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Translating dialect: Gaskell’s Lancashire English in Russian

June 10, 2014

I’ve been thinking on and off about how people could or should translate nonstandard dialects, and translating Leskov is making the question urgent, since his characters’ voices all sound different and their speech is often marked for region, class, or subculture. A universal English substandard of “ain’t,’ double negatives, ‘-in’’ instead of ‘-ing,’ and a paratactic sentence structure” for every different kind of interestingly non-literary Russian doesn’t seem like enough.

I thought I’d look at an English-to-Russian example. Mary Barton (1848) by Elizabeth Gaskell has a lot of Lancashire dialect. Here’s the beginning of a song inserted into the text called “The Oldham Weaver”:

          Oi’m a poor cotton-weyver, as mony a one knoowas,
          Oi’ve nowt for t’ yeat, an’ oi’ve woorn eawt my clooas,
          Yo’ad hardly gi’ tuppence for aw as oi’ve on,
          My clogs are boath brosten, an’ stuckins oi’ve none,
                  Yo’d think it wur hard,
                  To be browt into th’ warld,
          To be—clemmed, an’ do th’ best as yo con.
          (chapter 4)

Gaskell gives “clem” a footnote, defining it as “to starve with hunger” and providing an example from Ben Jonson.

T. Kudriavtseva preserves the line length, rhyme scheme, and songlike lack of enjambment in her 1963 translation, but there are no “dialect” features obvious to me, certainly nothing as unusual as “clem” is in English:

          Я ткач, каких много, бедней меня нет,
          Мне нечего есть, я разут и раздет,
          Заплатанней в мире не сыщешь штанов,
          Все пальцы глядят из худых башмаков.
          Доли тягостней нет,
          Чем явиться на свет,
          Чтобы биться как рыба об лед.

E. Beketova had changed the rhyme scheme but added a few more “dialect” features in 1861:

          Я бедный работник, я ольдгемский ткач,
                          Каких в белом свете довольно:
          Не мало видал на веку неудач,
                          Ни дня не жилось мне привольно.
          За всю-то одежду мою, ни гроша
                          Тряпичник не даст, пожалеет.
          А тело, от голоду еле-дыша
                          Того и гляди омертвеет.
                  Зачем бы, кажись, и родиться на свет,
                  Коль нечего есть и пристанища нет?

But perhaps it’s different with dialogue, when the formal aspects of the stanza aren’t competing for the translator’s attention. Let’s look at Job Legh speaking to Mary Barton about the subpoena she has received for the trial of Jem Wilson:

Ay, poor wench, I see how it is. It’ll go hard with thee a bit, I dare say; but keep up thy heart. Yo cannot have much to tell ’em, that can go either one way or th’ other. Nay! may be thou may do him a bit o’ good, for when they set eyes on thee, they’ll see fast enough how he came to be so led away by jealousy; for thou’rt a pretty creature, Mary, and one look at thy face will let ’em into th’ secret of a young man’s madness, and make ’em more ready to pass it over. (chapter 23)

Here the nonstandard elements are not as overwhelming, but still noticeable; the use of “thou” and related forms, long obsolete in the standard language but preserved regionally, especially stands out. Taryn Hakala says that Job Legh’s “dialect speech constructs him as the novel’s moral center,” that his status as an authentic speaker of the local dialect “allows him to usurp John Barton’s role as a central male character” (62, 42). The way he talks is important in the book, and its function is not just local color or comic relief.

Kudriavtseva 1963:

— Вот оно что, бедняжечка! Пожалуй, и правда, тебе-то это будет нелегко, но ты не падай духом. Что бы ты ни сказала, на дело это повлиять не может… Нет, постой-ка! Глядишь, ты и поможешь Джему: как посмотрят на тебя в суде, сразу поймут, откуда у него ревность такая взялась — ты ведь красивая девушка, Мэри. Судьи чуть увидят твое личико, так тут же разберутся, почему молодой человек вдруг совсем обезумел. Ну и отнесутся к делу снисходительнее.

Beketova 1861:

—Эх, бедняжечка! вижу я, каково тебе. Трудно тебе это, тяжело; да делать нечего, держись. Ведь тебе вероятно почти нечего им сказать ни за, ни против. Может быть даже присутствие твое в ассизах будет для него полезно, потому что взглянув на тебя, все тотчас поймут, что он очень мог посягнуть на жизнь человека просто из безумной ревности; что и говорить, ты ведь хороша на редкость, Мери, и стоит только посмотреть на тебя, чтобы согласиться, что от такого личика молодой человек может сойти с ума, и тогда преступление его легче будет простить ему.

