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Vexation of spirit

June 8, 2015

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.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 9, 2015 4:37 am

    “Суета сует и томление духа” or, to quote the Synodal translation of Ecclesiastes precisely, “суета и томление духа” is a pretty common occurrence in XIX-century Russian literature. I probably picked it up from Chekhov — I started reading his short stories at about ten (I first read the Bible at 18) — but Leskov should also be replete with Biblical tidbits. (On the other hand, most of them should be in OCS yet I can’t recall coming across “вся суетство и произволение духа.”) What must particularly vex the translator is the interference between the secular, Pushkin-ite meaning of томление (longing/yearning/languishing) and the intended Synodal meaning, which I would guess comes close to “willfulness” or “waywardness.” (David Martin’s French translation has “rongement d’esprit,” literally “gnawing.”)

    BTW, Luther’s Bible opted for “chasing after the wind” outright (“es war alles eitel und Haschen nach dem Wind”). Also compare “the wind bloweth where it listeth” with “дух дышит, где хочет.”

    • June 14, 2015 11:30 pm

      I was familiar was суета сует and “vanity of vanities; all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2) from quotations in both languages, but not the суета и томление духа part from later in the chapter. You make an excellent point about the multiple meanings of томление, in and out of the Biblical context.

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