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Translation comparison: What Is to Be Done?

April 29, 2014

“Like Julie I call things by their names, as, moreover, almost all of us do in current conversation,” declares the narrator of Chernyshevskii’s What Is to Be Done? (Что делать?, 1863), before turning to Storechnikoff’s way of imagining “Vérotchka in poses each more voluptuous than its predecessor.” Or at least he talks about “these amorous images” in Benjamin R. Tucker’s 1886 translation (chapter 1, part vii).

This all gets left out in the translation by Nathan Haskell Dole and S. S. Skidelsky, also dated 1886: there is no declaration of candor, and no candor. No poses, and the amorous images become “the thought about Viérotchka.” The scare quotes around “possess” disappear, no longer there to hammer home the narrator’s disapproval of the language of men possessing women.

I don’t plan to read Chernyshevskii’s novel all the way through four times, so I’m comparing passages, not the full translations. That said, I think I can recommend Michael R. Katz’s 1989 translation and say that Tucker’s is clearly better than Dole and Skidelsky’s, which abridges too much. When they don’t abridge, they euphemize sex away. In chapter 2, part vii, Vera Pavlovna’s mother judges Lopukhov’s intentions toward her daughter by checking if he looks down her corset, but Dole and Skidelsky turn this into “noticing the way a young man looks at a girl” and “watching the direction in which he turns his eyes.” Tucker is much better with “he did not look too closely at Vérotchka’s bodice” and “watches to see if he does not cast indiscreet glances.” Katz is the best with the literal and appropriate “peeking down her corset” and “watches to see whether he will peek down her corset” (p. 111), with bonus points for not feeling he needs to vary the wording (though it’s not an exact repetition in the original, with  по заглядыванию за корсет and не запускает ли он глаз за корсет). If I dwell on this it’s because it’s a big part of the early chapters: the narrator, Lopukhov, and Vera Pavlovna disagree with Vera’s mother and Storeshnikov about whether men can love women without making them into sexual objects, not just whether they should.

The translators go different ways with the sentence “Всякий видит, что красивое лицо красиво, а до какой именно степени оно красиво, как это разберешь, пока ранг не определен дипломом?” Dole and Skidelsky show they can follow the original word order too closely when they’re not cutting out long sections, with “Everybody sees that a handsome face is handsome, but to what degree it is handsome, how can that be expressed unless its rank takes a diploma?” I also don’t buy “express” for разберешь ‘figure out.’ Katz preserves part of the metaphor with “diploma” for its cognate but no “rank,” and his English is more natural and (for better or worse) more modern-sounding: “Anyone can see that a pretty face is pretty, but how can one know how pretty it really is until its worth has been awarded a diploma?” With “worth” Katz might be taking a draft of this passage into account, where the Russian spells out that judgments of pretty faces remain vague пока красота не получит диплома на ранг, соответствующий ее достоинству ‘until beauty receives a diploma for the rank corresponding to its worth.’ The inventive Tucker changes more with “Every one sees that a beautiful face is beautiful, but how beautiful is it? It is at this point that the data of current opinion become necessary to classification.” I think I would have tried something between Katz and Tucker, perhaps “until its rank has been confirmed by a certificate” or just “until its rank has been certified.” The word for rank, ранг, is not the usual one (чин), but the Germanic borrowing used in the expression “Table of Ranks,” the name for the system of collegiate assessors and actual state councillors and so on.

Here’s the passage from chapter 1, part vii in the three English translations and the original Russian:

Michael R. Katz, 1989 (preview on Google Books or look inside on Amazon,  pp. 76-77):

Julie had already stated the most important point (as if she’d been reading Russian novels, in which the same point is always made): resistance inflames desire. Storeshnikov had become accustomed to the notion that he would “possess” Verochka. Just like Julie, I too like to call vulgar things by their real names, using the same crude, base language in which almost all of us constantly think and speak. For the last several weeks Storeshnikov had occupied himself with imagining Verochka in different “poses,” and he wanted to see these fantasies realized. It turned out that she would not fulfill them in the role of mistress: well then, let her do it as wife—it didn’t matter. The main thing was not what part she played, but the “poses,” that is, the “possession.” What filth, what pure filth—“possession.” Who dares possess another person? One can possess a bathrobe or a pair of slippers. Yet, what nonsense: almost every one of us men possesses one of you, our sisters. Again, I say, what nonsense: how are you our sisters? You are our lackeys! Some of you—even many of you—dominate us; never mind—many lackeys exercise power over their masters.

After the evening at the theater, Storeshnikov’s fantasies about Verochka’s poses became inflamed as never before. Having shown his friends the mistress of his imagination, he realized that the mistress was much better than even he had dreamed. The vast majority of men come to appreciate beauty fully, just like intelligence or any other virtue, only after hearing the general consensus. Anyone can see that a pretty face is pretty, but how can one know how pretty it really is until its worth has been awarded a diploma?