Russianists and native speakers, how do these voices sound to you? Kudriavtseva’s Job Legh is clearly not stylistically neutral (e.g. -то, -ка, так as a conjunction). Much of the middle (как посмотрят на тебя в суде, сразу поймут, откуда у него ревность такая взялась — ты ведь красивая девушка, Мэри) sounds colloquial but not regional or necessarily rural to my ear. In this case, unlike “The Oldham Weaver,” I think Beketova plays down the Lancashire dialect compared to Kudriavtseva (granted, we do get каково тебе), though Beketova’s language seems and is older.

Are these examples the mirror image of Robert Maguire’s strategy of using supposedly universal markers of substandard language, to avoid inappropriate associations (“If one wants to find English equivalents, one must beware, once again, of decentering the text: such a character can begin to sound like a slave in the ante-bellum South, or a hillbilly from Appalachia, and any illusion of Russianness is shattered”)? Or is Kudriavtseva (or Beketova) subtly or overtly transforming Job Legh’s English into a particular kind of marked Russian, associated with a particular place and time or social group?

By the way, Beketova’s translation appeared in Dostoevskii’s journal Time, next to translated Czech poetry, an article about Mormonism in the U.S., a piece called “February 19th, 1861,” poems by Polonskii and Nekrasov, and Dostoevskii’s own Notes from the House of the Dead and The Insulted and Injured. You can read it here: beginning-chapter 5, chapters 6-9, chapters 10-14, chapters 15-21, chapters 22-29, chapters 30-38 (end). Dostoevskii also published Gaskell’s Ruth.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. vikathoria permalink
    June 10, 2014 12:55 pm

    Both of the translators here translate this dialect into more or less standard Russian. They do not use any regional dialectisms or sub-standard language. It is clear also that we have translations: they read a bit unnatural. I can see the original English turn of the phrase in quiet a few instances. The sentences in Russian are longer and have more complex syntax than conversational language would be like. The overall impression is that of literariness and some artificiality. I do like the poems, though, especially the first one. It is not very close to the original but it reads very natural and appropriate. (But, yes, it is in standard Russian). To be fair, a big part of this dialect seems to be the phonetic difference. In Russian, we almost never distort spelling to mark this sort of speech. There are just a few words for which we do it: чё, for example. But you can’t write малако (to mark аканье–maybe because there is not way of marking оканье :-)). Things like this are just not possible.

    • June 11, 2014 10:01 am

      What about аффффтар, выпей йаду?🙂

      Interesting point about аканье not being marked in spelling this way. I guess I’ve always taken ль, ж, чтоб, чтой-то, уж (perhaps not in all cases?) as reflecting pronunciation, but that isn’t like “The Oldham Weaver.” Then again, “The Oldham Weaver” is extreme for English.

      I can think of 19c Russian writers trying to capture the way Jews, Ukrainians, Poles, Greeks, peasants, Old Believer merchants, and nobles spoke. Pisemskii’s caricatures of Jews speak with changed spelling: Отцего зе могло быть… Сто зе из того… Ну, цитай, сто писут! And as you know, in No Way Out Leskov has the Greek-born tsarist official Apostol Asigkritovich say Оцэнь рад, цто слуцай позволяет мнэ иметь такое знакомство.

      But other than Leskov, I can’t think of too many trying to capture, say, Orel Province speech. There were people compiling and printing dialect dictionaries in Russia, as there were in 19c Lancashire, but there doesn’t seem to have been as high-profile a movement to claim that the speech of province X was truer to the historical roots of the “original” Russian language than the standard Moscow or St. Petersburg dialect. In England people were making those arguments, and smuggling nonstandard regional language into high culture (or so I read in Hakala’s Working Dialect).

      • vikathoria permalink
        June 11, 2014 7:32 pm

        You are right about the speech of Jews–some spelling distortions seem to follow a pattern: in Pisemsky and elsewhere (Krestovsky? I am pretty sure). To this, we should add Polish, Ukrainian and Belorussian (lots of that in Krestovsky). I think your ” ль, ж, чтоб, чтой-то, уж” are often markers of non-standard speech but speech does not consist of particles alone, does it? There are, of course, dialectal words but the difference between them and standard language is mostly lexical, not phonetic. Your examples from Gaskell have mostly phonetic differences and very few lexical differences (clem).

