Idioms in The Double
There are things I’ve been ignorant of so long that I forgot I never knew them, and one of them is what the word “actual” (действительный) is doing in the titles “actual privy councillor” and “actual state councillor.” Now I think I do know, thanks to Languagehat and his commenter gary. It’s a calque of the German word wirklicher, which was used in pre–World War I Germany/Prussia to distinguish the real members of the privy council from the numerous honorary members.
LH also has a fantastic post on idioms used by Goliadkin in Dostoevskii’s The Double (Двойник, 1846) and how they’ve been mistranslated. He explains кока с соком ‘abundance, riches,’ literally ‘egg with juice,’ and (ему) бабушка ворожит ‘he has a friend in court,’ literally ‘grandmother tells fortunes for him,’ while commenters Sashura, D.O., and Dmitry Pruss help out with a third mysterious spot, which turns out just to be бабшука ворожит again in abbreviated form.
I see that G. M. Fridlender’s notes (from the 15-volume collected works, 1988-1996) give this definition of the “egg with juice” idiom: “Кока с соком — лакомство, гостинец, в переносном смысле — нежданное ‘угощение’, неприятность” (“Egg with juice: treat, sweets, or figuratively an unexpected ‘treat,’ something unpleasant”). In other words, Fridlender reads sarcasm into the phrase, rather like the English “well, isn’t this a treat?” with the right intonation.
As I read it, Goliadkin’s кока с соком refers to the same action as правду сказать ‘tell the truth’ just before and кстати поздравить ‘congratulate someone in a particularly appropriate way’ right after: there are people who care little enough about received opinion to be willing to speak the truth, and they’ll occasionally present someone with something unpleasant in the form of one of these truths, as for example when they congratulate someone on getting a promotion and slip in an implication that the promotion came from networking/corruption/nepotism (бабушки ворожат) and not merit. (Or rather, sarcastically assert that the promotion couldn’t have been due to friends in high places, since the whole world knows that never happens anymore.)
If a translator had the grandmother/friends-in-high-places idiom right, and if it were clear that the three actions (правду сказать, поднести коку с соком, кстати поздравить) were all essentially the same thing, then it wouldn’t matter that much whether the middle link was “a fine egg in gravy” (Constance Garnett) or “a cock with a sock” (Pevear and Volokhonsky) or something else. Incidentally, it’s quite daring of P&V to translate prose by putting sound ahead of everything else (кока = cock, сок = sock), and I assume what they were thinking is that they could afford to try that since Goliadkin says the same thing in several ways. It’s the opposite of the excessive literalism they are sometimes accused of, and I think there’s a good case at least for finding a rhyme. The бабушка ворожит idiom, on the other hand, is crucial to the meaning of the passage and seems to have been missed in the translations LH looks at.