The word баба is a frustrating one for me. I usually end up translating it as “woman,” even though it’s not the same as женщина ‘woman’ at all. Баба is a neutral word for a peasant woman, paired with мужик, but it was and is much more broadly applied in lightly disparaging or informal or jocular or earthy or other ways. It’s not as if English has any shortage in colloquial synonyms for “woman,” but none of them are the same as баба and half of them only seem right for a 1930s stage gangster.
I noticed that Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky used “woman” for both баба and женщина in the passage quoted in the last post. This made me wonder what other people do, so I looked at eight translations of two passages where Leskov uses баба. The first is that same one from “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” (Леди Макбет Мценского уезда, 1865) that Saltykov-Shchedrin objected to:
Сонетка имела вкус, блюла выбор и даже, может быть, очень строгий выбор; она хотела, чтобы страсть приносили ей не в виде сыроежки, а под пикантною, пряною приправою, с страданиями и с жертвами; а Фиона была русская простота, которой даже лень оказать кому-нибудь: «прочь поди» и которая знает только одно, что она баба. Такие женщины очень высоко ценятся в разбойничьих шайках, арестантских партиях и петербургских социально-демократических коммунах. (chapter 13)
Here баба and женщина both appear, and both mean women in general. I’d say баба stands out stylistically a little bit, since the narrator is speaking pretty standard literary Russian. I take the word choice as playing up woman as an animal instead of as a civilized person.
The other passage is from Cathedral Folk (Соборяне, 1867-72):
— Что ж,— перебила меня она,— тем и лучше, что у тебя простая жена; а где и на муже и на жене на обоих штаны надеты, там не бывать проку. Наилучшее дело, если баба в своей женской исподничке ходит, и ты вот ей за то на исподницы от меня это и отвези. Бабы любят подарки, а я дарить люблю. Бери же и поезжай с богом. (book 1, chapter 5)
These uses of баба in direct speech strike me as different. The speaker is a noblewoman who prides herself on her directness and down-to-earth language, and баба is on the same stylistic level as the rest of what she says. On the other hand, if she said женщины любят подарки, the style would be blander but the meaning wouldn’t change: in either case I hear it as a comment on what women in general are like, with no overtones of primitiveness.
To skip to the disappointing punchline: every single translator uses “woman” for баба. The closest thing to an exception is Isabel Hapgood, who uses “wife” for one instance of баба (which she takes from the “marriage in general” context) and “women” for another.
David McDuff inserts the phrase “Russian peasant woman” elsewhere in the sentence, perhaps because of баба, but he’s translating a slightly different text from the others. Maybe it was a Soviet text from 1923-1956, because the sentence Saltykov-Shchedrin didn’t like is entirely absent, which means no instance of женщины, which means he was freer than the other translators to reuse “women.” George H. Hanna’s 1958 translation was a Soviet translation, but at least in the 1983 third printing it kept part of that politically questionable sentence: the communes are missing, but the gangs of thieves and convict parties remain (with no “and,” as if an editor chopped off the end of the sentence late in the game). The others have the full sentence.
Two phrases I found interesting: с страданиями и с жертвами and, right after it, Фиона была русская простота. The plural “sufferings” surprised me in Pevear and Volokhonsky, but it was also used by Chamot, Magarshack, and Chandler. In Russian the nouns are both plural, but “sufferings” sounds odd to me in English, while “sacrifices” seem perfectly countable. Chandler keeps the plural where I find it strange and changes it where I’d find it normal. I like how Hanna and McDuff make both nouns singular: still parallel, not odd. Maybe страдания is a stranger plural in Russian than I’m giving it credit for.
The most literal way I could think of to translate Фиона была русская простота would be “Fiona was Russian simplicity.” I wouldn’t actually use this in context, but Pevear and Volokhonsky use those exact words, and frankly it sounds pretty good, better than I would have guessed, though the “who” clause doesn’t seem to follow from the abstract noun. Other solutions: add an abstract noun to make a natural English expression (“the personification of the simplicity of the typical Russian woman” in Magarshack, “the image of Russian simplicity” in Chandler), change the abstract Russian простота to something concrete (“Fiona… was a simple Russian peasant woman” in McDuff; Chamot and Magarshack also add “woman”), or change “be” to “have” (“had the simplicity of the Russian woman” in Chamot, “had a Russian simplicity” in Hanna).
