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Idioms in The Double

May 18, 2014

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.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 18, 2014 7:57 am

    I think your explanation of how the passage works makes perfect sense, and I am hereby adopting it. I’ve just finished chap. 4; it’s slow going if you keep trying to understand what poor mad Golyadkin is saying and how the narrative voice works and how it all fits together! I shake my head when people say Dostoevsky is “disorganized” (as somebody you linked to recently did) or dismiss him as a bad novelist (as Nabokov notoriously did); if you have ears to hear, he is unmistakeably a great and unique writer who kept breaking new ground (as greatness must). Poor Folk is fun but a bit shambolic (it was, after all, his maiden voyage), but you can already sense his joyful playing with the representation of spoken language and with the forms of narration, and The Double is a quantum leap forward, anticipating Kafka, Joyce, and Bely. No wonder it threw people for a loop in the mid-1840s!

  2. May 18, 2014 10:53 pm

    I like and agree with your view of Dostoevskii. The “disorganized” critique can be more or less reasonable depending how it’s meant. Once I thought every good novel was planned out in advance (at least in broad strokes) and every good poem was written to lead up to its last line. Reading about Dostoevskii is what made me reconsider that. Apparently he had no idea how The Idiot would end even when many chapters had been published in serial form; at that point, at least for the first readers, he can’t redo the early chapters to make them harmonize with decisions made later. This isn’t necessarily bad, but not all writers worked this way, and “disorganized” is one way to get at it. Somewhere I think Tom compares Dostoevskii’s marathon dictation session for The Gambler (when up against a financially crucial deadline) to a jazz musician improvising all night.

    I’m sure I’ve said this before, but since you appreciate “joyful playing with the representation of spoken language,” I can’t wait for your posts on Leskov!

  3. May 19, 2014 8:23 am

    Somewhere I think Tom compares Dostoevskii’s marathon dictation session for The Gambler (when up against a financially crucial deadline) to a jazz musician improvising all night.

    That’s perfect, and I will steal that as well. And I too am looking forward eagerly to Leskov!

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