I think this is superb, and I especially admire the way the tone slips back and forth between oratory and banter toward the end of the first paragraph. My one reservation is Katz’s choice of “better” for лучше. I agree with the nineteenth-century translators that here it’s “more beautiful,” the comparative of хороша (собой), cf. я тогда моложе, Я лучше, кажется, была.

Tucker, 1886 (in his version this begins mid-paragraph):

The main feature had been pointed out by Julie (as if she had taken it from Russian novels, which all speak of it): resistance excites desire. Storechnikoff had become accustomed to dream of the possession of Vérotchka. Like Julie I call things by their names, as, moreover, almost all of us do in current conversation. For some time his imagination had represented Vérotchka in poses each more voluptuous than its predecessor; these pictures had inflamed his mind, and, when he believed himself on the point of their realization, Vérotchka had blown upon his dream, and all had vanished. But if he could not have her as a mistress, he could have her as a wife; and what matters it which after all, provided his gross sensuality be satisfied, provided his wildest erotic dreams be realized? O human degradation! to possessWho dares possess a human being? One may possess a pair of slippers, a dressing-gown. But what do I say? Each of us, men, possesses some one of you, our sisters! Are you, then, our sisters? You are our servants. There are, I know, some women who subjugate some men; but what of that? Many valets rule their masters, but that does not prevent valets from being valets.

These amorous images had developed in Storechnikoff’s mind after the interview at the theatre; he had found her a hundred times more beautiful than at first he deemed her, and his polluted imagination was excited.

It is with beauty as with wit, as with all qualities; men value it by the judgment of general opinion. Every one sees that a beautiful face is beautiful, but how beautiful is it? It is at this point that the data of current opinion become necessary to classification.

I can’t complain about Katz’s “lackeys” for the cognate лакеи (лакейки), but I rather like the two words Tucker chooses, “servants” and “valets,” on the grounds that this gets closer to what someone writing originally in English would have come up with. Tucker, by the way, seems to be a true believer in Chernyshevskii’s cause who set out to bring “his glad tidings to the poor and the oppressed” to Boston to “enlighten our New World.” It seems to help his translation.

Dole and Skidelsky, 1886:

The principal thing that Julie had said — as though she had been reading all the Russian novels that treat of such things — was this, Resistance strengthens desire.

The thought about Viérotchka took possession of Storeshnikof after the theatre with more power than ever before. After exhibiting to his friends the mistress of his fancy, it seemed to him that she was much more beautiful than he had imagined. Beauty, just like intellect or any other valuable thing, is treasured by the majority of people exactly according as it is reckoned by the general opinion. Everybody sees that a handsome face is handsome, but to what degree it is handsome, how can that be expressed unless its rank takes a diploma?

So much is missing. In the one sentence they kept of the long first paragraph, I think it should say that all Russian novels treat of such things (as Katz and Tucker have it), rather than making it sound like she had been reading her way through a particular subset of Russian novels.

Russian version, 1863:

Главное уже сказала Жюли (точно читала она русские романы, которые все об этом упоминают!): сопротивление разжигает охоту. Сторешников привык мечтать, как он будет “обладать” Верочкою. Подобно Жюли, я люблю называть грубые вещи прямыми именами грубого и пошлого языка, на котором почти все мы почти постоянно думаем и говорим. Сторешников уже несколько недель занимался тем, что воображал себе Верочку в разных позах, и хотелось ему, чтобы эти картины осуществились. Оказалось, что она не осуществит их в звания любовницы, — ну, пусть осуществляет в звании жены; это все равно, главное дело не звание, а позы, то есть обладание. О, грязь! о, грязь! — “обладать” — кто смеет обладать человеком? Обладают халатом, туфлями. — Пустяки: почти каждый из нас, мужчин, обладает кем-нибудь из вас, наши сестры; опять пустяки: какие вы нам сестры? — вы наши лакейки! Иные из вас, — многие — господствуют над нами — это ничего: ведь и многие лакеи властвуют над своими барами.

Мысли о позах разыгрались в Сторешникове после театра с такою силою, как еще никогда. Показавши приятелям любовницу своей фантазии, он увидел, что любовница гораздо лучше, чем он думал. Ведь красоту все равно что ум, что всякое другое достоинство, большинство людей оценивает с точностью только по общему отзыву. Всякий видит, что красивое лицо красиво, а до какой именно степени оно красиво, как это разберешь, пока ранг не определен дипломом?

