There are hundreds of words and phrases and constructions that Victoria Thorstensson and I initially disagree about as we translate Leskov’s No Way Out (Некуда, 1864). Sometimes she catches me misreading the Russian, and sometimes we just have different instincts about what sounds best, but often we both see the same problem but want to go different ways with it.
It’s quickly becoming apparent to me that English doesn’t have enough terms of endearment to choose from, and the ones that exist often sound either too silly and stilted or too intimate for the particular context. I end up wanting to recycle “my dear” and “my darling” for lots of different expressions, and Vika misses the distinctions that would be lost if we did this. For example, the Russian word голубь ‘dove, pigeon’ yields the diminutives голубчик and голубушка, which are used as a familiar but not ultra-intimate form of address for men and women (and even for horses). But it’s hard to have characters call a man “my dove” in English, and calling a woman “my dove” seems both more intimate and more unusual than голубушка.
The phrase I was fretting about yesterday is сокол ясный ‘bright falcon.’ The gloss already shows part of the problem: can a falcon be “bright”? Bright-colored, maybe, or bright-eyed, or bright-feathered. The main problem is that сокол ясный is a fixed expression that in Russian is easy to associate with a whole world of Russian folk tales and folk songs. Dictionaries explain under ясный and сокол that it’s a folk-poetic expression that “symbolically represents a handsome young man” and “is also used as a term of endearment.” Without a footnote, a falcon will have no such associations in English. What I want to think of is a word out of some part of Anglophone culture between Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Grimms’ Fairy Tales, but one that seems to apply to Russia as well as anywhere else. But I couldn’t think of one, and initially tried “light of my life” here — in Leskov it’s a freedman’s daughter speaking affectionately in private to her small-time merchant husband, and later describing that conversation to two young women. Vika suggested keeping the “bright falcon” image. I think that makes sense if readers already know enough about Russian culture to recognize it, or alternatively if we see ourselves as part of a many-book, many-translator effort to teach English-only readers about these cultural signposts. They may not get it when they read our translation, but we’ll help them recognize it when it comes up again in another author.
I’m torn enough that I wanted to see what other translators have done. The unsurprising news is that they take different approaches. I looked at 7 translators’ versions of 3 passages involving сокол ясный, and two keep “falcon” (Wiener: “my clear-eyed falcon,” Duddington: “our bright falcon”); two use a different avian image (Milne-Home: “our gay goshawk,” Garnett translating an ironic use: “a fine bird”); and three do something different (Hanstein: “my dear, my good [name],” Edmonds: “brave knight,” L. Maude: “my precious”). The Pushkin passage happens to also include голубушка. There the two nineteenth-century translators use “dove” and the two twentieth-century translators use “my darling” and “my little one.” Details below for those interested.
There’s a fairly typical example of сокол ясный in Pushkin’s “The Captain’s Daughter” (Капитанская дочка, 1836), end of chapter 12:
Мы сели в кибитку втроем: Марья Ивановна с Палашей и я. Савельич забрался на облучок. „Прощай, Марья Ивановна, моя голубушка! прощайте, Петр Андреич, сокол наш ясный!“ — говорила добрая попадья. — „Счастливый путь, и дай бог вам обоим счастия!“ Мы поехали.
J. F. Hanstein (1859):
Mary, Palascha and myself took our places in the carriage, Saweljitsch his upon the box.
“Farewell, Mary Iwanowna, my dove! Farewell, my dear, my good Peter Andrejitsch!” the honest Akulina Pamphilowna exclaimed. “A happy journey to you, and may heaven prosper you both!”
We drove away.
Mary Pamela Milne-Home (1891):
We took our seats, three abreast, inside the “kibitka,” and Savéliitch again perched in front.
“Good-bye, Marya Ivánofna, our dear dove; good-bye, Petr’ Andréjïtch, our gay goshawk!” the pope’s wife cried to us. “A lucky journey to you, and may God give you abundant happiness!”
(I did a double-take at “pope’s wife” for попадья, but the OED has “pope” for “a parish priest of the Eastern Orthodox Church” going back to 1662.)
Natalie Duddington (1936, first published 1928):
The three of us—Marya Ivanovna, Palasha, and I—sat inside the carriage and Savelyich climbed on the box. “Good-bye, Marya Ivanovna, my darling! Good-bye, Pyotr Andreyich, our bright falcon!” kind Akulina Pamfilovna said to us. “A happy journey to you, and God grant you happiness!” We set off.
Rosemary Edmonds (1962, first published 1958):
The three of us — Maria Ivanovna, Palasha and I — seated ourselves inside, while Savelich perched himself on the box. ‘Good-bye, Maria Ivanovna, my little one! Good-bye, Piotr Andreich, brave knight!’ the priest’s kind wife said to us. ‘A safe journey, and may God grant the two of you happiness!’ We set off. (p. 286)
An irritated police official sarcastically applies it to Raskolnikov in Dostoevskii’s Crime and Punishment (Преступление и наказание, 1866), part 2, chapter 1
Письмоводитель с улыбкой смотрел на них. Горячий поручик был видимо озадачен.
— Это не ваше дело-с! — прокричал он наконец как-то неестественно громко, — а вот извольте-ка подать отзыв, который с вас требуют. Покажите ему, Александр Григорьевич. Жалобы на вас! Денег не платите! Ишь какой вылетел сокол ясный!
Constance Garnett (1917):
The head clerk looked at him with a smile. The angry assistant superintendent was obviously disconcerted.
“That’s not your business!” he shouted at last with unnatural loudness. “Kindly make the declaration demanded of you. Show him, Alexander Grigorievitch. There is a complaint against you! You don t pay your debts! You’re a fine bird.”
A woman of the people uses it in Tolstoi’s Resurrection (Воскресенье, 1889-99), part 2, chapter 5; does it sound like she’s acting the part of a peasant woman on purpose?
Louise Maude (1899):
“Dear me; why, it’s you, my honey; and I, fool, thought it was just some passer-by. Dear me, you—it’s you, my precious,” said the old woman, with simulated tenderness in her voice.
Leo Wiener (1904):
“Ah, you, dear sir, and I, foolish woman, did not recognize you. I thought it was some transient,” she said, in a feignedly kind voice. “Ah, you, my clear-eyed falcon.”
I think there’s also a Nathan Haskell Dole translation, but I can’t find it online. There’s a translation of the novel by William E. Smith as The Awakening (1900), but it seems to abridge away the whole chapter this line is from, unless he was working from a different text.