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Translating баба

December 31, 2014

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 сказать 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. [Update 10/10/21: actually, Bernard Guilbert Guerney used “a female woman” for баба in 1943; see below.]

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?] [Update 10/10/21: added!]

Sonetka had taste; she was fastidious—and even, perhaps, very fastidious; she wished to have passion served to her, not as a raw mushroom, but with a piquant, spicy sauce, with sufferings and with sacrifices, whereas Thiona was the very essence of Russian simplicity, too lazy even to say to any man: “Get away from me,” and who knew but one thing: that she was a female woman. Such women are highly appreciated among brigand bands, convict gangs, and the Social-Democratic communes of Petersburg. (699)

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)

15 Comments leave one →
  1. December 31, 2014 8:11 am

    This post is especially timely for me because “баба” appears in direct address in Evgeny Vodolazkin’s Лавр, which is set in the Middle Ages but has, to say the least, highly varied language. Sadly, I think “woman” is about the only way to go, though at least the line sounds fairly contemporary, meaning “woman” won’t sound quite so neutral, at least to my ear: it starts with “Вот тебе, баба, гость…” and even has a который. In any case, at least “баба” is a little more straightforward than “жено”! What’s fun about the book is that the highly varied language gives lots of flexibility.

    In any case, С Новым годом! And thank you for the blog and your research into translations of “баба.”)))

    • January 5, 2015 2:08 pm

      С новым годом! I agree that “woman” in your direct-address context won’t sound neutral, and without knowing the context I can imagine it fitting well. It sounds like a fun and difficult book to translate. I imagine translating faux-medieval speech is harder in some ways than translating something authentically old.

      • January 9, 2015 8:49 am

        I’m not sure which is more difficult, though I’m thoroughly enjoying the variety in the book, which contains everything from archaic language and quotes from The Bible to criminal slang and (of course!) plays on Pushkin. Thank goodness for help from native speakers of Russian and Bible sites with parallel translations!

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings permalink
    December 31, 2014 8:11 am

    Interesting comparisons! And I still like the P/V version least. All of their translations read clumsily to me, regardless of the author, which must means it’s them and not the particular writer. I ‘d be happy with Magarshack, McDuff or Chandler myself!

    • January 5, 2015 2:24 pm

      I get pretty nitpicky with every translation when I zoom in, but when I zoom out the English Lady Macbeth of Mtsensks are an embarrassment of riches. There are books, authors, time periods, and whole languages that would love to have any one of these people working on them.

  3. December 31, 2014 11:25 am

    “баба” carries very concrete class overtones. For instance, nobody ever called me “баба” in my entire life and nobody will unless they are ready to face severe (not fussy, but severe) consequences. 🙂

    The only translation I can think of that would come close is “a wench.”

    Всех с наступающим!

    • January 5, 2015 2:28 pm

      С новым годом! I like the idea of “wench” and I bet there are contexts where it would be perfect. Overall I think баба is more widespread, though. And I certainly won’t be the first to risk such строгость 🙂

  4. January 1, 2015 2:37 pm

    Very interesting comparisons, and yes, “баба” is one of those untranslatable words (in the sense that the only useful translation does not distinguish it from the usual word for ‘woman’ and thus loses the impact it carries in Russian). Great post!

    I was struck by the odd name Chamot (for one thing, I had no idea how to pronounce it), so I did some research. Alfred Edward Chamot (1855-1934) married Elizabeth Grootten in 1897 in St. Petersburg, Russia; they had a daughter Mary (1899-1993), an art historian and museum curator. The name Chamot appears to be French in origin, so I am tentatively pronouncing it sha-MO, but of course if A.E. was British the name could have been anglicized to… well, almost anything. Does anybody know more about him or the family?

    • January 5, 2015 2:29 pm

      I had just assumed Chamot was a French name and thought no more about it. I’ll be interested too if you find out any more. (And I don’t have the book with me right now, but I’ll have to read the introduction and see if Edward Garnett gives us any clues about Chamot.)

    • January 6, 2015 1:09 pm

      There was no explanation of Chamot’s name (or anything about who he was – I’m grateful for your research on him) in The Sentry and Other Stories. The online Chamots I could find seemed concentrated in Switzerland and eastern France. Maybe A. E. Chamot’s ancestors were Huguenots? (Or, of course, maybe not.)

  5. January 8, 2015 10:53 am

    I’m reading Brian Reeve’s translation of Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island. According to Reeve, Chekhov used the words “baba” and “dama” (but never “zhenshchina”) in the book, as those were the terms used on Sakhalin. “Baba” is translated by Reeve as “woman” and “dama” is translated as “lady.” Reeve’s note makes it clear that “baba” is a term of disrespect.

    • January 8, 2015 12:17 pm

      Interesting! I think Reeve is exaggerating a little – I went over to and with ctrl+F found 226 instances of an initial space plus женщин- to 43 instances of баб- (which includes Бабич and бабушка). Skimming through some examples, it looks like Chekhov often uses баба parallel to мужик, and often when he’s directly or indirectly attributing something to a local’s viewpoint. But it shows that translators really don’t want the баба/женщина distinction to get lost. Here’s a passage with женщины and бабы:

      “Теперь, когда прибывает партия женщин в Александровск, то ее прежде всего торжественно ведут с пристани в тюрьму. Женщины, согнувшись под тяжестью узлов и котомок, плетутся по шоссе, вялые, еще не пришедшие в себя от морской болезни, а за ними, как на ярмарке за комедиантами, идут целые толпы баб, мужиков, ребятишек и лиц, причастных к канцеляриям. Картина, похожая на ход сельдей в Аниве, когда вслед за рыбой идут целые полчища китов, тюленей и дельфинов, желающих полакомиться икряною селедкой. Мужики-поселенцы идут за толпой с честными, простыми мыслями: им нужна хозяйка. Бабы смотрят, нет ли в новой партии землячек. Писарям же и надзирателям нужны “девочки”. Это обыкновенно происходит перед вечером. Женщин запирают на ночь в камере, заранее для того приготовленной, и потом всю ночь в тюрьме и в посту идут разговоры о новой партии, о прелестях семейной жизни, о невозможности вести хозяйство без бабы и т.п.”

      Right here at least it looks like the women who’ve been on the island some time are бабы, while the new arrivals are женщины who immediately face the prospect of becoming бабы. The ctrl-F results for men are (initial space plus) мужчин- 48, мужик- 18, with человек- at 168.

      • January 8, 2015 1:05 pm

        I haven’t gotten to that page yet. But yes, clearly it’s “Women locked up for the night…” rather than “wenches” or however one translates “baba.” Possibly Reeve’s note doesn’t say explicitly that Chekhov never used “zhenshcina,” but he never mentions the word. I’ll have to look at it again tonight to see what he implies and what I imagine he implies.

        So far I haven’t run across a note regarding different terms for men. When I was studying Russian, I was told that calling a man “муж” was impolite, so everyone is a “человек.” Of course that was in the 1990s, not the 1890s. And by now I’ve forgotten most of the Russian I used to know anyway.

      • January 10, 2015 6:59 pm

        Well, муж now means ‘husband,’ though it used to be a general term for men (I don’t know how far back).

  6. January 12, 2015 12:03 pm

    My college Russian professor was a very old man from Moscow. Possibly his idea of hip modern slang was from the 19th-century.

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