Incidentally, I started paying attention to this passage because to my surprise the end of it sounded like another book I’m reading:

But with all of us, in the opinion which we form of those around us, we take unconsciously the opinion of others. A woman is handsome because the world says so. Music is charming to us because it charms others. We drink our wines with other men’s palates, and look at our pictures with other men’s eyes. When Lily heard John Eames praised by all around her, it could not be but that she should praise him too,—not out loud, as others did, but in the silence of her heart. (Anthony Trollope, The Last Chronicle of Barsetchapter 52 or vol. 2, ch. 23)

I don’t think Chernyshevskii gets as pithy as “we drink our wines with other men’s palates, and look at our pictures with other men’s eyes.”

[Update 8/1/2014: When I wrote this post I didn’t realize that in 1987 Katz published a comparison of the three English translations before his. He too criticizes Dole and Skidelsky for removing erotic passages; he says that Tucker probably knew no Russian and was translating a French translation, and I think he’s right; and he is severely critical of Beraha’s 1983 translation, which I haven’t looked at.]

11 Comments leave one →
  1. April 29, 2014 9:35 am

    Yes, Katz does very well in general. I agree with you about лучше, but I also don’t like his “base” for пошлого. That multifarious word can be rendered in all sorts of ways; I could see “vulgar,” “banal,” “trivial,” or various other possibilities, but “base” to me is in a different ballpark (that of подлость as opposed to пошлость).

  2. April 29, 2014 10:34 am

    It’s a pet peeve of mine that “base” is used so often to translate подлый or низкий, and I didn’t even catch that Katz used it here for пошлый. Maybe it’s too much descriptivist indoctrination in linguistics classes, but I don’t hear the same sort of moral indictment in “base language” as I would in, say, “base conduct,” though. In this case I don’t mind “base” so much – I like your options for пошлый in general, but I don’t think “banal” is what Chernyshevskii is getting at. “Vulgar,” yes, but Katz has just used that for грубые вещи.

  3. April 29, 2014 11:04 am

    I don’t hear the same sort of moral indictment in “base language” as I would in, say, “base conduct”

    Well, there is no such phrase in contemporary English as “base language” — in fact, the adjective “base” itself is on very shaky ground, existing only in the most highfalutin’/archaic level of discourse. I think it’s one of those words translators keep in their kit bag and bring out when they need something to fit a particular slot without thinking too hard about whether it actually works; they’d be better off tossing that particular word out altogether, if you ask me. There’s always a better alternative.

    • April 29, 2014 11:08 am

      they’d be better off tossing that particular word out altogether, if you ask me. There’s always a better alternative.

      Well put! That’s hard to argue with.

      • between4walls permalink
        April 29, 2014 6:54 pm

        I don’t know- when talking about certain types of conduct, it’s still an excellent word.

  4. April 29, 2014 7:09 pm

    Is it a word you actually use in daily life? I mean, if someone told you about something someone else did, would you say “That’s really base”? I guess I can believe that there are still people who actively use it, and maybe you’re one of them, but I’m pretty sure that for the vast majority of English speakers, it’s a musty word encountered only in literary contexts. (Compare the notorious class of words used only in journalism: altercation, foe, mar, tout, vie, and the like.) There’s a reason for headlinese — you need to minimize the number of letters — but there’s no excuse for translationese, as far as I’m concerned.

    • between4walls permalink
      April 29, 2014 8:05 pm

      It’s definitely a word I actually use in writing- it’s pithier than “dishonorable” and conveys almost a more aesthetic distaste. But I take your point that it’s not commonly used anymore.

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings permalink
    May 7, 2014 3:09 pm

    Having just discovered your site and coming to the debate late, I have a 1982 Virago Russian Classics edition translated, I think, by E.H. Carr. It runs to just over 350 pages and claims to reinstate the ‘erotic’ content. D’you think this is likely to be a full version??

    • May 7, 2014 3:49 pm

      Possibly. According to WorldCat, there’s a 1961 edition of Benjamin Tucker’s translation with an introduction by E. H. Carr. It is also described as being “Revised and abridged by Ludmila B. Turkevich.” Then the 1982 Virago edition is also the Tucker translation, but instead of being abridged, it’s been “expanded by Cathy Porter.”

      Katz’s version is 449 pages (it’s annotated), Dole and Skidelsky’s translation with the erotic passages cut is 462 pp., and Tucker’s is only 329 pp. of fairly small print. Perhaps Tucker’s is abridged, but he didn’t cut the same passages as D&S. There is also apparently a 1983 translation by Laura Beraha that I should look at.

  6. May 7, 2014 3:58 pm

    *tries not to grind his teeth at the existence of all those translations of Chernyshevsky when so many better writers have none*

    • May 7, 2014 4:42 pm

      I’m with you there, actually. Especially if you expand it to untranslated novels by translated writers – couldn’t some of these people have been working on Pisemskii’s Troubled Seas?

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