Bodices, coquettes, constraints, and embarrassment
Here are three places in “The Old Man” where I wasn’t sure how to translate something. Ideas (confirmation, corrections, refinements, further questions…) are most welcome.
1. Realia: nineteenth-century measurements. From installment #3.
Next to the portrait of the old man, in an ugly gold frame bedecked with stars, hung in all its splendor a pastel depicting a young woman with a long, curved neck and a thirty-inch bodice who had a dove on her shoulder; the whole pose betrayed pretentions to a head by Greuze.
Рядом с портретом старика, в безобразной золотой рамке, усыпанной звездочками, красовался пастель, изображающий молодую женщину, с выгнутой шеей, с лифом в полтора вершка ширины, и голубем на плече; вся поза обличала претензию на Грёзовскую головку.
A word-by-word gloss of the Russian would give you “with bodice at one-and-a-half vershoks width.” A vershok is 1 3/4″. I decided that this was shorthand for 1 arshin + 1 1/2 vershoks (30 5/8″) and that this kind of measurement was assumed to always be 1 arshin + X vershoks, in the way adult height was assumed to be 2 arshins + X vershoks. If I’m right about adding 1 arshin, and if I further assume that ширина ‘width’ here means a circumference around the torso just below (?) the breasts, then this would make the woman in the portrait roughly the opposite of Stepanida Andreyevna: thin, flat-chested, and prone to infelicitously aestheticizing herself in high-culture ways.
There might be an implied physical contrast between Katerina Alexeyevna, the narrator, and the woman in the portrait (who are presumably related) and on the other hand Tatyana Grigoryevna and Stepanida Andreyevna. The ugly but Herculean Rostislav and the still handsome Mikhail Fyodorovich could also be included. But if I have the bodice detail wrong, then this comes crashing down, since all we know about the narrator’s appearance directly is that Mikhail Fyodorovich says she is “pale and thin” while she rests and recuperates in the provinces.
There are three Russian words related to “coquette,” and I’d like them all to be visibly related in English, and perhaps all to use a form of “coquette.”
[the narrator describing Rostislav]
One must give Rostislav his due. His behavior was tactful, and once he had noticed Mikhail Fyodorovich’s liking for him, he very adroitly and with becoming modesty played the coquette with his intelligence and knowledge.
Надобно отдать справедливость Ростиславу: он вел себя с тактом, и заметив расположение Михаила Федоровича к себе, — очень ловко, — с приличной скромностью, кокетничал своим умом и познаниями.
[Rostislav speaking to the narrator about Stepanida Andreyevna]
What if she does [put on more airs]? She even puts on airs without a hint of affectation or insincerity. It isn’t like the calculated high-society coquetry that’s a sign of spiritual decay.
Что же? она и жеманится в простоте душевной, не во вред чувству. Это не то, что великосветское рассчитанное кокетство, которое обличает душевную порчу.
[The narrator misunderstanding the reasons for not telling Mikhail Fyodorovich about the ghost in the summer house]
But Katerina Alexeyevna stuck to her guns this time — the summer house was entirely demolished. This incident allowed my aunt to prove that a woman cannot be rid of a certain kind of coquetry, even in old age, with respect to a man she once loved. She forbade me to tell Mikhail Fyodorovich about the ghost, knowing he was not superstitious and would laugh at us.
Но Катерина Алексеевна на этот раз поставила на своем, беседку сломали до тла. При этом случае, тетка моя доказала, что женщина, даже под старость, не отделывается от кокетства известного рода, в отношении к человеку, некогда любимому. Она запретила мне рассказывать Михаилу Федоровичу о привидении, зная, что он не суеверен, и посмеется над нами.
But Languagehat made a good case that the first кокетничал was a different meaning of the verb.
I liked my initial reading so well that I can’t unsee it: I think the narrator is describing Rostislav’s social tactics in deliberately feminine terms (not just “played the coquette,” but “tactful,” “very adroitly,” “with becoming modesty” — these are not the words one expects for a man unfit for high society who is enchanted by his own broad shoulders). Is Rostislav showing off his knowledge, or strategically revealing some of it while holding some of it back to be sure he continues to be interesting?
The instrumental object is a point in favor of LH’s “showing off” reading, I think, but you can find examples of men figuratively “playing the coquette” with this verb too (e.g., Pushkin about himself: “С Наблюдателями и книготорговцами намерен я кокетничать и постараюсь как можно лучше распорядиться Современником”). Russian speakers, how do you take кокетничал here? English speakers, is “played the coquette” jarringly gender-bending, or the kind of thing a clever narrator might say in a story?
Writing this blog has made me a bit hyper-aware of the issue of preserving repetitions in translation. The main sense of стеснить is “to crowd,” as in to make a bench crowded for someone else by sitting on it when there’s not quite enough room. It can also be used in the sense “restrict someone’s freedom” or in the figurative sense of “make someone feel embarrassed or awkward.”
[Seryozha speaking to the narrator about Mikhail Fyodorovich]
Of course; but he does value my freedom and would not want me so much as to feel constrained.
Конечно; но он сам дорожит моей свободой, и не захочет и стеснить.
[The narrator describing Stepanida Andrevna after the latter had a half-dozen more children]
Stepanida Andrevna was flourishing even more than before: her full figure had reached such an extreme that it seemed she could not gain any more weight out of courtesy, lest others feel embarrassed.
Степанида Андревна процветала еще более прежнего: ее полнота достигла крайних пределов; еще потолстеть Степанида Андревна, казалось, не могла из учтивости, чтобы не стеснять других.
Seryozha seems to be using the “restrict someone’s freedom” meaning. But is the narrator saying that Stepanida Andrevna is so overweight that if she were fatter, other people would feel awkward, as if her physical appearance were a kind of faux pas and they’d be embarrassed for her? Or that she would literally make couches or entire rooms feel crowded by taking up too much physical space? Either way, is there an elegant way to use the same verb in English in the two places, and does it matter in this case? My sense is that the stakes are lower here — I care more about the “coquette” words.
I find I lean heavily on a trick I learned from Boris Dralyuk and Constance Garnett, where if you can’t use the same English word for one Russian word in two places, you use an extra English word just to show the connection, but here I’m not sure that would make things better.