Vexation of spirit
There is a Leskov story called “Томленье духа” (1890), a title which William Edgerton rendered in English as “Anguish of Spirit” and Hugh McLean as “Vexation of Spirit.” At first I liked Edgerton’s title better: something about the word “vexation” struck me as overly precise and unnatural. Would people have said that? The answer, I’ve learned, is that they would and did and probably still do. After I heard “vexation of spirit” pronounced by a skilled English actor reading Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds (1871), my instincts on the naturalness of “vexation” flipped completely.
“Vexation of spirit” turns out to be not just an established phrase, but a reference I wasn’t getting: “vexation of spirit” occurs 10 times in the King James Bible, mostly in Ecclesiastes, and corresponds to томление духа in Russian translations. (Newer English translations of Ecclesiastes have “a chasing after wind,” mirrored by погоня за ветром in newer Russian translations. Where the King James Bible has “vexation of spirit” in Isaiah 65:14, Russian translations have сокрушение духа ‘distress of spirit.’) The Leskov story has an epigraph from Ecclesiastes, so I should have picked up on this sooner.
Edgerton’s “anguish of spirit” is also a Biblical phrase: it’s what the NRSV has instead of “vexation of spirit” in Isaiah 65:14, while the King James uses it in Exodus 6:9 (Russian has малодушие or их дух был сломлен there; the NRSV has “broken spirit”). Some translations have “anguish of spirit” in places where Russian uses дух or душа but not томление, like Job 7:11 or John 13:21.
It’s hard for me to get back inside my former idea that “vexation of spirit” sounded odd, but I think I must have “vexation” in a set of words that I (in this case wrongly) hear as awkward translationese for difficult abstract concepts: I sometimes find “vexation” for досада as irritating as “nostalgia” for тоска (where I like “longing,” but it depends, and enough has been said about that word). Here, of course, there’s no досада involved, and I shouldn’t have let “vexation” for томленье bother me.