      • vikathoria permalink
        June 11, 2014 7:44 pm

        One more point: Pisemsky’s speech of the Jews is problematic in the sense that it would be hard to draw a line there: is it representing something real (I’ve never heard anything like this–maybe this has somehow died out) or is it an exaggeration, передразнивание, in short, a manifestation of his antisemitism? I must say that, these days, this is how I read it: as PIsemsky trying to degrade and humiliate the Jewish characters. (In the same way, Krestovsky’s rendering of Belorussian speech seems to suggest that it is not a real language but, rather, is just some dialect of Russian).

    • June 11, 2014 9:56 pm

      is it representing something real (I’ve never heard anything like this–maybe this has somehow died out)

      I don’t know much about this, but I thought many Jews in the Russian Empire in the 1860s spoke Yiddish or Polish as their first language (remember Dr. Rozanov testing a Jew’s story about his origins by suddenly switching to Polish), and learned a dialect of Russian influenced by other languages in the Pale of Settlement. If that’s true, it wouldn’t be surprising if actual living Jewish people spoke in a distinctive way, and an author could choose to transcribe their speech in a way that played up nonstandard elements. And it also wouldn’t be surprising if this way of speaking was not continued by later generations of Jews who lived in the heart of European Russia and learned Russian as a first language.

      or is it an exaggeration, передразнивание, in short, a manifestation of his antisemitism? I must say that, these days, this is how I read it: as PIsemsky trying to degrade and humiliate the Jewish characters.

      On the whole I agree, though I think it’s complicated in Troubled Seas, since there’s also irony directed at anti-Semitic attitudes. It’s a more general problem for dialect in literature, I’d say. People who speak one of the “standard” dialects have idiosyncrasies like аканье that aren’t reflected in spelling, but people who speak a low-prestige dialect have their idiosyncrasies noted. So you might get apostrophes for the missing aitches in a low-status h-dropping dialect in English, but the letter “r” would still appear in the written form of a high-status UK r-dropping dialect. Or you have slaveholders in the southern U.S. speaking English in the standard orthography, but slaves saying “gwine” for “going to.”

      The Lancashire dialect texts Hakala talks about are interesting because they’re often produced by people trying to promote the Lancashire dialect as equal to or better than the standard dialect, and in some cases by “native speakers” of Lancashire English (like Edwin Waugh). This is something we don’t see much of in 19c Russian, at least on a regional level. I guess people like Kol’tsov and Nekrasov may have been trying to valorize a general “peasant Russian,” but often distinctive kinds of literary speech were described in a hostile way “from outside” and were defined along some kind of non-regional lines. (Both would apply to Pisemskii’s Jewish characters.)

      • vikathoria permalink
        June 11, 2014 10:32 pm

        It is quite obvious that the peasant speech is, if not valorized, than at least promoted (and romanticized) in the 19th-century Russian culture–so I think there is not much difference there with what goes on with the Lancashire dialect in English lit.

        You really got me interested in the Jewish accent which is apparently marked as картавость и шепелявость all over the Internet. Dear me, I knew of картавость, but I had never associated шепелявость with speaking Russian with a Jewish (or Yidish) accent. I think there were also some regional difference between Jewish dialects in the Russian Empire but I need to learn more. And, clearly, a шепелявый and картавый character can only be a villain (or someone to poke fun at).

        But coming back to peasant dialects–it is really interesting that in English we have the differences from the standard language marked predominantly phonetically, and in Russian–lexically. I think it means that an equivalency in translation would mean that we should concentrate on marking those instances phonetically rather than looking for too many dialectisms.

      • June 12, 2014 10:39 am

        I think it means that an equivalency in translation would mean that we should concentrate on marking those instances phonetically rather than looking for too many dialectisms.

        I think you might be right. In Job Legh’s speech (as opposed to the inserted song), the phonetic differences are mostly shortenings of extremely common words: o’, wi’, th’, ’em. This actually seems similar to the ль, ж, уж, чтоб situation. I also think we should be alert to nonstandard syntax in both languages. But the pattern you’re describing might hold as a general rule, and I can imagine it working well as a practical strategy.

  2. vikathoria permalink
    June 11, 2014 7:46 pm

    аффффтар, выпей йаду is modern, right?

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