Also, the newest and oldest translations try hard to preserve строгий (“a very severe choice” in Chamot, “chose very strictly” in Pevear and Volokhonsky), but here I like the versions that abandon the word to keep the meaning and the tone (“finicky” in Hanna, “too particular” in Magarshack, “fussy” in McDuff, “choosy” in Chandler).
Below I’ll put the words for баба in bold and those for женщина in the first passage, or женский in the second, in italics. Where English “woman” occurs at a place where Russian didn’t use either equivalent, I’ll underline it.
A. E. Chamot 1922:
Sonetka had her own taste, made her choice, and perhaps even a very severe choice; she wanted a passion to be presented to her, not as an ordinary dish, but under a highly spiced sauce, with sufferings and sacrifices; but Fiona had the simplicity of the Russian woman, who is even too lazy to say, “go away,” to anybody and only knows that she is a woman. Such women are very highly prized in robber bands, gangs of convicts, and in the Petersburg social-democratic communes. (120-21)
Bernard Guilbert Guerney 1943 [Unfortunately I don’t have a copy of this one; does anyone know how he translates this passage in Treasury of Russian Literature?]
George H. Hanna 1958:
Little Sonya had taste, she liked to pick and choose and was, in fact, very finicky. She did not want passion dished up to her uncooked; she wanted it served with a piquant sauce, with suffering and sacrifice; while Fiona had a Russian simplicity too lazy even to say, “Go away” to anybody and knew only one thing—that she was a woman. Such women are highly valued in gangs of thieves, in convict parties. (p. 88 in the 1983 third printing)
David Magarshack 1961:
Sonetka had taste, was particular about her choice of lover, perhaps a little too particular. She wanted passion to be offered to her not as if it were a common or garden mushroom, but one with a highly spiced, piquant sauce, with sufferings and sacrifices; Fiona, on the other hand, was the personification of the simplicity of the typical Russian woman who is too lazy to say “Go away” to a man, and who only knows that she is a woman. Such women are highly thought of in convict gangs and robber bands and in the Petersburg social-democratic communes. (p. 41 in the 1971 fourth printing)
David McDuff 1987:
Sonetka had special tastes: she liked to pick and choose, and was really rather fussy. She wanted passion to be served up to her not in its raw, uncooked state, but simmered in a spicy, piquant sauce of suffering and sacrifice. Fiona, by contrast, was a simple Russian peasant woman, who could not even be bothered to say ‘go away’ to a man, and who knew only one thing: that she was a woman. (160)
Robert Chandler 2003:
Sonetka had taste and she liked to pick and choose; she was, in fact, very choosy indeed. She wanted passion to be served up to her not as some common or garden dish, but with a highly spiced, piquant sauce, with sufferings and sacrifice. Fiona, on the other hand, was the image of Russian simplicity — too lazy even to tell a man to get lost and knowing nothing except that she is a woman. Such women are highly prized by gangs of thieves, convict detachments, and St Petersburg social-democratic communes. (51)
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky 2013:
Sonetka had taste, chose her dishes, and maybe even chose very strictly; she wanted passion to be offered to her, not blandly, but with a piquant, spicy seasoning, with sufferings and sacrifices; while Fiona was Russian simplicity, who is even too lazy to say “Go away,” and who knows only one thing, that she is a woman. Such women are very highly valued in robber bands, convict parties, and the social-democratic communes of Petersburg. (location 1076)
Isabel F. Hapgood 1924:
“Well,” she interrupted me, “it is so much the better than, that you have a simple wife; for where the husband and the wife both wear the breeches, matters go badly. The best of all is when the wife goes about in her woman’s petticoat, and so do you carry her these petticoats from me. Women love gifts, and I love to make them. Take them, and God be with you.” (62-63)
Margaret Winchell 2010:
“Never mind,” she interrupted me. “So much the better that you have a simple wife; no good ever comes of it when the wife wears the pants in the family. The best arrangement is when the woman goes around in a feminine chemise, so give this to her from me to make chemises. Women like gifts, and I like to give them. Take these now and go. God be with you.” (48)