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Bright falcons

May 20, 2014

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!”

We started.

(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?

— Ах ты, касатик, а я-то, дура, не вознала: я думаю, какой прохожий, — притворно ласковым голосом заговорила она. — Ах ты, сокол ты мой ясный

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.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. kaggsysbookishramblings permalink
    May 20, 2014 7:33 am

    To a monolinguist like me this is all so fascinating. And personally, I would prefer a translator to use the actual phrase like ‘bright falcon’ and explain it to me. Then I would feel I was getting the real experience of reading what the Russian author wanted and also that I was learning something about Russian culture. There isn’t enough Leskov available in good translation in my opinion, so you’re doing something great by translating it!

    • May 21, 2014 9:40 am

      There’s more Leskov in English than I initially realized, much of it very good, but he wrote a lot and a lot of different kinds of things, so there are gaps to fill. Thanks for the encouragement! We’ll see how ours turns out.

      I know what you mean about wanting to learn about the other culture by reading a translation. It’s tricky, though – you don’t want the book to turn into a thicket of footnotes and/or inexplicable phrases. Often I think I want to preserve things like “bright falcon” when I look at them in isolation, but when I look at a whole chapter or book would rather make them ordinary in English if they were ordinary in Russian.

      • kaggsysbookishramblings permalink
        May 21, 2014 9:48 am

        Yes, definitely too many footnotes can be a bad thing – and as I’ve read a fair amount of stuff (ok, a lot!) by and about Russians, there are things I don’t need to be told. But I like what you say about cultural signposts – the more I read of the Russians the more of these I learn, and I like that!

    • May 27, 2014 3:13 am

      Leskov is not so widely read in Russia, either. He’s too hard to pin down, too elusive, neither here nor there, and suspiciously inventive.

  2. vikathoria permalink
    May 20, 2014 8:43 am

    You can’t beat Constance Garnett with her “fine bird”! Thank you for this post, Erik. I really enjoyed the comparisons.

    • May 21, 2014 9:44 am

      What I miss in “you’re a fine bird” is the tone of “ишь какой вылетел” more than the falcon.

  3. May 20, 2014 8:49 am

    I am firmly on the side of translating Russian words and phrases that are unremarkable in Russian into English words and phrases that are unremarkable in English; I think rendering сокол ясный by “bright falcon” (or “gay goshawk,” God save the mark!) is absurd. If people want to experience the inward life of Russian, they have to learn Russian, and that’s all there is to it; throwing in a sprinkling of odd-sounding terms does nothing but 1) give a frisson of exoticism where it doesn’t belong (since the Russian who says сокол ясный is using a commonplace affectionate term, not being zanily poetic) and 2) betray the author, who would be horrified at having their text falsely exoticized. I don’t think anything would be served, for example, if an American novel in which someone called their lover “babycakes” had that term translated into Russian as “младенческие торты.”

    I understand Victoria’s sadness at having to lose the specificity of particular Russian terms, but it’s an inevitable loss, and you just have to accept that the reader is only going to get so much of what the Russian holds; the important thing is to translate with enough felicity that the reader enjoys the book in a way approximating what the author would want.

    • between4walls permalink
      May 20, 2014 3:46 pm

      off topic, but: I’ve been meaning to ask you what you made of Don Carlos in the end (and Mikhael Dostoevsky’s translation).

    • May 27, 2014 3:14 am

      “младенческие торты” could be something out of Manstelshtam or an epigone of his.

  4. between4walls permalink
    May 20, 2014 3:44 pm

    Beautiful as the phrase “bright falcon” is, I like “brave knight” best of all the translations as it catches the fairy-tale aspect. “Prince Charming” could work for an endearment.

    • May 21, 2014 9:34 am

      Yes, I liked “brave knight” too – I think Edmonds’ strategy of finding a phrase that means something different but occupies an analogous place in the second culture is probably the best way to go. I don’t think it fits our Leskov context, but “Prince Charming” just might! Thanks for the suggestion!

      • between4walls permalink
        May 21, 2014 10:13 am

        You’re welcome! About when is your translation going to come out? I’m becoming quite curious about this book!

      • May 21, 2014 10:22 am

        It’ll be quite a while yet, I’m afraid. Our plan is to finish book 1 in 2014, book 2 in 2015, and book 3 (the last part) in 2016.

  5. May 20, 2014 4:24 pm

    I’ve been meaning to ask you what you made of Don Carlos in the end (and Mikhael Dostoevsky’s translation).

    I loved both, and I’m grateful for having been pointed in that direction! The appearance of the Grand Inquisitor at the end gave me chills, and it’s obvious that the GI in the Brothers K would have been pretty unlikely without that precendent.

    • between4walls permalink
      May 20, 2014 4:42 pm

      I’m so glad you liked it! And yeah, the influence on the Brothers K is clear.

  6. May 20, 2014 4:24 pm

    (Sorry, I should have “replied” directly to between4walls, but I’m still not used to these here fancy nested comments.)

  7. May 21, 2014 10:16 am

    I don’t think anything would be served, for example, if an American novel in which someone called their lover “babycakes” had that term translated into Russian as “младенческие торты.”

    Hat, I’m completely on board with the gist of your comment – I think what you say is both correct and crucially important. But “babycakes” and сокол ясный are not the same. Obviously, in general it’s silly to translate an idiom by literally translating each of its parts. Сокол ясный is more than one affectionate term among many, though — it’s a phrase that immediately sends my mind to a certain corner of half-remembered Russian folk culture. “Babycakes” maybe sounds like it comes from a certain period or a certain stylistic register, but it doesn’t instantly make me start thinking about other places I’ve heard it.

    In practice I think every translator, through borrowings and calques, keeps some of the cultural signposts (ruble, samovar, collegiate assessor, firebird, use of patronymics; and when Leskov quotes Lermontov I’m not tempted to look for a similar passage in Longfellow) and finds equivalents for others (for all the ink spilled on тоска being untranslatable, you don’t read “he felt a deep toska” in Constance Garnett, and I’m not aware of special equivalents for, say, богатырь or рукомойник). By historical chance we end up with borscht for борщ but “fish soup” for уха. And sometimes people try to break the established translatorly traditions, for instance by rendering all the titles in the Table of Ranks as “Grade 9,” “Grade 8,” etc. But everyone lets some but not all bits of Russian culture “stay Russian” in the translation.

    In the end I agree with you about which side of the line “bright falcon” falls on, but I can see why it’s tempting to put it in the other category, more tempting than with an idiom that’s just a plain idiom like (I believe) your бабушка ворожит.

    • May 21, 2014 10:32 am

      Sure, I agree with everything you say, and I understand the temptation — I’m just putting in my two cents for it to be resisted, since your co-translator is pushing the other way (and I have the awful example of P&V constantly before my mind’s eye).

      [N.b.: I actually remembered to reply to the comment this time!]

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