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Is this a pun?

May 2, 2015

I’ve been listening to an audio version of Ivan Goncharov’s An Ordinary Story (Обыкновенная история, 1847, a.k.a. The Same Old Story and A Common Story) — the first Russian book translated by Constance Garnett — and it’s wonderful. The combination of a straightforward prose style, plus a manner of storytelling that lets you see three but usually not ten steps ahead and makes you want to know what happens next, makes it perfect for that format, and Goncharov in Russian joins Trollope in English as the most audio-friendly of my favorite novelists. An Ordinary Story is also at one of the sweet spots in the canon. The repeated conversational duels between the (naively, theatrically) idealistic nephew Aleksandr and the practical and at first glance cynical uncle Petr Ivanych are a delight. Shoving the same two characters at each other over and over again must have been one of Goncharov’s specialties (cf. Oblomov and his servant).

The reason I’m posting about it now is to ask if you hear a pun in this passage:

— Да ты вспомни, как ты хотел любить: сочинял плохие стихи, говорил диким языком, так что до смерти надоел этой, твоей… Груне, что ли! Этим ли привязывают женщину?

— Чем же? — сухо спросила Лизавета Александровна мужа.

— Ох, как колет поясницу! — простонал Петр Иваныч.

— Потом вы твердили, — продолжал Александр, — что привязанности глубокой, симпатической нет, а есть одна привычка…

Лизавета Александровна молча и глубоко посмотрела на мужа.

— То есть я, вот видишь ли, я говорил тебе для того… чтоб… ты… того… ой, ой, поясница! (part 2, chapter 5)

“But remember what your approach to love was: you wrote bad poetry, you spoke in outlandish language, so that you bored that Grunia of yours, or whatever her name was, to death! Is that any way to snag a woman?”

“And how does one?” Lizaveta Aleksandrovna asked her husband drily.

“Ouch, my back is killing me!” moaned Petr Ivanych.

“Then you kept saying,” Aleskandr went on, “that there is no such thing as a deep, sympathetic attachment, but only habit…”

Lizaveta Aleksandrovna gave her husband a silent and piercing look.

“That is I, don’t you see, I said that to you to… to… you… that… ow, ow, my back!”

(The Garnett translation skips over this passage, going straight from понимать ее только с светлой стороны to Вместо того, чтоб руководствовать мое сердце в привязанностях, omitting 17 conversational turns and over 500 words. I don’t know if she was working from a different Russian text, abridging for length, censoring out of prudishness, had two pages get stuck together, or what. See p. 229 starting with “Yes, and what did you create?” There is also a c. 1955 translation by Ivy Litvinov and a 1994 translation by Marjorie L. Hoover, but I don’t have either handy. My quick translation above fails to preserve at least two repetitions. I wonder if they managed to keep either of them.)

Nearby there are three instances of “Ох, поясница!” along with a few other variations. I first heard поясница ‘small of the back’ as its homophone пояснит(ь)ся ‘explain oneself, be explained, become clear.’ Do you take it as a play on words? The main sense: Petr Ivanych complains his back is hurting to stall for time or change the subject. But in the overtones we hear him lamenting the need to explain himself, how awkward it is, in his wife’s presence, to say what men need to do to attract women. The repetitions make me think there’s something going on, but this is just the sort of place a non-native reader like me can go astray.

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