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More shapifying

June 14, 2016

Since posting on Janet Malcolm’s article reviewing translations of Anna Karenina, I’ve read several interesting things:

1. Carol Apollonio’s 2015 review, called “Shapify,” isn’t online, but you can find a reference here (h/t Oliver Ready):

Marian Schwartz’s translation of Anna Karenina represents the culmination of a distinguished corpus, comprising some seventy volumes of Russian literature in English. Rosamund Bartlett’s version draws on her acclaimed work as a prolific writer, translator and scholar of modern Russian literature and culture. They join a packed field, which fans out to two extremes, based on the translators’ level of commitment to the original language structure and vocabulary. Schwartz’s strategy places her closer to the literalist end, where Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky staked their claim in 2000; Bartlett’s Anna joins those of translators such as Constance Garnett (1901) and Rosemary Edmonds (1954), who ferry the text into the new language, shedding features of the original as they go. It may be no coincidence that these camps cluster on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

The UK/US pattern hadn’t occurred to me. Here’s Apollonio on translations of obrazuetsia:

The valet Matvey comforts Stiva, whose adultery has thrown his household into disarray, by saying, in Schwartz, “It’s all right, sir, things will shapify”. The word jars, but the reader recalls the scene much later with a shock of recognition when, on his wedding day, Levin is delayed because of a lost shirt, and Stiva, the adulterer, comforts the bridegroom: “Wait a bit! Things will shapify”. Bartlett’s Matvei says, “Don’t worry, sir, things will shape up”. Her reader may make the connection, but the repetition is not exact, and the wording does not violate standard English when Stiva says, “Just wait! It will all shape up”.

2. Russell Valentino defends, contra Malcolm, “Pevear’s notion… that a translation into English should somehow enrich English,” saying it “actually has a long and distinguished pedigree and has been used explicitly by translators in various times and places, more commonly in poetry circles, it is true, but not exclusively there.”

3. Anatoly Vorobey, writing in Russian, makes a good point about “shapify.” He argues that though “obrazuetsia” clearly isn’t a neologism and wasn’t in Tolstoi’s time, Tolstoi may have been the first writer to use it in the meaning of “it will work out.” What was new was not being able to say that “something obrazuetsia, is formed or shaped, from something else,” but “the impersonal application of obrazuetsia to a situation… ‘it’ obrazuetsia, will work out/shape up by itself.” And so:

Malcolm notes in her article that in the classic translation of Anna Karenina by Constance Garnett, “obrazuetsia” was transformed into “it’ll work out” — this quite adequately renders the sense, but the feeling of innovation, of unusual phrasing, is entirely lost. I suspect that Malcolm here either cites the corrected version of Garnett’s translation that came out in the 1950s or confuses it with a different translation: in Garnett’s translation as it is known to Project Gutenberg, it is “she’ll come round” — this is the same as (a British variation of) “come around,” and once again there is no innovativeness, nor is it an impersonal construction. Another popular version, used in at minimum two translations, including Pevear and Volokhonsky’s, is “things will shape up.” Finally, in the recent translation by Marian Schwartz, a real neologism is used: “it’ll shapify.” Malcolm criticizes this version as unexpectedly and gratingly strange: “where the Russian neologism is funny, the English one is merely weird. It stops the reader in his tracks.”

I don’t like “shapify” either, but unlike the author of the article and several people who commented about this word on the blog XIX век, I think the problem isn’t that it’s a neologism, nor in the degree to which it’s “neologistic,” but in the kind of neologism that it is, the connotation the word carries. Spoken by a servant, “obrazuetsia” moves away from its usual watered-down, abstract sense and returns to its concrete sense. “Shapify,” in contrast, uses the French-derived “learned” suffix -ify (compare “mortify,” “certify,” “quantify,” “calcify”…), which sounds extremely out of place spoken by Matvei. Even though it sounds absurd in light of its being made up, it’s still a learned, abstract word. There is no occasion to be delighted by a felicitous, apt turn of phrase here.

“Work out” seems like a good option to me: I’m pretty sure it used to be much less common, and it’s plausible it would have sounded striking and energetic to an English-speaking Stiva Oblonskii, even as it’s unremarkable to readers now, in a way analogous to obrazuetsia in this meaning.

4. It’s well worth reading what Hugh McLean wrote in 2001, before Bartlett’s and Schwartz’s translations came out (h/t Donna Orwin). Comparing quite a few specific passages, he concludes that Pevear and Volokhonsky’s “translation, while perfectly adequate, is in my view not consistently or unequivocally superior to others on the market” (38) and that “none of the existing translations is actively bad. From any of them the ordinary English-speaking reader would obtain a reasonably full and adequate experience of the novel. The English in all of them sounds like English, not translationese. I found very few real errors and only a few omissions…” (47-48).

McLean’s final rankings (48):

  • Louise and Aylmer Maude, revised by George Gibian: not recommended because it has too many errors.
  • David Magarshack: not recommended because it doesn’t have any notes and isn’t otherwise superior to the ones that do have notes.
  • Joel Carmichael: same as Magarshack
  • Rosemary Edmonds: recommended. Good: translates from the most up-to-date text. Bad: no notes and “too frequently errs in the direction of making Tolstoy’s ‘robust awkwardness’ conform to the translator’s notions of good English style.”
  • Constance Garnett, revised by Leonard Kent and Nina Berberova: recommended. Good: has notes at the bottom of the page, revision was more extensive than Gibian’s revision of the Maudes’ translation.
  • Pevear and Volokhonsky: recommended. Good: “generally follows Tolstoy’s style more closely and with less editing and ‘prettifying’ than other versions.” Bad: doesn’t use the best text or make it clear which text it uses; doesn’t draw on all the best sources for the notes and therefore makes some mistakes about, say, operas referred to in the text.

Among the interesting points along the way: at some point a copyist skipped, between identical instances of раскаиваться, 18 words that showed that Stiva Oblonskii initially “did feel some remorse about his infidelities” (39), but only Edmonds translated from a Russian edition that had reinstated the missing words. P&V, according to McLean, promise to preserve Tolstoi’s repetitions but sometimes don’t (40), though in general they’re better about it than most (44-45). Another tricky side of the repetition issue: sometimes the repetitions are so far apart in the text that translators don’t even notice them. None of the six McLean looked at seemed to realize that “Tolstoy uses the same words to describe the feelings aroused in Anna by Vronsky (I, 29) as she returns by train from Moscow to Petersburg (не страшно, а весело) and those experienced by Vronsky (II, 21) before the race (было и страшно и весело)” (43). (It was Edwina Cruise who did notice.)

McLean likes it when P&V and others keep long sentences and repetitions, and he doesn’t discuss the idea that a given sentence length or number of repetitions may be marked in English when it was unmarked, or at least less marked, in Russian.

5. If you subscribe to the SEELANGS list, you’ll see interesting points made there by Michele Berdy, Robert Chandler, Eric Naiman, Valentino, and others, on and around June 6th, 2016.


The translation comparisons page has links to a recent review by Muireann Maguire and McLean’s, Masha Gessen’s, and Malcolm’s pieces, with more to come.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 14, 2016 8:34 am

    Awfully interesting to an Anglophone reader. I read the Maudes version and loved it very much. I also have the Bartlett and also one by Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes. TBH, much as I love choice it would be nice if some previously untranslated works could be tackled….

  2. June 15, 2016 8:32 am

    A very useful roundup, thanks! And of course I agree with kaggsy about previously untranslated works. Enough Tolstoy, already.

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