in English, consequently its effect when used in any given poem is not at all the same in the two languages.

It goes beyond the already significant issue of how readers’ ears have been trained. In Russian, writing in this particular meter goes very well with simulating peasant speech by using even more diminutives than in ordinary literary Russian: 8 of the 11 long lines in this passage end with a diminutive. But there’s nothing about Wiener’s “thoroughly,” “vodka we,” “hastily,” “cucumbers,” or “ten to each” that’s particularly folksy. (“Goobins twain,” “cosy jug,” and “teapot full” are folksier, but I get the impression they don’t fall out of the meter as naturally as all the -ушка and -очка endings do in Russian.) The goals of recreating rhythm and register are not necessarily easy to accomplish at the same time.

Either Soskice felt freer to change things across the board, or changing the meter forced other changes on her. Wiener deals with “half a pood” by changing it to “twenty pounds”; Soskice just leaves it out. With the expression Русь-матушка, it’s tricky to convey to English readers that the word used for Russia is not the standard modern Россия but the one used for Kievan Rus. This distinction is lost in Wiener’s “Our mother Russia,” or arguably conveyed in the “our,” but in Soskice the word vanishes altogether. Both translations mark stress on Russian names — Hapgood used to do this too, so it was perhaps expected in those days — but Wiener puts the stress on Iván and Mitrodór where it falls in Russian, while Soskice tells people to pronounce the names in a way that an English speaker would be more likely to anyway, Mitródor and Ívan, reversing the order of the names, too. (This has always struck me as one of the most Gospel-like things in literature: the Goobin brothers, who like the sons of Zebedee are not characterized enough to be distinguishable from each other or the larger group they’re part of, but who keep being mentioned as brothers to break up an otherwise monotonous list and give it a feeling of reality.) Soskice doesn’t always subtract. The “they say, laughing” at the end of the passage is the kind of addition for meter’s sake that drove Nabokov crazy.

You can see that Wiener has tried to preserve the folksy parallelism of the last three speeches (they all start with a conjunction and time expression — да утром, а в полдень, а вечером — and end with the preposition по plus a diminutive), though even there it’s muted. Soskice always starts with the noun requested and puts the time expression in the last line, but the pattern is much less obvious than in the original. Folksiness is an impossible problem in this poem. I have no idea how a translator could account even for the diction (кабы, охочий, all the diminutives). It’s hard to sound like a Russian peasant in English, and this is a case where generic substandard language really wouldn’t be enough. Wiener and Soskice sound more like writers, and less like peasants, than they would in a perfect world.

Wiener’s comparatively precise approach has its problems. I very much understand his desire to keep the distinction between long and short lines and put the emphatic short lines where Nekrasov had them; the placement of short lines is expressive in Russian and hard to convey by other means. But it leads to some clunkers of lines, like “the fuss is — to divide.”

It’s impossible to know, but I wonder how much the different paths on meter affected the translators’ persistence. Soskice finished a very long poem, and as far as I know Wiener/Coolidge didn’t even come close. That may have had to do with longevity, leisure time, other projects, waning interest… or maybe it just wasn’t easy to sustain the simulated Russian meter for that long.

Looking at passages of translations in detail usually makes me despair, since you see how much is lost or has to change, and you don’t get the compensating effect of the entire work seeming more similar to the entire original work than a few lines do to their original counterparts. But there are always things to like, too. I love Soskice’s spelling “qwass” and Wiener’s line “The vodka fiends, the Goobins twain.” I would have incorrectly guessed that “vodka fiends” belonged to the slang of a time much later than 1898, and would never have imagined the two halves of that line being written by the same person. And I think “fiends,” “twain,” and their combination are not a bad simulation of Nekrasov’s non-ordinary but never obscure language here.

[Update 7/20/20: A few lines of a different part of Who Can Be Happy in Russia? by an unidentified translator appear in The World’s Wit and Humor.]

Original Russian:

  «Не надо бы и крылышек.
Кабы нам только хлебушка
По полупуду в день. —
И так бы мы Русь-матушку
Ногами перемеряли!» —
Сказал угрюмый Пров.

  «Да по ведру бы водочки», —
Прибавили охочие
До водки братья Губины,
Иван и Митродор.

  «Да утром бы огурчиков
Соленых по десяточку», —
Шутили мужики.

  «А в полдень бы по жбанчику
Холодного кваску».

  «А вечером по чайничку
Горячего чайку…»

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